Farewell to first lady LeeThe name Lee Hee-ho carries special weight. It became tradition for political heavyweights to pay their respects to the most revered first lady. Hwang Kyo-ahn, the head of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), had planned to visit her if she had not fallen ill. Her entire life — 97 years — had value because of her passion for women’s rights, democracy, human rights and peace.
She was more than a first lady to the nation. She should be remembered as one of the greatest female leaders and a figure of colossal importance gender aside. She was an activist and reformist. She founded the country’s first women’s movement and research organizations in the ’50s and served as the secretary-general for Korean Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She fought for gender equality during rigidly patriarchal times. She played a role in institutionalizing the first Ministry of Women’s Affairs under the presidency of her husband, President Kim Dae-jung.
At the same time, she was a devoted partner to Kim, a longtime dissident, in his lonely and hard struggle for democracy against dictatorship and the military regime. Nothing, even under the pain of his death, bent her will and aspiration for democracy and peace.
She sent a letter to her husband every day when he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for insurgency by the military regime. She later joked that she had “schooled” him in prison. She found the books her husband would like and highlighted parts of importance — she was Kim’s soulmate.
Lee also was a messenger of peace, having visited North Korea three times. She accompanied her husband during the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. She also led the South Korean entourage to attend the funeral of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011. She crossed the border to help the conservative government to break the ice with North Korea despite her poor health in August 2015.
As a person, she was warm and compassionate. She would only use half of the lights at her home in Donggyo-dong, western Seoul, to save energy. Kim’s secretaries remember how Lee would make breakfast for them while wearing hair rollers.
Her last words were: “I thank everyone for giving so much love to President Kim Dae-jung and me. I hope you will live with love, harmony and happiness. I will pray for all of you in heaven and for peace and unification.” She passed away on June 10. We will remember the great democracy activist every June 10 when we commemorate the June 10 student democracy movement.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 12, Page 30