SEOUL, Aug 23, 2009 (AFP) - South Korea Sunday said a solemn farewell to Kim Dae-Jung, who battled dictators to bring democracy to the nation and strove to make peace with North Korea when he became president.
Kim, who died Tuesday aged 85, was "a great leader of modern history" who won worldwide respect, Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo told a state funeral for the Nobel prizewinner.
|The portrait of former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung leads the hearse containing hia body through the streets of downtown Seoul following his state funeral ceremony on August 23, 2009 (AFP photo)|
More than 20,000 politicians, foreign dignitaries and ordinary people braved scorching heat to attend the ceremony, staged on the lawns outside parliament to signify Kim's contribution to democracy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il Friday sent envoys to Seoul to deliver his wreath.
They left Sunday before the funeral but after holding talks with current President Lee Myung-Bak, raising hopes of warmer ties after months of hostility.
Kim Dae-Jung survived assassination attempts and a death sentence in his struggle against military-backed rulers, who had presided over dramatic economic growth but trampled human rights.
Ex-president Chun Doo-Hwan, whose government sentenced Kim to death in 1980, attended the ceremony as did ex-president Kim Young-Sam -- who led the drive for democracy along with his namesake but later became estranged from him.
Mass street protests led largely by the Kims ushered in democracy in 1987.
Democratisation "was possible because you were there with your unwavering convictions and your unyielding courage," Han said in his eulogy to Kim Dae-Jung.
"Your sacrifices, dedication and devotion allowed freedom, human rights and democracy to fully blossom in Korea, making our country today a proud and respected nation in the world."
The government has declared six days of national mourning, with flags at half-mast. Some 700,000 people have visited mourning sites nationwide since Kim's death, according to updated official figures.
"I'm still heartbroken, but I've buried the great statesman in my heart today and will remember him forever," said Seo Chan-Ho, 52, who travelled from the southwest of the country with his son to the funeral.
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, leading a 10-member delegation, mourned the loss of a friend.
"President Kim Dae-Jung was an amazing leader who set a good example to people in Korea and also to the global community. He was a good friend and it's a great loss," she told Yonhap news agency.
After the ceremony the coffin was taken in a hearse decorated with white chrysanthemums to the national cemetery. Soil from Kim's home town will be scattered over the coffin when it is placed in the grave.
Kim won office in 1997 at his fourth attempt, and was sworn in the following February at the height of the Asian financial crisis. He steered the country out of the crisis, launching major reforms and corporate restructuring.
In 2000 he met Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang for the first-ever summit in the hostile history of the two countries. His "sunshine" aid and engagement policy eased relations but failed to halt the North's nuclear weapons drive.
Han said Kim "opened the path for inter-Korean reconciliation".
Relations sharply worsened after current conservative president Lee abandoned the policy and linked economic aid to nuclear disarmament.
Lee sat next to Kim's widow, who shed tears during the ceremony.
Her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the summit and for his earlier struggle for democracy.
Critics of "sunshine" said it lavished aid on the North for no tangible benefits.
But Kim never wavered on the need for reconciliation. "This is the best way to end the national tragedy and make a reunified motherland," he said in his final speech in office in 2003.