Former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho who passed away Monday at the age of 97 stands out among wives of presidents who ruled the country since establishment of the republic in 1948.
Most of all, her life -- since she got married to former President Kim Dae-jung in 1962 when she was 40 -- was closely knitted with her husband’s tumultuous political career that spanned from the darkest dictatorial era to full-blown democracy.
Indeed, her name cannot be separated from Kim, whose fight against successive authoritarian rulers and pursuit of reconciliation with communist North Korea made him a towering figure in the nation’s modern history.
Rep. Park Jie-won, who was one of the closest confidants of the former president, aptly said that there would have not been Kim had it not been for Lee.
Such sentiments were reflected by many media outlets, many of which used words like “DJ’s lifetime political companion and adviser” while reporting her passing. DJ is the affectionate acronym of the late president who served from 1998-2003.
In fact, Lee was the one who buttressed her husband who had been the prime target of political oppression ever since his close battle in the 1971 presidential election against strongman Park Chung-hee who ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1979.
As he built his reputation as the nation’s leading opposition leader and respected dissident, Kim went through numerous ordeals at the hands of Park. He faced even harsher persecution by another general-turned dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a 1980 coup in the wake of the power vacuum created by Park’s death.
Lee lived through all the suppressions inflicted by the two dictators, which included abduction, assassination attempts, torture, death sentence, exile in the US and house arrest.
When her husband was in prison, Lee exchanged hundreds of letters with him, which were compiled in a book. The US-educated Lee wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter to appeal for US support for her husband and South Korea’s pro-democracy movement.
She was a strong partner and co-worker in her husband’s pursuit of the “sunshine policy” of engaging with North Korea, which resulted in the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 and landed Kim the Nobel Peace Prize later in the year.
Even after Kim passed away, Lee kept up with her role to improve relations between the two Koreas. In 2011, she led the South Korean delegation which offered condolences on the death of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the current leader Kim Jong-un’s father. She visited the North again in 2015.
Lee succeeded her husband as chair of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center which the late president established after he retired to promote inter-Korean reconciliation. Her last words included harmony, peace and reunification, according to her family members and aides.
If much of what Lee did regarding democracy and inter-Korean reconciliation was closely connected with her husband, there were some areas in which she stood out on her own.
Promoting women’s rights was one of them. One symbolic episode is that the doorplate of their house had the names of both Kim and Lee in the 1960s -- then a rare scene in South Korea’s male-dominated society.
Before becoming first lady, Lee was actively engaged in social movements. She once headed the Young Women’s Christian Association and founded or headed various women’s groups which endeavored to strengthen women’s rights.
After entering Cheong Wa Dae in 1998, Lee encouraged her husband to appoint more women to senior government positions. Many agree that she will be remembered as a first lady who exerted the biggest influence on her husband’s job as president -- in a positive way.
Pointing to her contributions to the women’s movements in the country, President Moon Jae-in, who is now on a visit to three northern European countries, paid respects to Lee’s achievements in women’s rights specifically.
“Today we are seeing off a great person who dedicated her entire life to women,” Moon wrote in a social media post. Beyond being the wife of President Kim and first lady, she belonged to the first generation of women’s rights activists in South Korea, he said.
For these and other footprints, it would be safe to say Lee was one of the best first ladies we have had, and she will definitely remain in our memory for a long time.