|In this photo from June 14, 2000, the former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, second from right, his wife Lee Hee-ho, third from right, and Kim Yong-nam, right, North Korean chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly, watch as a boy paints a sign which reads 'National Unification' at Mangyongdae Students' and Childrens' Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was the day when the late former president began his second day of a three-day summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. AP-Yonhap|
By Michael Breen
Women today may be able to relate to her decision, but back then it was a tough choice. Koreans were poor and their politics and culture were male-centric and authoritarian. A woman over 26 and still single was already written off as an "old maid." That she intended to endure a lifetime of such judgment says something about her devotion to her work to benefit society and the standard she had held for any man who would come into her life.
She found a job as a Christian activist at the YMCA where she headed the international relations department. Then she met the man who would change her mind, Kim Dae-jung, the figure who now more than any other is associated with the struggle for democracy. The first democratically elected opposition president, Kim would go on to win the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
Lee was such a profound moral influence on Kim that it is unlikely that he would have achieved the prominence he did without her. She was not outwardly political, but such was her grace and moral strength, as well as her contribution to the improvement of women's rights, that her passing yesterday drew genuine expressions of condolence from across the political spectrum.
Lee's life ran parallel to the emergence of modern Korea from its ancient roots. She was born in Seoul in 1922, in the wake of the failed 1919 uprising against Japanese rule which historians say marked the awakening of the national identity.
She was the oldest of eight children of a wealthy doctor. Her mother died shortly before the end of World War Two, when Lee Hee-ho was just 19. She graduated from the Seoul National University College of Education and, after the Korean War, went to America where she earned a master's degree in sociology.
After returning home in 1958, she devoted her life as an activist in women's issues.
She first met Kim Dae-jung in 1958. At the time he was a relatively successful businessman with political ambitions. He had been married for 13 years and had two children. The following year, by chance they bumped into one another in the street Seoul. By that time, he had entered politics.
Kim had run for election to the National Assembly for the opposition Democratic Party but the result had been nullified by dirty tricks by the government. Then the Supreme Court ruled the election invalid and ordered a by-election which was scheduled for June 1960. In April that year, then-President Rhee was ousted by a student uprising. Tragically, in May, Kim's wife committed suicide. He went ahead and ran in the by-election in June but lost. In deep personal turmoil, he became a Roman Catholic on the advice of the head of his party, John Chang, who would soon become prime minister. In July, he ran in another general election, lost, but was then declared the winner after his opponent was disqualified.
As he prepared to take his seat, Army General Park Chung-hee staged his military coup and the new "revolutionary" government banned its opponents, including Kim, from politics.
Now poor, out of work and his future uncertain, Kim met Lee more frequently. She would pay for their dates.
"When we met, we mostly talked about society, and especially, politics," Kim wrote in his autobiography, "Conscience in Action." "I don't have many memories of us talking about our affections. Perhaps because we met when we were older, we felt more like companions than lovers. We understood each other deeply. It wasn't a heated love, but we could see one another's innermost thoughts and feelings. I felt extremely at ease with her, and I gradually felt like living my dream with her. I realized that was love."
Kim proposed one chilly March night at Tapgol Park in Seoul. Her family, friends and fellow feminist activists were mostly opposed, but she resisted their advice and they were married.
As an indication of the atmosphere of the time, ten days after their marriage, Korean CIA agents came and bundled Kim off to a secret location and held him on fanciful charges of being part of an opposition plot to overthrow the so-called "revolution." He was released after a month.
Lee stood by her husband over the next three decades as he rose in the ranks of opposition politics and paid the price for it, suffering detention, kidnapping, political bans, house arrest and ultimately, in 1980, a death sentence.
Before meeting Lee, it may be said, Kim Dae-jung had ambition and an ability to persuade, but he lacked the commitment to conscience and clear-sightedness required to endure without violating the principles he claimed to stand for. Lee gave him the conviction and inner strength that would make him stand out as a beacon for Korean democracy.
As an illustration, in 1980 when he met his family in prison for what he thought would be the last time, he told them that, after his execution, they should declare that there should be no revenge. The cycle of revenge should be broken and those eventually delivering democracy should stand on a higher moral ground than their opponents. Shortly after, the US intervened and saved his life.
Kim, who was president from 1998 to 2003, is known for bringing the country back from the brink of bankruptcy during the Asian financial crisis, and for his sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea. Lee accompanied him to Pyongyang in 2000 for the historic first inter-Korean summit with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
After his death in 2009, she served as chairwoman of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Center, which was founded to fight poverty, and promote inter-Korean reconciliation and world peace. She visited North Korea in 2011 to represent South Korea at the funeral of Kim Jong-il, and made another visit in 2015 at the invitation of current leader, Kim Jong-un.
With her passing, Koreans say farewell to one of the last public figures of the generation that transformed a backward, corrupt, authoritarian war-torn nation into a thriving liberal democracy.
Perhaps among them all, she was the one who most exemplified grace and decency. As her husband wrote, her greatest quality lay in "her gentleness, which captivated me more and more."
Lee is survived by a son and stepson. She will be buried Friday at the National Cemetery in Seoul.
Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans, covered Kim Dae-jung during his days as dissident in the 1980s as a foreign correspondent based in Seoul.