Kim Ki-choon (김기춘) is probably the most reviled figure in South Korea right now. He is more reviled than Choi Soon-sil, who is still a mysterious figure to most Koreans. Kim Ki-choon, however, has been a known quantity for many years. Kim has a long history of being involved in misdeeds: railroading innocent suspects; red baiting; making false accusations and accepting bribes from corporations; planting rumors designed to embarrass political foes, etc. To fully explain what Kim represents for South Koreans, it requires some history lessons and a background on President Park, particularly her deceased parents — the late strongman Park Chung-hee and his wife Yook Young-soo.
Kim Ki-choon, 78, served as President Park’s chief of staff from August 2013 to February 2015. He was the oldest person to ever serve in that capacity. He has long ties to the Park family. Kim in fact was the 34-year old prosecutor who interrogated and wrangled a confession out of Moon Se-kwang in 1974 — Moon is the Japan-born Korean assassin who aimed for Park Chung-hee but killed his wife instead. Park Chung-hee, who survived the assassination attempt, became very fond of Kim, calling him “Kim Smarty Pants(김똘똘)“. This grainy video shows the assassination of Yook Young-soo and the capture of the Japan-born Korean suspect, Moon.
Here is Kim Ki-choon back in the early 1970s, justifying Park Chung-hee’s ‘Yusin‘(유신) regime. Yusin refers to Park’s infamous ‘power grab‘ in October 1972 that turned the country into an authoritarian state. In a series of moves which ended with him assuming dictatorial powers, Park revised the constitution, declared martial law, closed universities and suspended civil liberties. Kim was then a 32-year old prosecutor who explained the rationale for Yusin thus: “Yusin will implement the type of democracy that is most appropriate and realistic for Korea. We Koreans support President Park’s measures to rescue this country from dangers which threaten its existence.” [Emphases added.]
Kim was the architect who drafted revisions to the constitution that legalized Yusin. As a fervent advocate for Park Chung-hee, the young prosecutor went on to enjoy a long career in law and politics. For 6 years, he worked for the Korean CIA (now called the National Intelligence Service), investigating ‘communist subversion.’ In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kim served as South Korea’s attorney general and justice minister in the Roh Tae-woo administration. Afterwards, he served 3 terms as an elected member of the Saenuri(새누리) Party — then known as Hannarah(한나라) and before that New Korea(신한국) — representing his hometown of Geoje(거제) in south Gyung-Sahng. Kim even served as South Korea’s baseball commissioner in the mid-’90s.
Kim in his younger days: fighting 'communist subversion' was his role at the Korean CIA but he specialized in framing student demonstrators.
Kim, however, has been embroiled in many dubious incidents. Immediately after Park’s mom, Yook Young-soo, was assassinated, Kim rounded up 21 Japan-born Koreans enrolled at colleges in Seoul. These were for the most part students involved in demonstrations against Park Chung-hee and Yusin. But Kim accused them of being North Korean spies. Since Yook’s assassin was an ethnic Korean from Japan, focusing on this ethnic group was somewhat understandable. However, it was determined that the incident was largely manufactured by the Korean CIA and 16 out of the 21 were cleared of all charges later.
Most Japan-born Korean students accused by Kim to be North Korean spies were cleared of all charges, like Kim Won-joong below.
As attorney general in 1989, Kim led the prosecution of packaged foods maker Samyang, which manufactured South Korea’s best selling ramen brand at the time. At one point, Samyang enjoyed 95% of the instant noodle market. Kim accused the company of using beef tallow (that is, beef fat) used in industrial processing to manufacture its ramens. The term ‘industrial processing’ was a misnomer, however, and the animal fat was later determined to be completely harmless. But consumers began to shun the brand and the bad publicity put Samyang on the brink of bankruptcy. Soon, competitors started eating Samyang’s lunch in the instant food market, literally.
Samyang's marketshare was 95% in South Korea before Kim, then AG, accused the company of using 'industrial-purpose' beef tallow. Kim then became counsel to another noodle manufacturer, Nongshim, but never showed up for work.
— 인리얼리티뉴 #민주행동 (@inrealitynew) November 25, 2016
One such competitor happened to be Nongshim, another ramen manufacturer. After leaving his AG position, Kim set up his own law office. However, before he did that (or perhaps in need of seed money to go solo), Kim was hired as Nongshim’s in-house counsel. The curious thing, however, was that Kim never even reported to work while collecting paychecks, leading many to believe he was accepting bribes from the company for what he had done as AG.
There are so many incidents in which Kim is suspected of either having railroaded innocent suspects or agitated to take bribes from corporations. When he headed the justice ministry under Roh Tae-woo, Kim prosecuted a student, Kang Ki-Hoon, for instigating his friend to commit suicide and then writing a fake suicide note to publicize the incident. Kang served a 3-year sentence. At the time, student activists protested the Roh Tae-woo regime by setting themselves on fire to commit suicide — it was considered a form of ‘martyrdom’ by student demonstrators. This became a huge social issue and Roh put pressure on his legal hands to prevent these dramatic suicides. However, Kang was later found to be innocent and the supposedly fake note was proven to be authentic through handwriting analysis. It is suspected that Kim railroaded Kang to set an example and to stop such incidents from spreading.
Kang Ki-hoon explains that prosecutors deliberately railroaded him by ignoring evidence.
While working as President Park’s chief of staff, Kim needed no encouragement to engage in mudslinging. Immediately after Park was elected in 2012, the National Intelligence Service (the NIS) was embroiled in a scandal that it tried to manipulate public opinion. The NIS directed its own and part-time employees to write comments favorable to Park in Internet portals and publications during the election season. For some Koreans, this NIS involvement questioned the legitimacy of the 2012 election won by Park Geun-hye.
As Park’s chief of staff and an old NIS hand, Kim carried out his own method of damage control. He directed a counterattack against Chae Dong-wook, the attorney general (AG) investigating the scandal. Kim took part in planting a rumor that the AG’s mistress gave birth to a lovechild — it has not been determined whether the rumor is true or not and, even if it is, how it is relevant to the investigation. However, Kim succeeded in making the AG resign — this enabled Kim to prevent the damage from spiraling out of control and preserve Park’s election win.
Chae Dong-wook had to resign as AG prosecuting the NIS scandal after a rumor surfaced that he fathered a lovechild with his mistress. Kim, an old NIS hand, is suspected of taking part in planting the rumor.
Kim is also suspected of having received bribes from several corporations and individuals. In 2015, an elected member of Saenuri and CEO of Keangnam Enterprises hanged himself after he became embroiled in a scandal that took place under the Lee Myung-bak administration. President Lee had called for investing in countries that have plentiful national resources but lack the infrastructure or means to extract them — countries such as Uzbekistan, Madagascar, Bolivia, etc. For those who are not aware, South Korea is an industrialized country but has no extractable natural resources to speak of.
How former president Lee Myung-bak's proposed diplomacy with resource-rich countries (자원외교) went kaput and a scandal instead erupted
The idea was to support companies making foreign investments in such resource-rich countries by providing government funds and loans. However, it turned out that most investments made were worthless and some of the funds were misdirected and squandered. Seong Wan-jong was the CEO of Keangnam that was involved in several such foreign ventures whose funds could not be traced. When the misuse of government funds erupted in a scandal, Seong hanged himself — some conspiracy-minded people believe that his suicide was staged and he was actually murdered. But Seong left a memo in his pocket with a list of eight names and amounts given out as bribes. The list included Kim Ki-choon, who received $100,000. Once again, Kim denied all knowledge and was not prosecuted as investigation into Seong’s death stalled and the memo was not accepted as evidence.
Seong Wan-jong hanged himself and his suicide note revealed a list of 8 names and how much in bribes was paid to each -- $100,000 for Kim Ki-choon.
To many South Koreans, Kim Ki-choon is a familiar, unsavory figure who has long been involved in political subterfuge. He held some powerful positions and was embroiled in numerous misdeeds involving abuses of power. But until now, he managed to avoid being arrested due to his ability to outsmart prosecutors — he typically issues a full denial and then uses his legal and NIS connections to outmaneuver them. If Ban Ki-moon’s nickname is “slippery eel(기름장어),” Kim Ki-choon’s moniker is “legal slippery eel (법꾸라지).”
Roy Cohn is the first Westerner that comes to mind when thinking of Kim and his exploits. As Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, the late Cohn aided and abetted McCarthy’s red-baiting crusade by aggressively questioning suspected communists. Like Kim, Cohn railroaded innocent suspects by framing them as Soviet spies and communist subversives. But the eerie similarity extends to Kim’s practice of immediately issuing full and categorical denial whenever he’s accused of anything.
Kim Ki-choon is probably the Roy Cohn of South Korea.
Many people do not realize that Cohn used to be Donald Trump’s mentor until his death in 1986. According to Alan Dershowitz, Cohn taught Trump the following lessons: “Never apologize, never back down, never admit you were wrong, use every means possible toward achieving your ends.” Kim would have said the exact same thing.