Asia Pacific / Politics

Former South Korean first lady and women's rights activist Lee Hee-ho dies at 96

AFP-JIJI

The widow of late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, known for her women’s rights activism and involvement in her husband’s Sunshine Policy of engagement with the isolated North, has died at the age of 96.

Lee Hee-ho, who had been battling liver cancer, died in Seoul on Monday, her aides said.

Considered one of the pioneers of women’s rights in South Korea and a lifelong companion of late president Kim, Lee actively supported her husband’s tumultuous and illustrious political career, which included being sentenced to death, abducted and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a period when many women in the South had limited access to education, Lee studied at the nation’s top institution — Seoul National University — and later in the U.S., before founding a number of women’s rights organizations in Seoul.

One of her earliest campaigns was to protest against male politicians who had concubines — a practice that was common in the South in the 1950s, when wives would often be forced to leave their children when their husbands chose to live with their mistresses instead.

“Today we are seeing off a great person who dedicated her entire life to women,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in, currently visiting Finland, said in a statement.

“She also participated in the pro-democracy movement and played many roles in founding of the Gender Equality Ministry under her husband’s administration.”

Lee’s husband is best remembered for his policy of engagement with the nuclear-armed North that led to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un’s late father Kim Jong Il in 2000.

The policy was largely abandoned when a conservative administration took power in South Korea in 2008 and cross-border ties soured.

Lee made a rare humanitarian trip to the North in 2015, some five years after her husband’s death, but did not get to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the visit, despite doing so on a previous trip.