Kim Jong-pil, one of the most legendary figures in South Korea’s tumultuous modern politics, passed away on Saturday from age-related complications. He was 92.
His death marks the end of an era in Korean politics.
Kim, also known as “JP” after his initials, was one of the “three Kims” – central political players in the epic drama of the 1960s, 70s and 80s during which Korea initiated fast-paced economic development under strongman rule. Those three decades were a period of intense rivalries and sometimes-deadly political maneuvering – all played out against a backdrop of national transformation as a mighty industrial economy took shape and Koreans battled for democracy.
Kim is Korea’s most common surname and none of the three were actually related. Kim Jong-pil was the only one of the Three Kims who never became president. His counterparts were Kim Young-sam (“YS”) and Kim Dae-jung (“DJ”) and they occupied the presidential Blue House from 1992-1998 and from 1998-2003, respectively. DJ died in 2009; YS died in 2015.
But while “JP” did not reach their heights of political success, he played the most wide-ranging role of the three.
From spook chief to exile
Kim was a key insider in the 1961 coup that propelled army General Park Chung-hee into power. Under Park’s aegis, Kim, a former army lieutenant colonel who had served in intelligence in the Korean War, crafted the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, or KCIA, which became one of the most powerful (and feared) agencies in East Asia. Tasked with defending the nation against North Korean espionage, it also became a fearsome tool of domestic social repression.
Even today, its successor agency, the National Intelligence Service, is controversial: It stands accused of making below-the-radar political interventions and providing slush funds to President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who was ousted from power in 2017 after mass protests that lead to her impeachment. She is currently serving a 24-year jail term.
Kim was the right-hand man during much of Park Sr’s rule. Like many members of his generation, JP was a fluent Japanese speaker, and helped broker the 1965 diplomatic normalization between Korea and its former colonial master. That deal paved the way for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of soft loans and reparations, which would provide the early capital base for Korea’s “Economic Miracle.”
It was during the Park era that YS and DJ emerged as the two major opposition figures. Both were jailed, and in 1973 the KCIA kidnapped DJ with the apparent aim of drowning him in the Sea of Japan. In a dramatic intervention, the US CIA demanded the KCIA desist, saving DJ’s life.
JP had become prime minister in 1971, so was not intel chief at the time of that infamous operation. He also had no apparent role in the assassination of Park, who, in 1979, was gunned down by his then-national intelligence chief in a still-shadowy, over-dinner shootout on the grounds of the Blue House in 1979.
When another general, Chun Do-hwan took power in a creeping coup in 1980-81 and Kim – a potential rival – fell from favor. Accused of corruption, he was forced to surrender his assets and moved to the United States.
He returned to Korea in 1987, after Chun had accepted direct democratic elections. The death of a left-wing student activist by waterboarding had ignited massive demonstrations, which Chun eventually bowed to.
But the three Kims – DJ and YS were by now free players on the newly democratic national stage – but could not find common ground. All ran against each other in that election, and the result was a vote was that split. In a major irony, Korea’s first fully democratic election was won by Chun’s own crony (also an ex-general), Roh Tae-woo.
From power player to power broker
Subsequently, South Korea’s political maneuvers became less deadly, but more complicated. JP was boosted by strong support in his home province, the electoral swing district of Chungcheong, and considered the most conservative of the three Kims. His home turf and his courting of the right-wing vote allowed him the role of kingmaker in the power plays of the 1990s.
In 1990, YS and JP merged their parties with Roh’s ruling party. Seen as a cynical political ploy, the move ignited a new era of violent demonstrations, but paved the way for YS to win the 1992 presidential election.
Subsequently, JP supported DJ’s successful run for the presidency in 1997 and was made the latter’s prime minister in 1998 – the first time in South Korean history that one man had taken the role twice (after his initial stint from 1971 to 1975 under Park). But JP, a conservative by nature, fell out with DJ in 2000 over the latter’s “Sunshine Policy” of North Korean engagement.
Having served in nine National Assemblies – another political record – including two of the most diametrically-opposed presidents ever to rule South Korea – Park Chung-hee and Dae-jung – JP was the great “also ran” of Korean politics. He only quit the game after his United Liberal Democrats were annihilated in the 2004 Assembly elections.
JP was considered stylish. He was often pictured wearing shades and was something of a wit. His tell-all autobiography, which was serialized in Korea’s number-two newspaper, the Joongang Ilbo, was a must-read for Asian political junkies, providing posterity with arguably the most fascinating insider’s memoir of Korea’s modern history.
Kim Jong-pil died of age-related health issues on Saturday. He is survived by a son and a daughter.