Remembering a liberal realist

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Remembering a liberal realist

During the tumultuous period of the Hungnam evacuation in December 1950 and the taking of Seoul in January 1951, Kim Kyung-won and his brother Kyung-suk, who were attending a middle school in South Pyongan in northwest North Korea, fled to the South aboard a fishing boat at the decision of their mother. The fate of Korea and the people living on both sides of the border were at high risk. Ahead of the publication of a book of his essays, I want to take a moment to ruminate on the extraordinary life of Kim Kyung-won, who passed away last summer.

The older generation may remember the name of this revered political science scholar, public servant and diplomat thanks to his stunning career in public service under the military regimes of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. But younger people may not be familiar with the dramatic life of a boy who crossed the wintry sea to find new opportunities and uncharted ways in later life. After he landed in the South, Kim entered Seoul High School and Seoul National University College of Law where he dropped out to pursue studies at Williams College. At graduate school at Harvard University, he studied under Henry Kissinger, who would go on to become U.S. Secretary of State, and Stanley Hoffmann. He earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1963. He taught at York University in Canada and New York University before returning home to teach at Korea University. He was recruited to the Blue House in 1975 as special advisor to President Park Chung Hee. Kim was also handpicked by general-turned-president Chun Doo Hwan as chief of staff after Park was assassinated in 1979. Kim later served as ambassador to the United Nations and the United States. After retiring, he headed the Institute of Social Sciences and founded the journal Sasang (Thought) to expand the intellectual field in Korea.

No doubt Kim was one of the most brilliant minds from boyhood and had an unrivalled career in international politics among his generation. Given his experience of serving two presidents in turbulent times and leading foreign policy in the diplomatic centers of the UN and Washington during the tense and unstable period during the last stages of the Cold War, he may be evaluated in many ways according to different political perspectives. In view of the national agenda of security reinforcement, industrialization, democratization and globalization, he was highly valued by the two presidents he served and respected by his contemporaries. Disillusioned by North Korea’s dictatorial regime, he fled the communist country and studied through the eyes of a political scientist the explosive — and destructive — power of totalitarianism on European political history. Having learned from the expert in the field — Dr. Kissinger — his view of world politics was solidly based on realism rather than idealism. Suffice it to say, his beliefs and capabilities were highly appreciated in Korea three decades ago.

I believe the authoritarian regimes he served were lucky to have such a world-class mind with good judgment and strong convictions to help in the aggressive campaign to pull the country out of poverty, modernize it, and turn it into an industrial power to compete in the world amidst persistent security threats from North Korea. His accomplishments and reputation, however, can be undermined when taking the issue of democracy into account as he served in two military regimes whose legitimacy remains questionable because they were established through military coups. On a personal note, Kim might have undergone serious psychological difficulties and inner conflicts of the sort that most intellectuals experience while serving distasteful authoritarian regimes.

The people who were close to Kim and respected him said he endeavored to keep authoritarianism in balance and from going to extremes within his limited power. For instance, he reportedly advised a special pardon for Kim Dae-jung after he received a death sentence; he opposed the military regime’s merger of media organizations; and he urged the U.S. not to endorse military involvement in quenching the nationwide democracy movement in 1987. But Kim kept silent about his role. After retirement, he contributed his vision of a balanced foreign policy among four global powers — the U.S., China, Japan and Russia — in Northeast Asia. But he refused till the end to write a memoir on his public service as well as his life. He might have thought the absence of democracy under the authoritarian regimes was a price to be paid in return for national security and economic advancement and that his role in the process had been a choice he could neither be proud of nor regret. It could be why Paul Evans, a Canadian political science professor who knew Kim for a long time, called him a “liberal realist.”

Kim was pensive and somewhat introverted. If there had not been a war, he might have pursued the brilliant musical talent he showed in early age to become a famous pianist in North Korea. It is not a coincidence that he, as a devout admirer of German composer Richard Wagner, maintained his title as the head of the Korea Wagner Association until his last days. He might have felt connected with Wagner on the idea of great human talent and unavoidable tragic destiny.
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