A revolutionary with a heart
*The author is a Seoul-based journalist. He covered the Kim years for the New York Times and Far Eastern Economic Review.
On the morning of May 16, 1961, South Koreans woke to the news that their chaotic but freely elected government had been toppled by an army coup. It was only nine months after the birth of Prime Minister John M. Chang’s government, which itself had been born in the bloodbath of a student revolution.
At the head of the junta was then-Army Chief of Staff Chang Do-yong. He proclaimed that the army was out to save the nation from a “mounting crisis” stemming from social disorder and communist threats. But he wasn’t the real leader of the coup; rumors swirling in the smoky tea-rooms of Gwanghwamun said the true coup-maker was a little-known Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee. Yet others insisted, the chief architect of the revolution was an obscure colonel named Kim Jong-pil.
That’s how Kim, 35 years old at the time, broke into South Korea’s modern political history. An enigmatic figure, little known to the country, yet forming an incongruous pair of revolutionaries with Park to whose niece he was married. If Park was a stern and distant autocrat, Kim was boyish-looking and gregarious, with a penchant for fine poetry and paintings. If Park was a visionary and dreamer for building a new industrial Korea, Kim was his chief engineer faithfully plotting out his blueprints.
A military intelligence officer, Kim had no illusion as to what it would cost to bring about a successful revolution — a hammer with which to pound down enemies and a cashbox to build a new political vehicle. Within days of the coup, he was secretly organizing the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), ostensibly to combat communist sympathizers, but in reality to create a dreaded secret police to terrorize opponents of the revolution. Not only that, it was used to shake down businessmen and manipulate the stock market where thousands of investors were defrauded for the purpose of launching a new political party. Not even the KCIA’s terror machine could dampen nationwide uproar against Kim’s nefarious activities. Protest swelled so high that Park had to exile him overseas for a while.
But Kim was much more than a ruthless operator. He had brains as well as brawn and helped fulfill Park’s dream of modernizing Korea. In 1965, he successfully negotiated a reparation-plus-loan package totaling $800 million from Japan, payable over ten to 12 years, in exchange for normalizing diplomatic ties. That provided the lifeline for the country’s economic miracle. Kim faced down nationwide protests from conservatives denouncing him as a traitor for accepting aid from former colonizers. In fact, the money was so well spent on building steel mills, highways, dams and other industrial sinews that even Japanese donors grudgingly conceded how proud they were to be a part of Park’s “national rejuvenation.”
Kim was unequivocal in his commitment to wiping out poverty and modernizing the country caught in the grips of a pre-industrial society. Along with Park, he was convinced that his war against age-old poverty justified all means. “Of course, we were right in launching this revolution,” he shot back at me when, shortly after Park’s assassination in 1979, I asked him if he had second thoughts about the coup they had launched. “Look at the roads we built, cars running on them, houses you live in and people having food,” he went on, eyes lightening up.
Unlike other army leaders, he was unafraid to face down demonstrators; once, he strode right into a campus protest at Seoul National University, the hotbed of anti-military agitation, shouting, “Empty stomach cries for food, not democracy. Our nation-building comes before democracy, and that’s what I mean by national democracy.” His speech won quite a few converts, including a friend of mine. “That speech changed my view of military leaders,” says Dr. Lee Young-il, who later went to work for the Ministry of Unification. When face-to-face talks didn’t work, he used other means to deal with the recalcitrant. Another friend of mine, an incorrigible campus critic, was carted off to Gimpo Airport with a passport and a one-way ticket to New York “for foreign education.” When even that failed to dampen campus unrest, Kim had the Seoul National University campus moved out from the center of town to the suburb where it stands today.
A tough cop he was, but he could play good cop, too. While he was in control of KCIA, he went softly on opposition leaders like Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, with whom he was called the Three Kims. He was poles apart from succeeding KCIA heads like Lee Hu-rak, who stood accused of engineering the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung from Tokyo in 1973, or Kim Hyong-wook, the notorious ex-Army general who took delight in breaking the bones of students and politicians who stood in his way. (Kim Hyong-wook himself vanished from Paris after betraying Park in his exile.)
Kim Jong-pil’s moderate way prompted Park to shove him away from center of power. Unbeknownst to outside circles, he unsuccessfully tried to talk Park out of changing the constitution to allow him to be president for life. A discreet No. 2, he made sure his efforts at restraining Park remained in the background, hidden from public view. “Never allow your boss to question your loyalty,” he once advised another military ruler after the assassination of Park. “That way, you stay committed to your core objectives while avoid getting into trouble.”
Under the post-Park civilian rule, Kim Jong-pil first helped Kim Young-sam and then Kim Dae-jung win presidential elections, arguing they deserved a chance to lead the nation after 18 years of Park’s iron-fisted rule. In a country with an ancient tradition of political reprisals and backstabbing, that was a clear departure toward decency and fair play. It’s a kind of legacy that will hopefully help South Korea on its bumpy road to a form of mature democracy. This is probably what Dr. Kim Dong-gil, Korea’s Lincoln scholar at Yonsei University, had in mind when he said in a tribute to Kim that Korean politics could have changed for a better if this soldier-revolutionary had earned a chance to lead this country.