Kim Jong-pil, political kingmaker in South Korea, dies at 92

SEOUL — Kim Jong-pil, a two-time South Korean prime minister who helped engineer a military coup, founded the country’s intelligence agency, and facilitated the rise of three presidents, but who never managed to win the presidency himself, died Saturday in Seoul, the capital. He was 92.

Mr. Kim’s death was announced by his family and by the South Korean government. He had been taken to Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital in Seoul early Saturday after having difficulty breathing and was pronounced dead on arrival. No specific cause was given.

Mr. Kim was the last of the “Three Kims,” as they were universally known in South Korea. The trio — including two presidents, Kim Young-sam, who died in 2015; and Kim Dae-jung, who died in 2009 — dominated national politics for decades, notably during the country’s turbulent transformation from military dictatorship to vibrant democracy.


A suave, witty deal-maker, Kim Jong-pil stood out from the other two Kims, both of whom were known for being fiery and headstrong. He was the original kingmaker in South Korea’s fractured, regionally based political system, in which parties were dispersed and realigned at their leaders’ whims.

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Mr. Kim had little in common ideologically or in political background with the other two Kims, both of whom were dissidents during military rule. To become president, each had to form an alliance with Mr. Kim, who had decades earlier played a central role in bringing the generals to power.

Mr. Kim was elected to parliament nine times, a record. He helped create, and lead, four political parties. He was prime minister, the second-highest position in the government, from 1971 to 1975. Twenty-three years later, in 1998, he assumed the post again, becoming the first person to hold the job twice.

But the presidency always eluded Mr. Kim, who was widely known as “the perpetual No. 2.”

“I don’t even step on the shadow of the president,” he once quipped, a remark that both encapsulated his runner-up status and helped explain his political longevity.


Kim Jong-pil was born in 1926 in Buyeo, a town in the central region of Chungcheong. He was the fifth of seven children, all boys; their father was a scholar in Chinese philosophy and a low-ranking government official.

Mr. Kim graduated from the national military academy in 1948, two years before the outbreak of the Korean War, in which he served as an intelligence officer. He became a friend of Park Chung-hee, a fellow army officer who, in 1961, would seize control of the country in a military coup.

Mr. Kim, who had married a niece of Park’s, was deeply involved in both the planning of the coup and the management of the dictatorship, which lasted 18 years. Mr. Kim was the founding director of the infamous Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which buttressed Park’s rule through arbitrary arrests and the torture of dissidents.

Under Park, Mr. Kim also left an indelible mark on South Korean foreign affairs.

He helped broker a deal in 1965 that established diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan, which had ruled Korea as a colony for decades until Tokyo’s defeat in World War II.


As part of that agreement, Mr. Kim helped secure free grants and cheap loans from Japan. Park’s regime used the money to build factories and highways, laying the groundwork for South Korea’s rapid evolution from war-torn agrarian country to export powerhouse.