Obituary: Kim Young-sam – former president of South Korea

Kim Young-sam: December 20th, 1927 – November 22nd, 2015

Kim Young-sam: a critic of military dictators who played a part in South Korea’s  transition to democracy. Photograph: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

Kim Young-sam: a critic of military dictators who played a part in South Korea’s transition to democracy. Photograph: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

 

Kim Young-sam, who has died aged 87, was a former South Korean president who replaced the last of the country’s military leaders, purged politicised generals and introduced important reforms .

An outspoken critic of military dictators from the 1960s through to the 1980s, he was one of the “three Kims” – the others being former president Kim Dae-jung and former prime minister Kim Jong-pil – who played major roles in South Korea’s turbulent transition to democracy.

Kim was born in 1927, the son of a wealthy fisherman on Geoje island off the southeast coast of South Korea, at a time when all of the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony. He was elected to parliament aged 26 and developed a following as an opposition leader known for his daring criticism of Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a coup in 1961 and tortured and imprisoned dissidents before his assassination in 1979.

Park had Kim expelled from parliament for criticising his dictatorship during an interview with the New York Times in 1979.

House arrest

Kim was as well known for a lifetime rivalry with fellow opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. They both ran for president in 1987 in South Korea’s first democratic election and split the opposition vote, allowing Chun’s handpicked successor, Roh Tae-woo, another former army general, to win.

In 1990, Kim merged his party with Roh’s military-backed governing party in a move widely condemned as a betrayal of pro-democracy forces. The merger was a political marriage of convenience: Roh wanted a parliamentary majority, and Kim, who distrusted Kim Dae-jung as much as he detested the military dictators, believed he would never win the presidency as long as Kim Dae-jung competed with him for the opposition vote.

Purge

Kim beat Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 election to become the first civilian leader in South Korea in more than three decades. Although he won the election with the support of the military-backed party, he did not forget his roots, purging a clique of politically ambitious army officers.

Kim also barred South Koreans from owning bank accounts under pseudonyms, a change that is considered one of the most important landmarks in South Korea’s long-running campaign against corruption; bank accounts under borrowed names had been widely used by politicians and businessmen to hide slush funds.

Kim’s time in office was also marked by what he later saw as missed opportunities. In a memoir, he said he persuaded President Bill Clinton to cancel a US plan to bomb North Korea’s nuclear facilities in 1994 for fear of war. “Looking back,” he said in an interview in 2009, “I think the North Koreans think they can say whatever they want because no matter what they do, the Americans will never attack them.”

Summit

Jimmy CarterKim Il Sung

But Kim Il Sung died in July 1994, two weeks before the meeting was scheduled to take place. “Fate played a trick on me,” Kim said. “If I had met Kim Il Sung, I would have changed the nation’s history.”

The achievement that had eluded him – becoming the first South Korean leader to hold a summit meeting with the North – went to his rival and successor, Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.