Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who led the fight for democracy in his country and championed the so-called "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with North Korea, has died at the age of 85, hospital officials in Seoul have said.
He reportedly suffered heart failure on Tuesday after weeks of being hospitalised for pneumonia and other symptoms.
Kim, a former political prisoner who survived beatings, kidnapping and an assassination attempt, is survived by his wife Lee Hee-Ho and three sons.
"[Kim] was declared dead at 1:43 pm (0443 GMT)," a spokesman for Seoul's Severance Hospital told AFP.
"His heart began failing at 1:35pm and stopped minutes later despite our efforts to revive it."
South Korean leaders had been paying their respects for days at his bedside to a man whose epic career spanned South Korea's political upheaval, from the decades of harsh authoritarian rule to its transformation into a full-fledged democracy.
Kim, popularly known as "DJ", served as South Korea's president from 1998 to 2003.
He is best known for his historic embrace of Kim Jong-il, the North's reclusive leader, at the June 2000 summit between the leaders of North and South Korea.
The meeting in Pyongyang was the first ever between the leaders of the rival Koreas and won Kim the Nobel Peace Prize.
"We are not ready to bid farewell to you, who did not give in to dictatorship, overcame the economic crisis and made us aware that we, divided by hostility for half a century, belong to one nation"
Statement by opposition Democratic Party
But in the past year, Kim saw his efforts unravel as relations with the North headed back into the freezer under the South's current conservative leader Lee Myung-bak.
Following news of Kim's death on Tuesday, South Korea's ruling Grand National Party issued a statement saying the nation had lost "one of its greatest leaders".
"During his lifetime former president Kim dedicated himself to democracy, human rights and the development of relations between South and North Korea," it said.
The main opposition Democratic Party described Kim as "the great teacher of the age".
It added: "We are not ready to bid farewell to you, who did not give in to dictatorship, overcame the economic crisis and made us aware that we, divided by hostility for half a century, belong to one nation."
Kim, a devout Catholic who spoke fluent Korean and English, was also a towering figure in South Korea's struggle for democracy against the country's early authoritarian leaders.
For much of his life he walked with a limp that was the result of injuries suffered in an assassination attempt in the 1970s when a truck rammed his car off a road.
Kim also survived a death sentence, prison and exile under army-backed governments during his turbulent life.
|Kim Dae-jung, left, became famous for engaging rival North Korea [AFP]
He campaigned strenuously against the 1961-1979 rule of dictator Park Chung-Hee and in August 1973 was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel allegedly by South Korean agents.
He was about to be dumped at sea, but swift action by the US and Japan saved his life.
In an interview in 2006 Kim had said that he had no regrets about his turbulent life and had never compromised his principles.
"I underwent many ordeals in my life but I never strayed from principles and never compromised with injustice, even at the risk of my life," he said.
In January this year he reminded Koreans on both sides of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone to be mindful of their "painful and tragic" history and work together to establish peace and security on the Korean peninsula.
"The South and North have never been free from mutual fear and animosity over the past half-century, not even for a single day," he had told reporters.
"When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."