SEOUL: Former South Korean president Kim Young-Sam, whose election pulled down the final curtain on more than 30 years of military rule, died on Sunday, hospital officials said. He was 87.
The pro-democracy activist, who served as president from 1993-1998, was suffering from a serious blood infection and died shortly after midnight, several days after being hospitalized with a high fever, Seoul National University Hospital president Oh Byung-Hee told reporters.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye expressed “deep condolences,” her spokesman said. Seoul announced a state funeral for Kim, to be held on Thursday after four days of mourning.
Kim’s term was bookended by two major events, the first nuclear crisis with North Korea in 1994 and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, when he accepted a $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
He also had the two generals who served as presidents before him indicted and convicted on treason charges, although he pardoned both men at the end of his presidency.
A leading figure in the pro-democracy movement, Kim was twice placed under house arrest for a total of two years in the early 1980s.
He stood in South Korea’s first free direct presidential election in 1987, but split the opposition vote with fellow activist Kim Dae-Jung, allowing the former general Roh Tae-Woo to take office.
He defeated Kim Dae-Jung in the 1992 election and was inaugurated the following year — becoming only the third civilian to hold the office and first since 1962.
In office, Kim launched a popular anti-corruption campaign and had his two predecessors, Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh, arrested on bribery charges that later morphed into trial for mutiny and treason.
Both men received lengthy prison sentences but served only two years before being released under a presidential pardon.
Kim’s anti-graft drive was later tarnished after his son was arrested on charges of bribery and tax evasion.
The start of Kim’s presidency was marked by the first crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program, triggered by Pyongyang’s announcement in 1993 that it would withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
As North Korea began removing spent fuel that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, military tensions on the Korean peninsula skyrocketed.
At one point, the US military drew up plans for a strike against the Yongbyon facility — an act that Kim staunchly opposed on the grounds that it would almost certainly lead to a full-scale conflict.
The crisis ended with a deal brokered by former US president Jimmy Carter in June 1994, which led to the “Agreed Framework” under which the North agreed to freeze and eliminate its nuclear facilities in exchange for two US light-water reactors.
That deal collapsed in 2002.
The end of Kim’s presidency was clouded by the Asian financial crisis — still known in South Korea as the IMF crisis, because of the massive bailout negotiated with the world lender.
The terms of the deal were widely seen by South Koreans as a national humiliation and an infringement of the country’s economic sovereignty.
In his farewell address to the nation as president, Kim apologized for a five-year term that had failed to fulfill its initial promise.
“I cannot but frankly admit that my efforts fell short of your expectations,” he said.
“My heart aches because of the heavy responsibility that weighs on my mind whenever I think of your suffering because of the current foreign exchange and financial crisis,” he added.
Kim was born into a rich fishing family in 1927 when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule.
As a member of the ruling party of South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee, Kim was elected in 1954 as the youngest member of the National Assembly.
But a few months later, he broke with the ruling regime over a constitutional issue and joined the opposition — a move that was followed by decades struggling against military rule.