Kim was elected to the National Assembly in 1954 as a member of South Korean President Syngman Rhee's Liberal Party but soon rebelled against Rhee's increasingly dictatorial rule. Kim then helped found the opposition Democratic Party in 1955. As an opposition leader, he was an outspoken critic of the South Korean government yet remained undaunted by the oppression that often accompanied his position. A family tragedy in 1960, in which his mother was killed by an agent of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), shielded him from the Red-baiting commonly used against opposition politicians. His establishment roots and relatively moderate political views also made him acceptable to middle- and upper-class members of Korean society. Kim was elected to head the New Democratic Party in 1974 and again in 1978. In 1987 he was chosen to head the Unification Democratic Party.
Discouraged by his defeat in the 1987 presidential election, Kim joined President Roh Tae-woo's ruling party in 1990. After many years as a political dissident opposed to military rule, Kim finally won election to the presidency in December 1992 as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party, then the government political party. He took office in February 1993. He was the first civilian president since the military coup that overthrew the democratic government of John M. Chang in May 1961.
Kim was not well equipped to handle South Korean–U.S. relations or the new opportunities for reconciliation with North Korea. Like many South Koreans, whose sentiments toward North Korea in the early 1990s were a complicated mixture of kinship, disdain, and fear, the president's views were replete with inconsistencies. Kim alternated between taking a hard line against North Korea, calculated to bring about its early collapse, and pursuing an accommodation to bring about a "soft landing," leading to a gradual unification. Because he usually pursued the former and often collided with the United States, which favored the latter, South Korean–U.S. relations were tense during his term of office. Kim has also been blamed for the collapse of the South Korean economy during the East Asian financial crisis. As a result, South Korea had to resort to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout that many South Koreans viewed as a national humiliation. Kim left office in February 1998.
Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Revised and updated ed. New York: Basic Books, 2002.