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South Korean President Kim Young Sam apologizes on national television for the country’ economic troubles in this Nov. 22, 1997 file photo.Reuters

Former president Kim Young Sam, who formally ended decades of military rule in South Korea and accepted a massive international bailout during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, died on Sunday at the age of 87.

The chief of Seoul National University Hospital said Mr. Kim is believed to have suffered from a severe blood infection and acute heart failure. He leaves his wife, two sons and three daughters.

Mr. Kim was an important figure in South Korea's pro-democracy movement and opposed the country's military dictators for decades. As president, he laid the foundation for a peaceful power transfer in a country that had been marked by military coups.

During his 1993-1998 presidency, he had his two predecessors indicted on mutiny and treason charges stemming from a coup. Still, he pardoned the two convicted military strongmen, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, at the end of his term.

Mr. Kim also launched a popular anti-corruption campaign and vowed not to receive any political slush funds, though this was later tarnished when his son was arrested on charges of bribery and tax evasion.

He led South Korea in 1994 when the Clinton administration was considering attacking Nyongbyon, home to North Korea's nuclear complex. Mr. Kim lobbied against the idea, fearing a possible war. The crisis eased when former president Jimmy Carter met with the North's leader and founder Kim Il Sung (grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un) in Pyongyang, which led to an accord aimed at freezing North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear programs. That deal collapsed in 2002, and in 2009 North Korea announced that it was enriching uranium, a process that gave it a second way to make nuclear bombs.

Mr. Kim was credited with disbanding a key military faction and bringing transparency to the South's murky financial system. But he was also accused of mismanaging the economy during the Asian financial crisis that toppled some of the country's debt-ridden conglomerates and forced the government to accept a $58-billion (U.S.) bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Kim Young Sam was born into a rich fishing family on Dec. 20, 1927, in Geoge Island off the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule. In 1954, he was elected as the youngest member of the national assembly as a member of the ruling party of the late Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first president. A few months later, he broke with the party over a constitutional revision and joined the opposition party.

In 1979, he was expelled from the assembly for his anti-government activities, shortly before then-president Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961, was assassinated by his intelligence chief. During that chaotic period, military chief Chun Doo Hwan and his cronies rolled tanks and troops into Seoul to seize power in another coup that ended an interim government.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Kim was placed under house arrest twice and staged a 23-day hunger strike to protest political oppression. He spent more than three decades in opposition as an advocate for democracy, though he later joined hands with military leader Roh Tae-woo and others to create a new ruling party.

In 1992, Mr. Kim became the head of the ruling party and was elected president, five years after his first unsuccessful presidential bid.