Thinking of Mrs. Lee Hee-ho
By Kim Heung-sook
Streams of politicians, including President Lee Myung-bak, have visited Severance Hospital in Sinchon, western Seoul, over the past few days to console and pay respect to the ailing former President Kim Dae-jung. They have been received by Lee Hee-ho, who hasn't seemed perturbed despite her husband's illness. She has gracefully abstained from showing her emotions and greeted the guests with her usual calm and the smile that the nation enjoyed during her time in the presidential residence.
Kim is reportedly wearing mittens knitted by his wife. His feet are also wrapped in special socks she made. She began knitting the gloves when she heard from doctors that when blood pressure goes down, a patient's hands and feet become cold. I believe the mittens and socks are another form of her prayer. Lee is a devout Protestant and Kim is a Catholic, as they were at their marriage 47 years ago.
Although Kim served as the 15th president of Korea and received the internationally coveted Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, he certainly has not been the luckiest politician given all the threats and internment he has suffered in his 85 years. Yet, he must be one of the most blessed husbands in the world, having a wife as devoted as Lee.
Let me confess that I didn't like her very much back in 1992 when I realized her presence in Kim's life. I had respected Kim for his unflinching struggle for democracy, but I knew little about his wife. This may sound extremely silly but my apathy toward her was largely based on the way she looked. She was quite thin, as she is now, and the big spectacles on her skinny face gave the exaggerated impression of a woman rich in intelligence yet lacking in warmth. I was young and simple and didn't comprehend that facades sometimes beguile the entire building.
So when I read Kim's letters from prison, published in 1992, entitled ``To My Beloved Family," I was sort of surprised: Nearly all the letters he sent to her began with ``To You with Love and Respect." Korea was notoriously patriarchal at the time and few men dared to ``respect" their wives, especially in public. Kim's respect for his wife spurred my jealousy but at the same time encouraged me to look into her as a person.
As I learned more about Lee, I came to believe that she was equally as respectable as her husband (or even more so) as a social reform activist, a women's rights promoter and, most importantly, a person of boundless love.
Born the eldest daughter of a doctor in 1922, she received what was probably the best education among her peers, through which she grew to be a rare female intellectual more interested in correcting societal problems than in individualistic happiness. She started her career as a guidance teacher for young women in 1944 and has remained committed to promoting the well being of women since then. Had she not married Kim, some feminists say, the social status of women in Korea may have become different
While there are many things about Lee that make me look up to her, the most impressive may be her love not only of her family but also of underprivileged children, women, patients of Hansen's disease, juvenile delinquents and people with special needs. She has made her best efforts to enhance gender equality while living as a dedicated wife and mother. She was the first First Lady to pay a visit to Sorok Island, the colony for Hansen's disease patients, though few Koreans know this due to a lack of publicity. Also noteworthy is her reticence as a Christian. She has never boasted her credo.
In her autobiography, ``Going Together," published last year, Lee says that of all the Americans she has met, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she met in 1957 while studying there, was the most unforgettable for her commitment to the equality of human beings. ``If anyone had asked if Korea could ever have a First Lady like her, we would have all shaken our heads, because Korean women then were not treated as the equals of men."
If I ever have a chance to meet Lee, I would say that we have had a First Lady like Roosevelt and that she was that person. I am sure she is praying for her husband night and day and even though I don't share her faith, I earnestly hope her prayers will be heard. I also hope her fellow Christians in the incumbent government will learn from her way of life.