Kim Jong-pil, a master South Korean politician, passed away last week at the age of 92. He was a wily survivor, who among other highlights of a long, distinguished career, served twice as prime minister and helped engineer normalization between Japan and South Korea. A fervent nationalist, Kim was a pragmatist who put the national interest above ideology. His career is a lesson for all who seek to serve their country.

Kim was born in Buyeo, in South Chungcheong Province, and enjoyed strong support from his home province throughout his political career. He graduated from the Korea Military Academy, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was a key member of the 1961 coup that put Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee in office. One of Kim’s first assignments in the new government was creating the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which he headed for several years before serving as prime minister, from 1971 to 1975.

After Park’s assassination in 1979, Kim was accused of corruption by the new president, Gen. Chung Doo-hwan. He was forced to surrender his property and he moved to the United States, where he remained until South Korea’s democratization was launched. He returned home, formed his own conservative political party but failed to win the presidential election in 1987. The next year he ran for and won election to the National Assembly, a post he held until retiring from politics in 2004. His nine terms as a representative is among the most by any South Korean politician.

While Kim never reached the pinnacle of power in South Korea, he was nevertheless a kingmaker. He was one of “the three Kims” — along with Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung — who dominated South Korean politics in the 1980s and 1990s. After splitting the opposition vote in 1987 and allowed Gen. Roh Tae-woo to become president, Kim joined forces with Roh and Kim Young-sam, which propelled the latter to the presidency in 1992.

Five years later, Kim Jong-pil would back Kim Dae-jung’s presidential bid. That won him and members of his conservative party several Cabinet portfolios in the new government, even though Kim Dae-jung was a progressive. Kim Jong-pil served his second term as prime minister, from 1998 to 2000. The coalition eventually fell apart a year later over the president’s “Sunshine policy,” his attempt to transform relations with North Korea.

Kim Jong-pil’s readiness to work with Park Chung-hee, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung — each of whom occupied different positions on South Korea’s political spectrum — is proof of his flexibility and pragmatism. His relationship with Kim Dae-jung was especially striking. While Kim Jong-pil was Park’s prime minister, the KCIA kidnapped Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel to block his efforts to rally South Korean democratic forces in Japan to fight the dictatorship in Seoul. Reportedly, only the timely intervention of U.S. President Ronald Reagan stopped his murder at sea.

That incident was one of several that thrust Kim into the heart of Japan’s relations with South Korea. He was one of the key figures who worked out the framework for economic assistance that would lead to the normalization of relations between the two countries in 1965, and is credited with forging the breakthrough with Japan’s then Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira.

After Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped, Kim Jong-pil was dispatched by then President Park to Tokyo to smooth over relations. His fluency in Japanese, his role as one of the architects of reconciliation, the personal relationships he had developed over the years, his pragmatic outlook, and his anti-communism all facilitated the success of his mission. Kim Jong-pil was a politician with whom the Japanese could do business.

South Korean obituaries acknowledged the history and complexities of Kim’s long political career. The Blue House released a statement noting that his “fingerprints and footprints that marked South Korea’s modern political history will not be easily erased.” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon was a little more blunt, describing Kim as “the very person who embodied the honor and disgrace” of South Korea’s modern history, a reference to his backing of dictator Park and democrats Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.

Such contradictions are easily explained in the polarized world of South Korean politics. Kim Jong-pil defied ideology. He recognized that a strong and democratic Korea needed a strong economy, a belief that compelled him to pursue diplomatic normalization with Japan. His efforts to entrench democracy pushed him first into a coalition with former authoritarians and then to join the country’s leading dissident. Throughout all those gyrations, Kim Jong-pil was focused on a single objective: a strong South Korea. His goal was the national interest, not a political ideology. He pursued it with a singular focus and the result was a singular career. He will be missed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.