Former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil, one of the influential “three Kims” in South Korean politics, together with late former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, passed away Saturday. Described as the person who embodied the honor and disgrace of the country’s modern history, Kim’s political career may invite mixed opinions. Starting his career by playing a key role in the 1961 military coup led by then- Gen. Park Chung-hee, the deceased remained one of the most influential politicians, often dubbed the “eternal No. 2” for his closeness to power and failure to reach the absolute pinnacle.
Kim was known for having a special feel for politics, especially about how power works. As a major planner of the coup, he initially pursued stable politics only to be kept in check by those in power. Yet, he kept close to power throughout the period of democratization, leading the ruling party when late President Kim Yong-sam was in office and also serving as prime minister during the Kim Dae-jung administration. Some say that Kim’s conducts through his political career resemble those of China’s Feng Dao, a government official during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Still, his flexible approach in politics will remain as a big footprint on our history.
Kim had been originally a conservative, advocating the country’s industrialization, but also worked hand-in-hand with late Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, though he fell through midway during both administrations. He also showed an example of a third area politics, by founding the United Liberal Democrats and later forming a government coalition with Kim Dae-jung’s Democratic Party. Yet, he had his own limits. His approach, constantly going back and forth without solid principles, was not much different from what we are seeing today in the conservatives going astray.
He was also known for the political rhetoric that had varied levels from the sophisticated to plain ones. One of his famous quotes is that “politics is a work that remains empty,” which means that while businesses bear fruits as they work hard, politicians must give what they have earned to people. Kim also said that opposition blocs should first let the counterparts win and then beat them. All these remarks are still resonating for today’s politicians who are often exchanging verbal abuse and curses with one another.
A crisis often occurs when the old has gone but the new has yet to arrive. Liberals are enjoying another era of progressives under the current Moon Jae-in administration, following the previous Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. On the other side of the spectrum, however, conservatives are now facing an existential crisis even though they had led the country during the previous Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. The left and right of a wing should strike a right balance for a country to stay stable. Now we lost the last Kim of the three Kims, who used to represent the politics of the past era. Still, Kim’s legacy in the Korean politics will be remembered for a long time.