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Kim Jong-pil, Political Kingmaker in South Korea, Dies at 92

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-pil, a two-time South Korean prime minister who helped engineer a military coup, founded the country’s intelligence agency and facilitated the rise of three presidents, but who never managed to win the presidency himself, died Saturday in Seoul, the capital. He was 92.

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Choe Sang-hun
, New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-pil, a two-time South Korean prime minister who helped engineer a military coup, founded the country’s intelligence agency and facilitated the rise of three presidents, but who never managed to win the presidency himself, died Saturday in Seoul, the capital. He was 92.

Kim’s death was announced by his family and by the South Korean government. He had been taken to Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital in Seoul early Saturday after having difficulty breathing and was pronounced dead on arrival. No specific cause was given.

Kim was the last of the “Three Kims,” as they were universally known in South Korea. The trio — including two presidents, Kim Young-sam, who died in 2015; and Kim Dae-jung, who died in 2009 — dominated national politics for decades, notably during the country’s turbulent transformation from military dictatorship to vibrant democracy.

A suave, witty deal-maker, Kim Jong-pil stood out from the other two Kims, both of whom were known for being fiery and headstrong. He was the original kingmaker in South Korea’s fractured, regionally based political system, in which parties were dispersed and realigned at their leaders’ whims.

Kim had little in common ideologically or in political background with the other two Kims, both of whom were dissidents during military rule. To become president, each had to form an alliance with Kim, who had decades earlier played a central role in bringing the generals to power.

Kim was elected to parliament nine times, a record. He helped create, and lead, four political parties. He was prime minister, the second-highest position in the government, from 1971 to 1975. Twenty-three years later, in 1998, he assumed the post again, becoming the first person to hold the job twice.

But the presidency always eluded Kim, who was widely known as “the perpetual No. 2.”

“I don’t even step on the shadow of the president,” he once quipped, a remark that both encapsulated his runner-up status and helped explain his political longevity.

Kim Jong-pil was born in 1926 in Buyeo, a town in the central region of Chungcheong. He was the fifth of seven children, all boys; their father was a scholar in Chinese philosophy and a low-ranking government official.

Kim graduated from the national military academy in 1948, two years before the outbreak of the Korean War, in which he served as an intelligence officer. He became a friend of Park Chung-hee, a fellow army officer who, in 1961, would seize control of the country in a military coup.

Kim, who had married a niece of Park’s, was deeply involved in both the planning of the coup and the management of the dictatorship, which lasted 18 years. Kim was the founding director of the infamous Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which buttressed Park’s rule through arbitrary arrests and the torture of dissidents.

Under Park, Kim also left an indelible mark on South Korean foreign affairs.

He helped broker a deal in 1965 that established diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan, which had ruled Korea as a colony for decades until Tokyo’s defeat in World War II. As part of that agreement, Kim helped secure free grants and cheap loans from Japan. Park’s regime used the money to build factories and highways, laying the groundwork for South Korea’s rapid evolution from war-torn agrarian country to export powerhouse.

But the deal with Japan fueled enormous protests in South Korea, where many complained that Tokyo had not offered a clear apology or sufficient reparations for brutalities committed during the colonial period — an issue that still haunts the two countries’ relations.

Kim was a pragmatist about such matters. He once said that a group of small islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan should be blown up with dynamite to end the territorial dispute, calling them useless rocks covered with “nothing but sea gull droppings.”

He was unapologetic to the end about the deal with Japan. “Even if I was vilified as a national traitor, I was convinced that it was the best way for my country,” he said years later. “We needed the money to establish factories and learn technologies and build the economy.”

After Park was assassinated in 1979 — by Kim Jae-gyu, a disgruntled successor to Kim as head of the spy agency — another army general, Chun Doo-hwan, took power. Seeing Kim as a potential rival, Chun had him detained and his vast personal assets seized. Kim was barred from politics, as were the other two Kims, both of whom were high-profile figures in the opposition.

After a period of exile in the United States, Kim Jong-pil returned to South Korean politics in the late 1980s, as military rule was nearing its end amid huge street demonstrations. All three Kims ran for president in 1987, splitting the opposition vote against Chun’s hand-picked successor, Roh Tae-woo, a former general. Roh won the election; Kim Jong-pil received just 8.1 percent of the vote. Kim’s geographical power base was modest, essentially limited to his native region of Chungcheong. But he wielded outsize influence because Chungcheong was well known as a swing-vote region. Any politician with presidential ambitions had to pay respects to Kim and win his favor.

He helped Kim Young-sam win the presidency in 1992, forming a political alliance with him and Roh, in which their three parties merged. Later, after a falling-out with Kim Young-sam, he merged his new party with that of Kim Dae-jung, who went on to be elected president in 1997. He became prime minister under President Kim Dae-jung, who would win a Nobel Peace Prize for his policy of outreach to North Korea, including a historic summit with Kim Jong Il, then the North’s leader.

Kim Jong-pil remained a conservative and a hawk on North Korea. But he never hesitated to form alliances across the political spectrum, because he knew his modest regional power base limited his own ambitions. His dream, never fulfilled, was that South Korea would adopt a parliamentary system like Japan’s, which he hoped would make it more likely that a political boss like him could come to power.

Kim, who is survived by a son and daughter, retired from politics in 2004. But politicians continued to visit him for years, especially during election seasons, well after a stroke in 2008 limited his mobility.

“Being a politician should be an empty-handed job,” Kim told opposition leader Moon Jae-in in 2015 — his way of saying that South Korean politicians driven by personal greed always come to a bad end. Moon is now president.

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