Kim Young-sam formally ended decades of military rule in his homeland in the 1990s. Kim won his first term in parliament in 1954, starting a political career that lasted decades. Kim earned credit for exposing the wrongdoings of past military governments and for helping democracy take root in South Korea. As a key opposition figure, Kim first sought the presidency in 1987, in South Korea's first free, direct presidential election. But he split that opposition vote with another activist, Kim Dae-jung, allowing Roh Tae-woo to win the election.
Kim Young-sam was born 20 December 1927 on Geoje Island off the south coast. He studied philosophy at Seoul National University and graduated in 1952. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he set his sights on a political career and was elected to the National Assembly in 1954. In all, he served nine terms as a representative for constituencies in Geoje and Busan.
Biographies of male achievers in Korea depict fathers asy peripheral figures from whom they receive values and direction in life but little by way of affection. That comes from the mother, whose sacrifices for the family, when recalled can reduce even the hardest nuts to tears. Kim Young-sam’s mother was shot and killed in 1960 by North Korean infiltrators who broke into the family house, apparently looking for money.
After the dictator Park Chung-hee tightened his grip on power with a revised constitution in 1972, Kim emerged as a new-generation opposition leader along with Kim Dae-jung (who would succeed him as president) and Lee Chul-seung. As head of the New Democratic Party Kim refused to compromise with the ruling Democratic Republican Party and openly criticized the dictatorship, which was a criminal offense under the new Constitution.
New Democratic Party (NDP) Vice President Kim Young Sam was the boldest NDP leader. On 17 December 1974 he referred to Park's assumption of martial law powers as "second coup d' etat to build up dictatorial rule". Kim called for restoration of democracy through dissolution of KCIA, etc. His remarks marked the first full endorsement by the NDP of student and Christian protests of the previous two months, and Kim promised specifically to seek closer ties with them. His proposals matched student demands. His stand went beyond the demonstrators' slogans in attacking Park directly and in defining constitutional revisions to restore legislative and civil rights.
Tensions exploded in August 1979 when Kim allowed protesting women workers at a wig company to use his party’s headquarters for their sit-in. Hundreds of police assaulted the building and arrested the workers, killing one and badly beating several lawmakers. In the process, one female worker died and many lawmakers trying to protect them were severely beaten. The court then ordered Kim to step down as president of the New Democratic Party and he responded by calling on the United States to withdraw its backing of the Korean dictatorship.
In October 1979, Park had Kim expelled from the National Assembly. Washington recalled its ambassador, all lawmakers of Kim’s party resigned from the Assembly, and riots erupted in Kim’s home base of Busan. Thirty police stations were torched and protests spread to the adjacent industrial city of Masan in what became the biggest anti-government protest of Park’s 18-year rule. Then on 26 October 1979, during an argument over how to handle the protesters, KCIA Director Kim Jae-kyu shot and killed President Park.
After a brief period known as the “Seoul Spring,” when the country was effectively leaderless and protesters voiced their opinions on the streets, Kim Young-sam was the most likely contender as the next president. However, when Gen. Chun Doo-hwan seized power, he placed Kim under house arrest and then banned him and his party from political activity for eight years.
The house arrest was lifted in June 1983 after Kim went on hunger strike. In 1985, he teamed up with the faction of Kim Dae-jung to present a unified opposition force. In the following year, their new political party made a surprising showing in National Assembly elections and then began to push vigorously for constitutional reform to allow for Chun’s successor to be democratically elected in 1987.
The opposition, however, failed in this effort. The country was by this time weary of the endless student protests and opposition antics and sick of the tear gas that wafted over Seoul every day and hung in the underpasses. It was only a call by religious leaders for nationwide protests that brought the middle class out for the first time. Chun then had to take note. Rather than ruin the next year’s Seoul Olympics, he conceded.
Kim shocked many supporters by “crossing the floor” and joining Roh’s ruling camp. He merged his Reunification Democratic Party with Roh’s Democratic Justice Party to form the Democratic Liberal Party. As its candidate in the December 1992 election, he won and took office in February the following year.
Kim established firm civilian control over the military and launched reforms to eliminate political corruption and abuse of power. As this process unfolded, he was powerless to prevent his predecessors, Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan, and several business leaders, from being prosecuted for their 1979 mutiny and the murderous crackdown on protests in Gwangju in 1980, and for other abuses.
The pro-democracy activist, who served as president from 1993 to 1998, was an outspoken opponent of the country's previous military rulers. In 1993, he inaugurated South Korea's first civilian government since the country's democratization in 1987. Kim's administration enacted a special law to prosecute leaders involved in a military coup. Upon taking office, he had two predecessors indicted on treason and mutiny charges stemming from a 1979 coup. He later pardoned the two convicted military strongmen, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo.
As president, Kim was credited with launching a popular anti-corruption campaign, an effort later tarnished by the arrest and conviction of his son on bribery and tax evasion charges. Kim’s popularity plunged as the end of his term approached. Popular disappointment with leaders that people were now free to criticize was fueled by endless corruption scandals, which even saw his own son jailed.
Kim sought to enact sweeping economic reforms. the performance of his own administration was less than stellar. The economy fared poorly, problems with KIA Motors precipitated the Asian economic crisis. On the eve of his term in late 1997, Korea was swamped by the financial crisis that swept through Southeast and East Asia. His government sought bailout protection from the International Monetary Fund at the depth of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. As people went to the polls in December that year, the country was almost bankrupt.
Former President Kim Young-sam, in a 24 September 2009 lunch with the Ambassador, said President Lee Myung-bak's insistence on reciprocity in South-North relations was correct and that we should be prepared for every possibility as the DPRK navigates a difficult power transition.
Kim Young-sam died 22 November 2015. He was 87 years old. Kim was hospitalized Thursday with a high fever and a severe blood infection, after suffering bouts of ill health in recent years. Kim died at a hospital in Seoul.
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