SEOUL, SEPT. 28 -- Kim Jong Pil, one of the most powerful men in South Korea until he was forced to retire in disgrace seven years ago, announced today that he will attempt a political comeback, increasing the likelihood that this country's first genuine presidential election in 16 years will be a four-way contest.

Kim stopped short of formally announcing his candidacy today. But, before 3,000 cheering supporters lofting balloons bearing his likeness, the former prime minister announced the formation of a new political party and made his intentions clear.

Kim's candidacy is viewed as a decided longshot, but as a dominant figure in South Korean politics for much of the past three decades, he cannot be discounted. Even if he cannot win, Kim could play an unpredictable role in what may be a four-way race, perhaps taking enough votes from ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo to deny him victory.

"I am going to bare my soul to the people," Kim, 61, said during an interview in his home after the rally. "I only want to receive a fair hearing, an honest judgment, from the people."

Since he was humiliated by Roh and the other relatively junior officers who took power in a 1980 coup, Kim has been the "third Kim" of South Korean politics, far less a presence than opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. As a lieutenant colonel in 1961, Kim Jong Pil helped engineer an earlier coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power and then served as Park's second-in-command for much of his nearly two decades of rule.

The two other Kims have been jockeying for leadership of the opposition movement since widespread demonstrations in June forced the government to agree to direct presidential elections, now set for December.

{Despite promises from both Kims that one would defer to the other by Wednesday, they failed in a meeting Tuesday to agree on who should be the candidate. Spokesmen said no further meetings had been scheduled. Both factions are laying the groundwork for presidential campaigns.}

Either of the opposition Kims would be aided by a Kim Jong Pil candidacy, which would appeal to many of the same conservative voters that Roh hopes to attract, according to many politicians here.

Such a matchup, in South Korea's unique political landscape, would feature not only different philosophies but an emotional confrontation among four leaders whose careers have been linked through decades of coups and countercoups, jail terms and death sentences.

Kim Jong Pil, who is married to Park's niece, created and became the first director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which eventually became Park's chief weapon of control. Kim also created the Democratic Republican Party, which gave some political legitimacy to Park's increasingly authoritarian rule during the 1970s.

When Park was assassinated by a later KCIA chief in 1979, Kim emerged as a likely successor. But Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan and his allies in the officer corps, including then-general Roh, took power in a coup the following year and denounced Kim for alleged corruption.

Kim was forced to hand over $36 million, which he said today came from legitimate party funds but which the Chun regime called ill-gotten personal wealth. He also was banned from politics until 1985.

The two other Kims also were banned or jailed, but they continued to struggle more than Kim Jong Pil against the Chun government. Kim Jong Pil acknowledged in the interview today that he had taken fewer risks for democracy than the other two Kims under the Chun regime, but he said that should not disqualify him.

"It's not proper to compare my silence and the actions of the two Kims," he said. "We are at the threshold of democracy because of the fervent wishes of all Korean people, including myself."

Kim also declined to apologize for his actions during the Park regime. His continued popularity in some circles reflects South Koreans' ambivalence about that period. Park ruled with increasing ruthlessness, jailing opponents, cracking down on the press and tolerating little dissent, but his regime also brought South Korea from almost hopeless poverty into the industrial age.

"We were trying to create something out of nothing, and in order to achieve something from the barren soil, we had to concentrate on the process," he said, referring to the 1960s. "And in the process, unintentionally, we might have infringed upon human rights."

When Park cracked down more firmly in 1973, Kim said, he tried as prime minister to moderate Park's steps "within the very narrow leeway allowed to me . . . . I was trying to put a brake on."

Kim, who comes from a central province, can also present himself as a compromise candidate to calm regional tensions between South Korea's prosperous eastern provinces, home to Roh and Kim Young Sam, and Kim Dae Jung's traditionally neglected home province in the west.

It remains unclear whether Kim Jong Pil can appeal to people beyond his own region, the prosperous middle class and the older generation. Nearly 60 percent of this nation's voters are under 40, with little attachment to the dark side or the accomplishments of the Park-Kim Jong Pil era.