Kim Young Sam, 1927-2015

November 24, 2015 7:00 AM

Kim Young Sam had a long political career that included unexpectedly bold resistance to the Park and Chun regimes, particularly in the wake of the YH Incident in 1979 when he was forced out of the Yushin National Assembly. He tacked to the right following the election of 1987, in which he and Kim Dae Jung split the presidential vote, catapulting Roh Tae Woo into office. This move ultimately took him to the presidency (1993-98). Once in office, he is known for a number of democratic reforms that had lasting effect on Korean democracy. These included a purge of the Hanahoe—a secret society within the military--and implementation of the “real name” deposit system (silmyongje), which wrung some of the large-scale corruption that had developed under Presidents Chun and Roh out of the system. In one of his boldest strokes, he had both Chun and Roh indicted on mutiny and treason charges. Although later pardoned, the pictures of Chun and Roh in prison garb are iconic. Although not known for his interest in economic policy, he did launch a segyehwa or globalization campaign, steered Korea through the Uruguay Round negotiations and secured its membership in the OECD. Yonhap's obituary focuses on his political career.

Kim Young Sam’s legacy with respect to North-South relations is more ambiguous; in Avoiding the Apocalypse, Marc Noland recounts the story which I update with some information from Kim Young Sam’s memoir and a closer focus on the domestic political zig-zags.

The resumption in 1993 of the “Team Spirit” joint military exercises by the US and South Korea was characterized as a dress rehearsal for invasion by the North and fed into the unfolding nuclear crisis. In its aftermath, an attempt by lame duck South Korean President Roh Tae Woo to improve relations with the North—his so-called Nordpolitik—was undercut by the South Korean Agency for National Security Planning and the presidential campaign staff of Kim Young Sam, who regarded a reduction of tension as inimical to his electoral interests. In 1990, YS had unexpectedly merged his Democratic Reunification Party with Roh's ruling Democratic Justice Party to form the Democratic Liberal Party, later the Grand National Party and now the Saenuri.

Once in office, KYS complicated the Clinton administration efforts to negotiate with the North Koreans. Then as the crisis entered its most intense phase in June 1994, and the Clinton administration moved military assets as a signal to the North, KYS was forced to step back. In his memoir, he claims that he restrained Clinton, arguing that a Northern attack on the South—an unlikely event—would have been catastrophic. In fact, it was KYS who blinked.

The crisis was ultimately defused by Jimmy Carter’s parachuting into Pyongyang, a move that left the Clinton White House fuming. In an expansive mood, Kim Il Sung suggested that he and Carter repair to Kim’s yacht to celebrate their accomplishment. During the boat trip on the Taedong River, Kim announced that he was willing to meet South Korean president Kim Young Sam unconditionally, and, under the prodding of his wife, Sohn Myung Soon, agreed to Carter’s proposal for the establishment of joint US-North Korea teams to search for the remains of US servicemen missing in action from the Korean War.

On 7 July 1994, after conducting an on-the-spot inspection of a collective farm, Kim Il Sung suffered a massive heart attack and died. Kim Young Sam mishandled the death diplomatically, contributing to worsening relations between the North and South. With the untested Kim Jong Il now at the helm, plans for the summit were postponed indefinitely. Moreover, given the younger Kim’s reputation for ill-health and bizarre behavior and emerging signs of deepening economic distress and famine, the nuclear negotiations were evaluated under the assumption that the lifetime of the Kim regime could be measured in months, if not weeks. Kim Young Sam bought in strongly to the collapsist rhetoric of the time.

However, concerns about a prospective North Korean collapse and a sudden German-style unification led to some efforts to open North-South economic relations and could thus be seen as a precursor of Kim Dae Jung’s “separation of politics and economics” approach to the North. In November 1994, President Kim Young Sam announced a significant easing of restrictions on South Korean firms’ activities in the North. The North Korean government's response was ferocious, publicly blasting Kim as an "abominable flunkeyist traitor", "puppet of imperialists", and "dyed-in-the-wool pro-American stooge." Nonetheless, starved for foreign exchange the North tolerated the moves.

The result was a flurry of private activity. According to calculations done by Gordon Flake at the time, at the end of 1998, 40 South Korean firms had been given permission to explore business in the North.  Only 15 of these had received approval for their proposed ventures, and virtually none of it materialized. Nonetheless, it showed both the pent-up demand and follow-the-leader nature of such activity in the South. Daewoo announced plans to build a seven factory industrial park in Nampo. Lucky Goldstar accepted in principle (subject to South Korean government approval) an offer to take over the management of the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Works, the largest in North Korea. The South Korean government granted permission to six firms to go to North Korea to discuss possible investments.  Ssangyong announced that it would begin importing cement from North Korea, the first direct North-South trade deal and one that opened the door for smaller importers. Samsung announced plans to start buying electronics parts and to build an electronics plant in the Rajin-Sonbong SEZ. Shinawon, a textile maker, announced plans to set a garment factory in Nampo. In May 1995, the South Korean government approved the first joint venture with the North since the Second World War, a Daewoo-Samchonri venture to produce garments and bags in Nampo. In January 1996, the Seoul government scrapped the $5 million limit on investments in the North, and subsequently allowed several large South Korean firms to establish larger operations. This move was widely interpreted as an attempt to induce the North Koreans to participate in the Four Party Talks, a diplomatic negotiation among North Korea, South Korea, China, and the US aimed at securing a stable basis for peace on the peninsula. Ultimately, it would take the Kim Dae Jung government to actually get such initiatives going.

Relations were soured in part by a major fracas over food aid. In May 1995 KYS made an unconditional offer of food assistance to the North. As the food situation worsened, North Korea turned to Japan, its former colonial master, presumably because Japan had substantial reserves in its grain stocks. In addition, it might have been seen as less humiliating to accept assistance from Japan (which could be portrayed as a kind of reparations) than from rival South Korea (which had smaller reserves, in any event). This overture to Japan was opposed by the KYS administration, whose Deputy Prime Minister Woong Bae Rha warned Japan of "soured relations" if Japan were to provide aid in the absence of South Korean participation.

Eventually agreement was reached that South Korea and Japan would jointly provide assistance to North Korea. According to the plan, South Korea would provide North Korea with 150,000 tons of rice in unmarked bags, while Japan would provide 150,000 tons gratis and another 150,000 tons on concessional terms. (Eventually Japan would provide 500,000 tons in total.) Observers expected this deal to improve relations not only among North Korea and the donors, but also between North Korea and the US, which had made improved North-South ties a condition of closer diplomatic relations. KYS predicted that the rice deal would pave the way for the planned summit meeting which had been shelved by the death of Kim Il Sung the previous year.

This optimism was soon put to rest with the delivery of the first shipload of South Korean rice. The North Korean authorities, in contravention of the agreement, forced the ship upon entering the harbor to fly a North Korean flag, and later detained the crew of another relief vessel, charging them with spying. The outrage in South Korea was predictable, and the Kim Young Sam administration, which had earlier indicated a willingness to purchase rice on the international market if additional assistance were necessary, now spoke instead of the impossibility of providing additional rice until the government purchase of the domestic crop was completed for the year. The North Koreans quickly apologized for the incident, which was interpreted in at least some quarters as an indication of their state of desperation. But the damage had been done and the KYS government even went so far as trying to persuade other countries not to provide additional assistance. The administration also conditioned any further assistance to the North on the opening of bilateral talks. Progress was made on this front in the summer of 1997, when South Korea reversed its stance and began providing additional aid as it became apparent that the seriousness of the situation in North Korea was not abating. But it took the broader, more strategic approach of the Kim Dae Jung government to ultimately forge the breakthrough leading to the 2000 summit.

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