SEOUL — Lee Hee-ho, a former first lady of South Korea who inspired her late husband, President Kim Dae-jung, in his pro-democracy campaign against the military dictatorship and used her influence to expand women’s rights in a deeply male-dominated country, died Monday in Seoul. She was 96.
Her death was confirmed by the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center, a civic group led by Ms. Lee. She had been undergoing treatment for cancer and other illnesses since March.
Throughout almost five decades of marriage, Ms. Lee helped Kim shape his political vision as he became a symbol of South Korea’s struggle for democracy and its dream of reconciliation, and eventual reunification, with North Korea. Kim, a Nobel Peace laureate who died in 2009, treated Ms. Lee as a political partner, crediting her with making it possible for him to survive torture, a death sentence, and an assassination attempt to become the first opposition leader to win the South Korean presidency.
In the days when family patriarchs in South Korea hung their name plates at the gates of their homes, the name plates of Kim and Ms. Lee hung side by side in front of their home in Seoul, the capital.
“Without her, I cannot imagine what I would have become today,” Kim said during a lecture in 1983 while he was in political exile in the United States. “I stand here today as the husband of Lee Hee-ho, and I am so proud of it.”
The two had lived in the Boston area during the exile.
Although Ms. Lee never took a post in her husband’s government, she was widely considered a key force behind the creation in 2001 of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a government agency dedicated to promoting women’s rights. Kim also acted on his wife’s advice when he made Chang Sang the country’s first woman to be nominated for prime minister, although her nomination was rejected by lawmakers.
The expanded role of women in Kim’s presidential office, Cabinet, and party, and his government’s sponsorship of laws against domestic violence and gender discrimination, were also seen as influenced by Ms. Lee.
“Today, we lost a great person who has devoted her life to women’s advancement,” said President Moon Jae-in, who was on a state visit to Helsinki. “Beyond being the wife of President Kim Dae-jung and a first lady, she belonged to the first generation of women’s rights advocates in South Korea.”
Ms. Lee was born in Seoul to a devout Christian family Sept. 21, 1922, when South Korea was still under Japanese colonial rule. She was the first daughter of Lee Yong-ki, a medical doctor, and Lee Soon-yi. She had a sister and six brothers.
She studied at Ewha Womans and Seoul National Universities in Seoul, and later at Scarritt College in Nashville. During her college days in Seoul, her classmates called her Das, the gender-neutral article of the German language, because her independent-mindedness set her apart from other women.
One of her first acts as secretary general of the South Korean chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association, a post she held from 1959 to 1962, was to start a campaign to block men who kept concubines from entering the national legislature.
Ms. Lee married Kim, her junior by two years, in 1962. They had first met as refugees in Busan, a southern port city, during the 1950-53 Korean War. They reconnected in Seoul after parliament was disbanded in a military coup in 1961 and Kim — a little-known politician and a widower with two sons — lost his seat. Ms. Lee gave birth to their own son in 1963.
Ms. Lee said it was a “shared dream” along with love that bonded her and Kim together. She remained Kim’s most faithful supporter as military dictators hounded him as the greatest threat to their leadership, especially after Kim narrowly lost the 1971 presidential election to the military strongman Park Chung-hee.
“If my husband wins election and becomes a dictator, I will be the first one to campaign to topple him,” Ms. Lee assured voters while campaigning.
Kim spent much of his career under house arrest, in jail, or in exile. Because their home was so frequently bugged by government officials, Kim and Ms. Lee said they often communicated in writing. Kim, who never went to college, said he had educated himself using the hundreds of books Ms. Lee sent to him in prison.
In 1973, while he was in exile in Japan, Kim was kidnapped by South Korean spy agents from a hotel room in Tokyo. He later said his kidnappers had attached a weight to him aboard a boat and were about to throw him into the sea when the US government intervened.
In 1980, under another military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, Kim was sentenced to death on sedition charges. Ms. Lee’s stepson, Kim Hong-il, was also arrested and tortured. Ms. Lee helped organize a successful international campaign for US and other foreign officials to press for her husband’s release.
Kim finally won election in 1997 in his fourth presidential bid.
As president from 1998 to 2003, Kim championed a “sunshine policy” of promoting political reconciliation and economic cooperation with North Korea. Ms. Lee accompanied Kim in 2000 to the first inter-Korean summit, flying with him to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to meet with Kim Jong Il, the country’s leader at the time and the father of Kim Jong Un, the current leader.
Ms. Lee later became the first South Korean to meet Kim Jong Un when she attended Kim Jong Il’s funeral in Pyongyang in 2011. She visited North Korea again in 2015, though without meeting Kim.
The South Korean news media speculated that North Korea might send a delegation to Ms. Lee’s funeral, which is scheduled for Friday. Such a visit could help restart official dialogue between the two Koreas, which has stalled since the breakdown in February of a summit in Vietnam between Kim Jong Un and President Trump.
Ms. Lee said her best moment in life was when her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his pro-democracy efforts and his conciliatory policy toward North Korea. In her will, Ms. Lee said she would pray for “a peaceful reunification” of the Korean Peninsula, her family said.