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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 12)

All News 06:59 June 12, 2019

Lee Hee-ho's passing
Former first lady pioneered women's movement

Following the death of Lee Hee-ho (1922-2019) Monday, many Koreans are revisiting the life of the former first lady, the wife of the late Kim Dae-jung who served as president from 1998 to 2003, after years of struggle as a dissident leader during Korea's authoritarian rule in the 1970s and 80s.

The younger generation of Koreans probably knows Lee mostly as an elderly widow of the former leader who realized the first ever inter-Korean summit in June 2000 in Pyongyang. But before she married Kim, Lee was a pioneering Christian activist for women's rights at a time when most of the nation's women had no status at home or in society, and were unable to speak up against the discrimination and abuse they faced. This unique background sets her apart from other Korean first ladies who did not have a distinct identity of their own or a career other than being a spouse.

Born to a well-to-do doctor's family in 1922, she was one of the first-generation of Korean intellectual women to study abroad after the 1950-53 Korean War. After graduating from Seoul National University's College of Education in 1950, she studied sociology in the U.S. and taught at Ewha Womans University. At the time of her marriage to Kim in 1962, she was serving as the secretary-general of the Korean Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), a movement of women working for social change. She was also involved in establishing organizations for women's studies and worked with various entities such as the Korean National Council of Women to lead social campaigns for gender equality, including a revision of the Family Law.

Kim often said he was profoundly influenced by his wife. Lee's impact on the former president can be seen most evidently in his special focus on promoting women's rights after he arrived at Cheong Wa Dae. During Kim's presidency, there was some noticeable headway made to protect women and improve their status. He established the Ministry of Gender Equality and increased the number of female ministers and presidential secretaries. The domestic violence prevention act was enacted only in 1998 and the anti-gender discrimination act in 1999.

Lee is also remembered as a passionate activist for inter-Korean peace alongside her husband and even after his death in August 2009. She visited North Korea with her husband in 2000 for the inter-Korean summit with the North's leader Kim Jong-il, the incumbent's father. When the North Korean leader passed away in 2011, Lee visited Pyongyang to offer her condolences in person. Her last visit was in 2015.

The Kim Dae-Jung Peace Center released a statement Tuesday and said the late former first lady's last wish was for the unity of the nation and reconciliation of the two Koreas. Her tireless efforts as a social activist and messenger of peace will be remembered for a long time.

Lee's wish resonates in the hearts of Koreans who hope and pray for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.


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