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(5th LD) Politicians, gov't officials mourn death of former first lady

All Headlines 17:06 June 11, 2019

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 12, 20-22; TRIMS throughout)

SEOUL, June 11 (Yonhap) -- Politicians and key government officials on Tuesday expressed their condolences over the death of former first lady Lee Hee-ho, an upholder of her late husband's political legacy and pioneer for women's rights.

Lee, the widow of former liberal President Kim Dae-jung, died at age 96 late Monday at a Seoul hospital after battling liver cancer.

Lee was the wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim, the architect of the "sunshine policy" of engaging North Korea. She was an espouser of Kim's peace and inter-Korean reconciliation efforts and an activist for women's rights.

A memorial altar was set up at the funeral hall of Yonsei Severance Hospital in western Seoul. A funeral is set for Friday, and she will be buried at Seoul National Cemetery.

Lee left a will that says she will pray for the Korean people and a peaceful unification of the two Koreas in heaven, according to Kim Sung-jae, the lead funeral organizer.

She also instructed her family and aides to use her private home in Donggyo-dong, western Seoul, as a memorial hall for the ex-president and to use Nobel Peace Prize money as funds for projects to mark Kim's legacy.

The former president, who served from 1998 to 2003, died in 2009.

Politicians and government officials visited the memorial altar, expressing sorrow and condolences over her death.

"(We will) do our best in believing that our role has started to build the world that Kim and Lee wanted -- the completion of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights and peace on the Korean Peninsula," National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang told reporters.

A mourning delegation of presidential officials relayed President Moon Jae-in's condolences as the president is on an official trip to Finland and other northern European countries.

"Lee was a leader of our times who devoted her life to accomplishing democracy and peace. She was a pioneer for the women's movement and grieved at the inter-Korean division," said Noh Young-min, Moon's chief of staff.

This photo, taken on June 11, 2019, shows a mourning altar for late former first lady Lee Hee-ho at the funeral hall of Yonsei Severance Hospital in western Seoul. Lee died at 96 a day earlier. (Yonhap)

Whether North Korea will send a delegation to South Korea for her funeral could be a focal point, given Lee's role in inter-Korean peace.

Lee accompanied her husband to Pyongyang in 2000 for the historic first inter-Korean summit with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

After her husband's death, Lee made two more trips to North Korea, in 2011 and 2015, to continue to push for inter-Korean reconciliation.

In December 2011, Lee visited the North to pay her tributes upon the death of then-leader Kim Jong-il.

The conservative administration of then-President Lee Myung-bak did not send an official delegation to the funeral amid heightened inter-Korean tensions.

The former first lady's visit was highly symbolic as she became one of the first South Koreans to meet with Kim's successor and son, current leader Kim Jong-un.

In August 2015, Lee visited North Korea again upon the personal invitation of Kim Jong-un.

The two did not meet, but Lee visited various children's hospitals and daycare centers in Pyongyang, where she delivered medicine and children's hats that had been knitted by members of her own humanitarian aid organization.

North Korea has a history of dispatching delegations to the South to offer condolences on the death of figures who contributed to improving inter-Korean ties.

When Lee's husband died, the North's Kim Jong-il sent a condolence message to the bereaved family and sent a six-member delegation of special envoys to his funeral.

Experts said whether Pyongyang sends a delegation for Lee's funeral will serve as a litmus test for its willingness to resume talks with Seoul.

This image captured from footage on North Korean state television shows former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho (L) expressing her condolences to Kim Jong-un upon the death of his father and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in December 2011. (Yonhap)

She had three sons, one of whom is the son with her husband, Kim Hong-gul. The others -- Kim Hong-il and Kim Hong-up -- are from Kim's previous marriage.

In April, Kim Hong-il, a former lawmaker and the eldest son of the former president by his previous marriage, died at 71.

Before her marriage in 1962 to Kim, whose first wife died several years earlier, Lee taught at her alma mater, Ewha Womans University, and worked as a women's rights activist.

She actively supported her husband's political career, and they endured various trials together, including his death sentence, subsequent exile to the United States and house arrest under military rule in South Korea in the 1980s.

As first lady, she has been credited with helping expand the number of women's jobs in the public and political sectors.

President Moon expressed his condolences on Twitter and Facebook while on a state visit to Helsinki, Finland.

"Today we are seeing off a great person who dedicated her entire life to women," he wrote. "Beyond being the wife of President Kim Dae-jung and a first lady, she belonged to the first generation of women's rights activists in the Republic of Korea."

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