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Politics

South Korean ex-premier's life spanned economic miracle

Kim Jong-pil, spy chief and negotiator of treaty with Japan, dies at age 92

Kim Jong-pil during his second stint as South Korea's prime minister from 1998 to 2000.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The death of former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil marks the end of an era in South Korea, whose transition from dictatorship to democracy and poverty to prosperity he saw from the front lines.

The former soldier, who died on Saturday at the age of 92, was one of the "three Kims" who influenced South Korean politics for decades.

When he saw free-spirited San Francisco while attending military school in 1951, during the Korean War, Kim vowed to some day build a country like that in his homeland, he would later recall.

At the time, Koreans remained in abject poverty, having just emerged from decades of Japanese rule. Families ate by candlelight amid frequent blackouts, eating meager bowls of rice. Kim became convinced that freedom and democracy were impossible without a strong economy.

In 1961, Kim helped lead a military coup that brought strongman Park Chung-hee to power. He created South Korea's spy agency and became its chief.

As Park's right-hand man, Kim advanced a domestically controversial restoration of diplomatic ties with Japan. This saw him travel to Tokyo in 1962 for two meetings at which he drove a hard bargain with Masayoshi Ohira, Japan's foreign minister at the time, over the economic aid that would stand in lieu of South Korean compensation claims.

In the end, the two men -- Kim being only 36 at the time -- exchanged a memorandum outlining $300 million in grants and $200 million in loans that became the basis for their countries' 1965 treaty, ending 14 years of negotiations. 

Kim Jong-pil, pictured at left as chief of South Korea's intelligence agency, drove a hard bargain with Masayoshi Ohira, Japan's foreign minister at the time, in Tokyo in 1962.   © Kyodo

The money helped build steel mills, expressways and other infrastructure that drove the rapid economic growth later known as the Miracle on the Han River. Kim thus helped lay the foundation for South Korea's status today as one of the world's leading high-tech economies.

In 1973, he  returned to Japan, this time carrying a letter of apology from Park for the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel as he was organizing a movement to restore South Korean democracy. The clandestine operation became a diplomatic incident between the two countries.

Kim Jong-pil's own political career never took himto South Korea's highest office. As he was preparing to run for the presidency as Park's successor, the strongman arranged a constitutional amendment in 1969 that enabled him to win a third term. Kim was cast out of the ruling party.

Kim became prime minister under Park in 1971, and again in 1998 after supporting the presidential bid of Kim Dae-jung, but the two men were not on good terms. 

Including Kim Young-sam, who in 1993 became the country's first civilian leader in more than three decades, Kim Jong-pil died the only one of the "three Kims" not to be elected president.

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