A return to South Korea, thwarted by nationalism

I was honored recently to be asked by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to lead a new wing of the government. She confided to me that although I was a U.S. citizen, I had the right experience and the know-how to launch the Ministry of Science, Information, Communication, Technology and Future Planning. We would be charged with bringing about a paradigm shift in Korea’s economy.

On Feb. 12, I put aside my life and flew to Seoul to accept this challenge.

On March 4, I withdrew my candidacy when it became abundantly clear that the current political and business environment would impede me — an outsider — from carrying out the mission of this ministry.

Never having had a serious interest in politics, I was a bit naive in making my initial decision. Change-resistant forces in the political and bureaucratic circles and certain business spheres naturally raised objections to my candidacy, mostly on the basis of my nationality and presumed lack of allegiance. A vitriolic response I can only liken to a witch hunt took off on the Internet and even in some mainstream media outlets. I was slandered. Some, for example, theorized that I was a spy. Family was considered fair game: My wife was accused of being associated with a brothel.

My emotions in the wake of this bizarre experience were much as you can imagine. But the lesson I take from it concerns the value of nationalism in a world increasingly driven by the transnational flow of people, capital and ideas — a world in which the immigrant is increasingly not a person without a country but a person with two countries or more.

My life as an immigrant in the United States began at age 14. The product of the proverbial “broken home,” I struggled in those early years with economic hardship, language barriers and cultural issues. But like so many other immigrants, I was determined to pursue the American dream.

Thanks to the kindness and guidance of a few individuals, my journey took flight: I got a great college education, started my own business and sold it for more than $1 billion, succeeded at a global corporation, taught at the University of Maryland and even led the iconic Bell Labs. I became one of the owners of the Washington Wizards and Capitals. And I served on the boards of corporations, nonprofits, universities and government agencies — including the external advisory board of the Central Intelligence Agency, a request that I was proud to accept but that turned out to be grist for the rumor mill after my nomination to lead South Korea’s new ministry.

Most important of all to a child of divorced parents, I was blessed with a stable and loving family.

My love for the United States is deep and strong, and I will be eternally grateful for its blessings. That is why I committed myself to serving this country when and where I could, including as an officer in the U.S. Navy for seven years. But I’ve always loved the country of my birth too, and witnessing its economic miracle over recent decades filled me with pride in my Korean heritage. So I was receptive to President Park’s call.

For all its achievements as an “Asian tiger,” South Korea faces profound challenges. Lacking natural resources, the country forged an export-led economy based on its hard-working people and their indefatigable industry. But outward appearances mask a nagging weakness. For instance, the top 10 Korean conglomerates account for 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but employ less than 6 percent of the workforce. Why? Because they move production overseas to remain price-competitive or to placate trading partners. Unemployment is worryingly high, especially among college graduates. Furthermore, the durability of the South Korean miracle is threatened by rising economic prowess of much bigger neighbors such as India and China.

In response to this challenge, the president has pledged to nurture a “creative economy” that will boost globally competitive small and medium-size businesses by leveraging science and communication technologies in a way that generates good jobs for young people at home — not to replace the export-focused big corporations but to complement them.

The model could be something like the dynamic and, above all, open economy of Israel, where homegrown and international venture capital and entrepreneurs have combined to create a dizzying array of high-value businesses — a place where one is likely to see American executives leading Israeli firms, American investors funding Israeli innovation and Israeli entrepreneurs engaging with U.S. counterparts.

In the 21st century, the most successful countries and economies will be those that can move beyond the old prejudices concerning nationality. They will craft immigration policies that attract and make room for expertise regardless of its origins. They will encourage a culture with the suppleness to embrace diverse nationalities and loyalties while uniting people around core principles and values. They will innovate laws and procedures that cater to mobile global citizens, multiple citizenships and transnational partnerships.

In time, South Korea will emerge as such a country, and the new ministry will play a key role in paving the way. I hope that people will find in my cautionary tale the seeds of a more constructive way to accommodate their pride of national heritage. We see such accommodation all the time in America: a place where immigrants of all stripes reflect on the journeys our ancestors have made and the great challenge of balancing within our hearts more than one national identity.

Jeong Kim, a Korean-American electrical engineer and administrator.

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