Mourners throng Kim Dae-jung’s funeral

SEOUL: Tens of thousands of mourners filled the lawn outside parliament for the state funeral today of ex-President Kim Dae-jung, a longtime defender of democracy and advocate of reconciliation who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reach out to communist North Korea.

The solemn funeral was the first held at the National Assembly, where Kim, who endured torture, death threats and imprisonment during his decades as a dissident, triumphantly took the oath of office as South Korea’s president in 1998.

The man who made history by meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2000 also managed to bring the two Koreas together with his death Tuesday at age 85. A North Korean delegation dispatched to Seoul to mourn the late leader met for talks today with South Korea’s president, the first high-level contact between the rival Koreas after many months of tension.

“Farewell, Mr Sunshine: Without you, we could have never known true democracy,” read yellow placards held by mourners who gathered in central Seoul to watch a broadcast of his funeral. The two Koreas remain officially in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace treaty. Tanks and troops still guard the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone bisecting the peninsula. Kim Dae-jung, however, was respected on both sides of the border.

As president from 1998 to 2003, his “Sunshine Policy” advocated engaging the isolated North and sought to ease reconciliation by plying the impoverished nation with aid.

In 2000, he travelled to Pyongyang to hold a summit with Kim Jong Il — the first between leaders of the two Koreas. Raising their hands aloft in a sight that would have been unimaginable just years earlier, the two Kims pledged to embark on a new era of peace.

The following years saw several reconciliation projects, including the emotional temporary reunions of thousands of Korean family members separated during the Korean War, the restoration of a cross-border cargo train and inter-Korean business ventures.