Sung Kim, the American
By Kim Heung-sook
Informed readers may heave a sigh of disapproval as soon as they see my headline, but there is a justifiable reason to reiterate this simple truth. Do I assume that my readers don’t know Sung Kim is the U.S. ambassador-designate to Korea who just finished a confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate? No. I am well aware that my readers know the fact.
Still, I feel the need to reaffirm Kim’s American identity because the career diplomat happens to have a Korean background and many people in the nation seem to regard him as half-Korean even if they know him as the U.S. ambassador-designate. If this perception persists unchecked, Kim may have a hard time doing his job as the top American official stationed in Seoul and the warm-hearted yet wishful-thinking Koreans may suffer a boomerang effect of disappointment before long.
Ever since he became the U.S.’s special envoy for the six-party talks on July 31, 2008, Kim drew the keenest attention from the Korean public owing to his ties with the nation. Of course, the six-party talks mean the multi-national negotiations to resolve North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue. The six participants are South and North Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
Internet portal sites are flooded with information about Kim and his family, particularly his deceased father, Jae-kwon Kim. In sum, Sung Kim was born in Korea in 1960 as Kim Sung-yong and attended an elementary school in Seoul. When he was a third-grader, his family moved to Japan as his father was assigned to work at the Korean Embassy in Tokyo. After the senior Kim resigned as a minister at the embassy following his implication in the 1973 kidnapping of the late President Kim Dae-jung, the family immigrated to America ― that was 35 years ago. Whether the senior Kim sympathized with the late President is not clearly known.
Sung Kim became a U.S. citizen in 1980. He graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. and Loyola Law School with a J.D. He did his master’s degree at the London School of Economics. Before joining the Foreign Service, Kim worked as a public prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. As a Foreign Service official, he worked as staff assistant in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs in Washington D.C., and as the chief of political military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He later served in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. From August 2006 through July 2008, he was the director at the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. State Department.
His biography leaves no room to doubt his American identity. His designation as ambassador to Korea testifies to the firmness of his loyalty to his adoptive country. Top diplomats are plain-clothes warriors ready to fight for their national interests in a war without guns but of negotiations and wrangling.
For all this overwhelming proof telling who and what Sung Kim is, more than a few Koreans tend to view him as one of them and the mass media encourages, if not masterminds, this tendency. As my journalist friend Kwon Tae-sun pointed out, the media refers to him as ``성 김” not ``성 킴” in Korean. As is well-known, ``Kim,” the most popular surname here, is written ``김” in Korean whereas ``Kim” in foreign, e.g. American, names is spelled ``킴.” Therefore, ``Kim” in Kim Dae-jung is written ``김” whereas ``Kim” in Kim Basinger is transcribed into ``킴.” Accordingly, Sung Kim should be identified as ``성 킴” not ``성 김” in the Korean press.
After the Senate hearing on July 21, a Korean journalist asked Kim in Korean how he felt and Kim responded in English. The journalist openly wondered why Kim used English despite his good command of Korean: ``The reason must be either because he thought when he publicly speaks, it would be safer for him to speak in English in which he is more fluent, or because he wanted to affirm that he is not a Korean but the U.S. ambassador.” I am glad the journalist figured out why, though late.
If Kim’s nomination is confirmed and he comes here to lead the 575-member mission, I would welcome him not because he is a Korean-American but because I believe he is a competent diplomat based on my brief working encounter with him back in the early 2000s. I have my own expectations of him and the most important is the hope that he will offer a new perspective to Korean-Koreans about blood ties. I hope he will encourage my fellow citizens to drop the last remaining ``idols of the tribe” by preempting any attempt to seek ``brotherly” favors and by abstaining from doing the same.
Although the world has changed inside out over the past five centuries since Francis Bacon warned against these idols, they still wield power over some people as proven by the terrorist attacks in Norway last week. By the time Sung Kim ends his assignment here, I hope, more Koreans will understand that the words ``blood ties” apply not only to the people of a nation but to the entire human race through whose arteries and veins flow the liquid called blood.