SEOUL, Nov. 22 (Korea Bizwire) — Former President Kim Young-sam, who formally ended decades of military rule in South Korea and accepted a massive international bailout during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, died Sunday. He was 88.
Kim, who had been hospitalized with fever and breathing problems since Thursday, died at 12:21 a.m., according to Seoul National University Hospital.
“(Kim) is believed to have died from acute stress derived from septicemia in addition to a worsened heart condition,” Oh Byung-hee, chief of the hospital, said in a press briefing.
The former president had been admitted and discharged from the hospital several times in recent years for stroke, angina and pneumonia.’
As an iconic figure of South Korea’s pro-democracy movement, he fought against military dictators for decades and laid the foundation of a peaceful power transfer in a country that had been marked by military coups.
During his presidency from 1993-1998, he had his two general-turned predecessors indicted on mutiny and treason charges stemming from a coup. Still, Kim pardoned the two convicted military strongmen — Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo — at the end of his term.
Kim also launched a widely popular anti-corruption campaign and vowed not to receive any political funds, though his drive was later tarnished as his son was arrested on charges of bribery and tax evasion.
He faced the first nuclear crisis in 1994 when the Clinton administration was considering striking Yongbyon — home to North Korea’s nuclear complex — north of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Kim was vehemently against the idea, citing a possible war.
A U.S. aircraft carrier and a cruiser came near South Korea’s east coast in preparation for a possible airstrike while the U.S. planned to evacuate Americans, including its soldiers and their families, Kim said in a memoir.
A U.S. airstrike “will immediately prompt North Korea to open fire against major South Korean cities from the border,” Kim recalled from his dawn telephone conversation with then-President Bill Clinton in June 1994, according to his memoir.
The crisis was soon defused as former President Jimmy Carter met with then the North’s leader Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, which led to a Geneva accord aimed at freezing its plutonium-based nuclear programs.
The deal collapsed in 2002 when the U.S. accused North Korea of running a secret uranium nuclear program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis.
After years of denial, North Korea announced in 2009 that it was in the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that could give the nation a second way to make nuclear bombs.
The first nuclear crisis was a blessing in disguise for Kim as Carter helped arranged a summit between Kim and the North’s founder — the first such meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas since 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
Yet, the summit didn’t take place because the North’s Kim suddenly died of heart failure in July 1994. It took six more years before the leaders of the two Koreas — South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — held their landmark summit in Pyongyang.
North Korea continued to cause security jitters for rival South Korea. In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground off South Korea’s eastern shores.
The North later expressed its “deep regret” for the intrusion that left 24 North Korean agents and 13 South Koreans dead. It was an unprecedented apology from the communist nation — though it said the sub drifted into southern waters while on a routine training exercise.
Kim was credited with disbanding a key military faction and bringing transparency to the nation’s murky financial system. But he was accused of mismanaging the economy during the Asian financial crisis that toppled some of the country’s debt-ridden conglomerates and forced the government to accept a US$58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Kim was born into a rich fishing family on Dec. 20, 1927 on Koje Island off the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule. Kim survived the brutal Korean War during which he anchored a defense ministry’s propaganda radio program.
Kim was elected in 1954 as the youngest member of the National Assembly. At that time, he was in the ruling party of the late Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president.
But a few months later, he broke with the ruling regime in protest of a constitutional revision and joined the opposition party, suffering hardships from the military rulers.
In 1979, Kim was expelled from the assembly for his anti-government activities, shortly before then-President Park Chung-hee — who seized power in a military coup in 1961 — was assassinated by his intelligence chief.
During the chaotic period, Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan and his military cronies rolled tanks and troops into Seoul to seize power in another coup that ended an interim government.
In early 1980s, Kim was placed under house arrest twice that lasted two years, during which he staged a 23-day hunger strike to protest political oppressions.
Kim spent more than three decades in opposition as an advocate for democracy, though his legacy was later sullied as he joined hands with military leader Roh Tae-woo and another opposition party to create a new ruling party.
In 1992, Kim became the head of the new ruling party and was elected president, five years after his first unsuccessful presidential bid.
Kim is survived by his wife and two sons and three daughters.