This is the last of my “Untold Stories” series. Through the course of this series, I have tried to provide my unique experiences, observations, and criticisms, as well as an unbiased comparison between Korea and the U.S., from my service as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
I thank The Korea Times for the opportunity to allow me to write these stories and share them with its readers. I plan to make these behind-the-scenes stories of U.S. politics into a book so that future generations may glean something from my tales.
This book will be published by the Hankook Ilbo, a sister paper of The Korea Times, and there will be events both in Korea and the U.S. The proceeds from this book will be used to fund the “Jay Kim Fund,” a charity to help future Korean-Americans who harbor political aspirations.
This series is not a memoir of my life, but a series of stories that describe the American politics and society that I felt and experienced. I focused on the subjects that only I could write about from my own experiences. I started this series with the story about my experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its ratification process, and my own campaign for the House.
I also wrote for young Korean-Americans planning to enter politics, providing certain tips for my success in my political campaigns, where personal attacks were flying all over the place.
I talked about the deep emotion that I felt when I returned to Korea for the first time in 31 years, when then-President Roh Tae-woo invited me after I became mayor of Diamond Bar, Calif., the first and only Korean-American mayor in the U.S. I also explained my experience of visiting Taiwan and Hong Kong as a House representative-elect and Taiwan’s decision to sell their nuclear waste to North Korea, and my role in helping to block the transaction by passing a Congressional resolution.
In one of the stories, I talked about a fundamental difference in the lifestyles of the members of the Korean National Assembly and the members of the U.S. Congress. I revealed that many U.S. congressmen commuted to work by subway. I also introduced and provided sketches of my favorite past U.S. presidents. I compared regional animosity in Korea to regional animosity in the U.S. as well as the continuing history of racial discrimination in America. Then, after watching the protests in Seoul, I talked about the freedom of assembly in the U.S., citing my experience as a mayor.
I also wrote about same-sex marriage, which recently caused a controversy in California. I compared the Korean press with the American press, and talked about illegal immigration, one of the U.S.’s biggest headaches, and freedom of religion. I twice looked into whether or not a nation’s political system can change its character. I expressed my opinion on the movement from certain parts of the U.S. to abolish the U.N. and the reform of the U.N. Finally, I finished my series with the explanation of city, state, and federal politics in the U.S.
The death of former President Roh Moo-hyun made me look back on my difficult days. After I was elected into the House in 1991, I was a hero and a rising star. My popularity was so high that I was even in a high school history textbook. I made a lot of speeches in Congress, I was listed by the press as the most passionate freshman congressman two years in a row, and I was ranked as a “rising star” in U.S. politics.
As I did not realize that being on the fast track in politics would bring trouble, after my first official congressional session was over, I participated in a special program on C-Span, which was broadcasted throughout the country, to criticize the newly launched Democratic Clinton administration. Sure enough, a targeted investigation on my campaign fundraising activities started, and there was not one easy day for the rest of my congressional career due to the continuous, persistent investigation.
The investigation looking for allegedly violations of the election laws made my life and the lives of the people around me, including my family, friends and supporters, miserable. When I read the news that some Korean companies paid tremendous fines for making political contributions of a couple of thousand dollars indirectly without knowing the strict U.S. election laws, I was so sorry for them and so hurt from the indignity that I felt because they genuinely did not know about the complicated laws. Every day, major papers printed articles about me with my picture on the front page and targeted me, describing the case as “Korea-gate.”
Articles in Korean newspapers were translated into articles in American newspapers after a couple of days, which would return as new articles in Korean newspapers as they were translated back into Korean. It was a vicious cycle. This process distorted many stories, but I did not have time to respond to each of them one by one. My campaign manager repeatedly told me that when they investigate members of Congress with such intensity, very few could survive. It is almost miracle that I did survive.
Furthermore, when my close friend and volunteer who worked so hard for me was put on trial for violation of the election laws, it was so painful and unfair that I thought about killing myself on his behalf. I heard that his life was eventually ruined by this. However, whenever I was angered by all the controversy, I gritted my teeth and worked even harder in Congress, thinking of many Koreans and local residents who strongly supported and encouraged me and our next generation that considered me as a role model. That is why I kept up my 100 percent voting record.
My campaign manager always said to me that this would never happen if I were white. I didn’t believe it and I still don’t believe it. However, I did not give up, and instead worked hard at my congressional activities to avoid leaving a permanent blemish on Korean-Americans and second-generation Korean immigrants who have ambition in politics. I won all three House elections by a large margin of votes, won the perfect attendance award, and did many things within my power for my district. One accomplishment that I am proud of is the completion of the (LA) Ontario International Airport.
I’ve often thought that a public figure is not alone in the end. Now that I think about it, I am so thankful that I overcame the difficulties. I have gained such a valuable experience. I thank my family and friends, and so many supporters who believed in me whenever I was weak and throughout the several crises. I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).