Lee Hee-ho: Former South Korean first lady, activist dies at 96

President Moon Jae-in and others pay tribute to activist who 'dedicated her entire life to women'.

    Lee helped to create South Korea's Gender Equality Ministry and led several campaigns for women's rights [Chip East/Reuters]
    Lee helped to create South Korea's Gender Equality Ministry and led several campaigns for women's rights [Chip East/Reuters]

    Lee Hee-ho, a women's rights activist and widow of the late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, has died at age 96. 

    Lee, who had been battling liver cancer, died in a hospital in the South Korean capital, Seoul, late on Monday, her aides said. 

    A memorial altar was set up at the funeral hall of Yonsei Severance Hospital in the west of the city, with a funeral set for Friday, Yonhap news agency reported, saying Lee will then be buried at the Seoul National Cemetery. 

    Politicians and government officials visited the altar on Tuesday to pay tribute to the woman considered to be one of the pioneers of women's rights in South Korea

    President Moon Jae-in, currently on an official trip to Finland, sent a delegation to relay his condolences. Chief of Staff Noh Young-min called the former first lady a "leader of our times who devoted her life to accomplishing democracy and peace".

    Alongside her husband, Lee campaigned for democracy and Korean reunification, visiting North Korea several times, both as first lady and afterwards.

    "[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. 

    Women's rights pioneer

    Lee was born in Seoul in the early 1920s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

    At a time when many women in the South had limited access to education, Lee studied at the country's top institution, Seoul National University, and later in the United States

    She began campaigning for women's rights in the 1950s, establishing a number of activist and research groups. 

    One of her earliest campaigns was to protest male politicians who had "concubines" - a practice that was common in South Korea in the 1950s and saw wives forced to leave their children if their husbands chose to live with their mistresses instead.

    Lee worked as a teacher before marrying Kim - then a dissident politician - in 1962.

    She took an active role in her husband's "sunshine" policy of engagement with isolated, nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea.

    She visited the North several times, both as first lady and afterwards, taking part in the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, which was the first between the Koreas since the 1950-1953 war between them. 

    Much of the sunshine policy was undone by subsequent conservative administrations who took power in 2008, with cross-border ties soon souring. 

    Recent diplomatic progress was halted in February after a summit between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump collapsed over sanctions relief and nuclear disarmament. 

    There is speculation, however, the North may send a delegation to Lee's funeral on Friday as it did when her husband died in 2009. 

    Lee Hee-ho, Kim Dae-jung
    Alongside her husband Kim, Lee campaigned for women's rights [Patrick Robert via Getty Images]
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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies