‘3 Kims’ now down to noneWhen the 17th National Assembly opens for business Saturday, it will be the beginning of a new era in politics ― one without any of the “Three Kims,” the triumvirate of politicians who dominated the Korean political scene for decades.
On April 19, the last of the Three Kims, Kim Jong-pil, announced his retirement after losing his bid for his 10th Assembly term, joining Kim Young-sam, also known as YS, and Kim Dae-jung, or DJ, in the annals of Korean political history.
On the day of his retirement, the 78-year-old politician said, “The times have already changed, whether you want it or not. ... After 43 years in politics, I’ve been burned down to ashes. Now that I’m all ashes, I don’t have any more roles left.”
The roles he did play, along with the other two Kims, were the biggest in politics over the past four decades, sometimes as a partner, other times as a rival.
In the 1960s and 1970s, DJ and YS had one goal, which was to see democracy established. In the 1980s, they also had one goal, the Blue House, but it was one that would split them apart, with Kim Jong-pil, or JP, placing himself next to whomever looked likely to win.
Forming factions and political parties based on their home regions, the Three Kims cemented their status as political powerhouses. Their exploitation of deep-seated regional rivalries divided the country into three constituencies: JP in Chungcheong province, DJ for Jeolla, and YS in Gyeongsang.
YS was brought up in a middle-class family on Geoje island near Busan, South Gyeongsang province, and tread the elite course by entering the prestigious Seoul National University.
DJ was a self-made man, whose knowledge came from extensive reading. He was born to a poor family on a Haeui island near Mokpo, South Jeolla province. After graduating from high school, DJ started a series of successful businesses. Then he ran for the National Assembly in the early 1960s.
JP, on the other hand, entered politics in 1960 as Park Chung Hee’s close aide after the military leader’s May 16 coup d’etat. He later founded the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
JP’s boss was the avowed enemy of democracy activists, which included YS and DJ. DJ even ran for the presidency in 1971 against Mr. Park, knowing full well he’d lose. Because of the threat he posed to the Park regime, he left the country but he never stopped working to undermine the dictator, even after he was kidnapped in Tokyo in 1973 by suspected KCIA agents and imprisoned in Korea in 1976.
When Mr. Park was assassinated in 1979, activists such as DJ and YS were hoping it would herald the beginning of democracy, but yet another military dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, took over.
This again opened a second chapter of suffering for all the three Kims. JP fled to the United States. DJ and YS experienced even more oppression after the May 18 Gwangju massacre in 1980.
DJ was sentenced to death in 1981 by the Chun regime, but fled to the United States. He came back home in 1985, only to be placed under house arrest. The day when the house arrest was lifted, DJ received visits from his freedom fighter friends, with YS being one of the first.
By the late 1980s, however, their friendship turned into open hostility. In the 1987 presidential campaign, YS and DJ failed to unite their opposition parties. Neither wanted to give up their shot at the Blue House. By this time, JP had come back from the United States and had his eye on the presidency too.
The Three Kims made the most of their regional backgrounds, appealing to their particular area’s prejudices and hatred of other regions. But it was all in vain. The victory of Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo Hwan’s closest subordinate, left a deep scar between YS and DJ.
The rivalry reached its peak in the 1992 presidential election. YS surprised DJ by joining forces with then-President Roh. Next to YS and Mr. Roh stood JP, and the alliance unified their three parties, which guaranteed YS’s victory. After his defeat, DJ announced his retirement from politics and left for England.
Return to politics
His hiatus didn’t last long. In 1994, he went home, established the Asia Pacific Peace Foundation and returned to politics. Then JP, who by then had earned the nickname as “The Eternal Second,” pledged his support for DJ in the 1997 election.
DJ won, defeating Lee Hoi-chang, who once had the support of YS, and becoming the first opposition-party president and the first to come from Jeolla province.
All pretense at cordiality between the two former friends fell away after the 1997 election. In one of his public speeches, YS said, “An expert liar surely falls in the end. Who is he?” to draw the answer from his audience: “Kim Dae-jung!”
JP made a final attempt to become No. 1 ― he suggested getting rid of the presidency and establish a cabinet system similar to Great Britain’s, which he thought would increase his chances of winning. It failed to gain support.
Now with JP’s defeat in this year’s elections, and with both JP and YS embroiled in slush fund scandals, many say the Three Kims era is history. Regional appeal, employed by the three politicians to great effect, didn’t seem to be as big a factor in April as in past elections, with JP’s United Liberal Democrats and DJ’s Millennium Democratic Party both losing seats. Also, in a recent survey, 85 percent of newly elected National Assembly members said the Three Kims era has ended.
One political scientist disagrees. “The Three Kims have officially gone into history, but the Three-Kims’ political culture is still haunting Korean politics,” said Sonn Ho-chul, professor of political science at Sogang University and author the 1997 book “Getting Over the Three Kims.”
He said President Roh Moo-hyun’s and longtime rival Lee Hoi-chang’s style of politics are not so different from that of their predecessors.
“In Korean politics, political figures simply rule the whole system, as you saw in the Three Kims era,” Mr. Sonn said. “That’s why when Korea elects a new president, it naturally leads to the birth of another political party devoted to the president. Look at Roh Moo-hyun and his Our Open Party.”
Mr. Sonn said the demise of regionalism is a long way off. “Korean regional sentiment has just been upgraded. It’s still there,” he said. “The only difference is that Koreans now strategically vote for someone who would benefit the party that is based in their regions.
“Roh Moo-hyun, for example, is from Busan, Gyeongsang province, but inherited DJ’s party, which is based in Jeolla province. The same with Lee Hoi-chang, who was born in Chungcheong province, but ran for the Grand National Party, which has the card-carrying Gyeongsang province as its base,” he said.
“Korean politics has a long way to go to overcome this,” Mr. Sonn said. “We’re only half over the Three Kim-like politics.”
Even the last of the Three Kims seems aware of this. On the day he announced his retirement, JP said, “Veterans don’t die. They just fade away ― quietly.”
Born in 1927 on Geoje island, which is in South Gyeongsang province.
Graduate of Seoul National University, philosophy major.
A democracy activist during the military regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s.
President from 1993 to 1998.
Born in 1925 on Haeui island, Sinan county, South Jeolla province.
Graduate of Mokpo Business High School.
Democracy activist during the military regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s.
President from 1998 to 2003.
Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
Born in 1926 in Buyeo, South Chungcheong province.
Graduate of Korea Military Academy, after finishing the course of an education major at Seoul National University.
Entered politics as a close aide to Park Chung Hee in his 1960 coup d’etat.
by Chun Su-jin