The South Korean statesman Kim Young Sam (born 1927) was a centrist and pragmatic opposition party leader. In 1990 he led his party into a merger with the ruling Democratic Justice Party. He was elected president of South Korea in December 1992.
Kim Young Sam was born in the southern island of Koje near Pusan in South Korea on December 10, 1927. He was first elected to the National Assembly in 1954 and was reelected seven times from his district in Pusan. He became the opposition party floor leader and subsequently party president in 1974 and 1979. For his opposition to the military rule during the Park Chung Hee era, Kim was briefly imprisoned in 1962. He was also prosecuted for his vocal criticism of the Korean CIA activities.
As a veteran opposition leader in the National Assembly, Kim was instrumental in bringing down the Yushin system of President Park in 1979. Throughout the 1970s Kim Young Sam campaigned the cause of resisting Park's authoritarian rule and restoring democracy for Korea. For his activism, Kim was expelled from the National Assembly on October 4, 1979, thereby triggering widespread riots in the southeastern cities of Pusan and Masan. This crisis of domestic unrest provided the impetus to and context for Park's subsequent assassination three weeks later by one of his own trusted aides, Kim Jae Kyu. The Fourth Republic collapsed with the assassination.
Kim was banned from political activities following the bloody Kwangju uprising of May 1980, which was suppressed by the military government of General Chun Doo Hwan. When he was placed under house arrest for two years, 1981 to 1983, Kim went on a 23-day hunger strike from May 18 to June 9, 1983. This attracted both sympathy and support from home and abroad, making Kim Young Sam one of Korea's most celebrated dissident politicians.
As the opposition party leader, Kim acted skillfully to overcome the June 1987 political crisis of violent clashes between students and riot-controlling police. He made a deal with the ruling party leader, Roh Tae Woo, to carry out democratic reforms. These included the constitutional amendment to conduct direct presidential election and to restore democratic freedom and rights of the people. Under this arrangement Kim Dae Jung was also released from a house arrest and his civil rights were restored, enabling him to participate in the electoral process.
Prior to the December 17, 1987, election, Kim was widely perceived as the only safe nonmilitary candidate acceptable to the public at large. However, the split in the opposition camp and his long-standing rivalry with Kim Dae Jung enabled the ruling party candidate, Roh Tae Woo, to win the presidency of South Korea's Sixth Republic. Whereas Roh received a plurality vote of only 36.6 percent, the two Kims together garnered a total of 55 percent of the total, Kim Young Sam receiving 28 percent and Kim Dae Jung 27 percent. As he failed in the presidential bid, Kim resigned from the presidency of his Reunification Democracy Party only to be reinstated in January 1988. In the April 1988 National Assembly election his party failed to attract broad electoral support other than from his own native province in the southeast, thereby losing the first opposition party status in the National Assembly to Kim Dae Jung's party, the Party for Peace and Democracy.
Kim was sometimes regarded as lacking charisma, unlike his rival Kim Dae Jung, and also lacking a firm grasp on some important issues, such as on national security and foreign policy. Although championing the cause of democracy, he has often been criticized by the hardliners as too moderate and sometimes even cozy with the government. He is regarded as a back-room dealmaker politician who has built his reputation on his savvy regarding inside politics.
In July 1989 Kim spent nine days in the Soviet Union, nominally at the invitation of Evegeny Primakov, who was then head of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences and subsequently a special adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev on Far Eastern Affairs. While in Moscow, he also met with North Korean ex-Foreign Minister Ho Dam, ostensibly to discuss the issue of Korea's reunification.
Kim Young Sam surprised the world by announcing in January 1990 that his Reunification Democracy Party would join President Roh Tae Woo's ruling Democratic Justice Party and one other opposition party, Kim Jong Pil's New Democratic Republican Party, to create a new conservative majority party in the National Assembly. This new ruling party, under the name of the Democratic Liberal Party, would resemble Japan's Liberal Democratic Party in terms of providing stability for the conservative ruling coalition in National Assembly. In his capacity as one of the three party chairmen, Kim led a delegation to Moscow in March 1990, ostensibly to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union to upgrade Seoul's trade liaison office into the more expanded consulate general's office in Moscow.
Kim was elected president of South Korea in the December 18, 1992 elections. He was formally installed as president in February 1993. At his inauguration, Kim promptly blamed his predecessors for the country's problems, stating "misconduct and corruption are the most terrifying enemies attacking the foundations of our society." (Time, March 8, 1993, p. 19). In March of that same year, he formed a new cabinet, naming former dissidents and women to posts. He continued to follow through on his anti-corruption campaign, as more than 1,000 bureaucrats and politicians were fired or forced to resign by mid-1993.
South Koreans quickly realized that they did not get the president they elected, with many believing Kim was "too radical for the country's good." (The Economist, September 11, 1993). On December 21, 1993, Kim again "shook things up," as he replaced 14 of 24 cabinet ministers. By 1996, public disfavor with Kim affected the outcome of the National Assembly elections.
By law, Kim cannot succeed himself when his five-year presidential term ends in late 1997. Kim planned to keep some form and power and work behind the scenes in South Korean government. But as the scandals surfaced in mid-1997, including Kim's son Kim Hyun Chul being arrested and charged with tax evasion, Kim's future in South Korean government was doubtful. The president who had promised to investigate and address political corruption, now found himself implicated for the very same crimes.
Further Reading on Kim Young Sam
Additional information on Kim Young Sam can be found in Ilpyong J. Kim and Young Whan Kihl, editors, Political Change in South Korea (1988).
Other information on Kim Young Sam can be found in Far Eastern Economic Review (January 7, 1993; March 11, 1993; and December 30, 1993); U.S. News & World Report (July 12, 1993 and January 27, 1997); The Economist (April 5, 1997 and May 24, 1997); and World Press Review (July 1997).