Kim Jong-pil, or “JP” as he was also called, was at the center of Korean politics from the early 1960s to early 2000s. But it would be too much to say he was a statesman or a hero. It also would be not exactly right to describe him disparagingly only as a professional politician. Maybe it lies somewhere between the two extremes.
What’s obvious is Kim -- a two-time prime minister and nine-term lawmaker who headed ruling and opposition parties -- was one of the most influential politicians in the nation’s modern history. The fact that he was not able to obtain the highest elected office should not downplay the role he played in politics.
As with such political big shots, Kim, who died Saturday at age 92, is the subject of mixed views, as his life spanning the turbulent period of Korean modern politics had both its light and dark sides.
To speak of the darkest shade first, Kim, along with late President Park Chung-hee, is identified with the military-backed dictatorship that Park started after seizing power in a coup in 1961.
Then a 35-year-old Army lieutenant colonel and relative of Park by marriage, Kim was a key member among the military officers and generals who participated in the coup. Kim then took a leading role in laying the basis for what would become Park’s 18-year reign.
One of his first jobs was to create the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which the Park regime used as a major tool for the repressive rule.
After a three-year stint as the first KCIA chief, Kim spearheaded the establishment of the Democratic Republican Party, which propped up Park’s dictatorship until his assassination by a KCIA chief in 1979. Kim was elected to the National Assembly nine times on the party’s ticket and also served as prime minister for four years.
There were times Kim faced difficulties over political and corruption scandals that resulted in his self-imposed exile, but there is no doubt he was one of the most powerful men during the Park government. In this sense, he cannot avoid blame for having been a key part of an authoritarian regime that harshly suppressed democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Another dark shade of the veteran politician was that, along with the other two of the “Three Kims” -- the late presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung -- he fostered regionalism and factionalism, the two major ills of Korean politics.
After the end of the dictatorial government headed by another Army strongman Chun Doo-hwan, the three Kims -- hailing from each of the nation’s three major regions -- built their own political parties more based on regional and factional support than platforms and ideological lines. Obsessed with the presidency, the three Kims engaged in various political maneuvers, including alliances and divisions, for which regionalism was the No. 1 factor.
For instance, Kim Jong-pil, whose hometown is in the central South Chungcheong Province, allied with Kim Young-sam, who hailed from the southeastern South Gyeongsang Province, which successfully ostracized Kim Dae-jung, from the southwestern South Jeolla Province, in the 1992 election and made Kim Young-sam the first civilian president since 1961.
Kim Jong-pil displayed his political acumen again in the 1997 election. This time he gave up his candidacy and threw his support to Kim Dae-jung, who eventually became the first opposition leader to take the presidency. Kim Jong-pil assumed the post of prime minister for a second time, lending to his nicknames “kingmaker” and “perennial No. 2 man.”
It was indeed ironic that the man who was the architect, mover and shaker of the Park dictatorship took the hands of the two most prominent dissidents who had been suppressed and catapulted them into Cheong Wa Dae. Whether he intended to or not, Kim Jong-pil, by helping the two other Kims win power, contributed to ending the vestiges of military-backed rule and establish full-blown democracy in the country.
It may be no coincidence that Kim Jong-pil’s passing, which put an end to the era of the three Kims, came shortly after the June 13 local elections, which showed a clear decline in regionalism.
Now that the three are all gone, it is our duty to further accelerate efforts to do away with the bad legacy of their era while remembering contributions each of them made. They together left a big footprint, both good and bad.