Life has come full circle for former Rep. Jay Kim. Born in Seoul, South Korea, the California Republican faced desperate poverty after his family’s home was destroyed during the Korean War. Kim immigrated to the United States on a student visa and worked his way up to owning an engineering firm and, in 1992, became the first Korean-American to be elected to Congress.
His congressional career ended when he lost in the 1998 primary to now-Rep. Gary G. Miller amid a campaign finance scandal.
In August 1997, Kim pleaded guilty to accepting and concealing $230,000 in illegal campaign contributions. He was sentenced to probation and house arrest in March 1998 and was confined to the U.S. House and his D.C.-area residence, which hampered his ability to run for re-election.
Since then, the former congressman has generally avoided addressing his campaign contribution scandal, yet he has written on his blog, Cross Your Fingers, that he genuinely did not know about the complicated laws surrounding campaign contributions.
Kim said he has learned from his experience and has moved on. “Now that I think about it, I am so thankful that I overcame the difficulties. I have gained such a valuable experience,” he wrote on the blog.
These days, Kim stays busy contributing his time and expertise to Korean issues in both his mother country and in the United States.
His life is generally an immigrant success story. He attended college, eventually getting a master’s degree in civil engineering, after washing dishes and delivering newspapers to pay bills. He set his sights high, building his own business and getting elected to Congress. Kim served three terms, from 1993 to 1999.
Since leaving Capitol Hill, he continues to engage in politics, primarily lecturing, advising and helping run the Kim Chang-jun Politics and Economy Academy in South Korea, he told CQ Roll Call in an email exchange. In addition to being chairman of the Kim Chang-jun Foundation, he is chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum.
“My passionate issue has always been to keep a good relationship between U.S. and Korea,” Kim said.
He works in several advisory roles in South Korea, most notably as an adviser to the Office of the President of Korea.
The list of such positions is rather lengthy, but apart from the presidential adviser role, he says most of them generally involve attending meetings, sometimes only once a year.
Kim said he also uses his network to focus on the Korean community.
“I do actively work with Korean small businesses to make connections with American businesses using the idea of co-branding,” he said. “My foundation is working with the Small Business Corporation of Korea to help small Korean businesses find partner companies in the States to jointly develop and market products.”
When advising President Park Geun-hye, Kim said he shares how the United States would handle similar issues. In this aspect, Kim says his role is similar to the work he did in Congress, except the process has less responsibility and is much simpler than trying to pass legislation.
“I take my appointment by the president as her telling me to find ways to resurrect the Korean economy in a short period,” he said, adding that his work “promotes shared growth and economic democratization, and also works on reforming unnecessary regulations and improving the structure of the consumer market. These are really the perfect areas that I can use the experience that I have gained from my life in the U.S.”
Kim also noted that although he has direct access to Park to give suggestions at virtually any time, he prefers to follow the chain of command. Kim sends suggestions via her advisory council to keep the spirit of the council focused on improving the economy of South Korea, instead of who has favor with the president.
Kim has also addressed the need for competitiveness in education now that South Korea and the United States have established a free-trade agreement.
“Korea never had a U.S.-style law school system,” Kim said. “Since American law firms may be flooding into Korea soon, Korea has to prepare for stiff competition, which is why it was essential for Korea to institute the same curriculum as the United States in each of their law schools.”
Since 2000, Kim has racked up plenty of frequent-flier miles living between two nations. He lives and works in both countries and contributes columns in the media of both as well.
Writing like a wise uncle to illustrate his points, his Cross Your Fingers blog offers reflections about his time in Congress and important issues of the day.
Juggling so many different projects leaves little time for relaxation, but Kim barely seems to notice.
“I used to play golf,” he mused. “These days, mostly I do physical exercise in the gym.”
Kim puts work aside long enough to enjoy dining out on Japanese, Italian or Mexican cuisine with his wife, Jennifer Ahn. A longtime Californian, Kim said he really enjoys Mexican food.
Then it’s back to work on speeches, educational initiatives or answering emails from whichever country he finds himself in.
CQ Roll Call’s Life After Congress is designed to answer the question “Where are they now?” If that’s something you’ve asked yourself about a former member or members, drop us a line. We’ll do our best to track them down.