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The news that former South Korean Ambassador to the United States Kim Kyung-won passed away last month provides an opportunity to reflect both on his contributions to the U.S.-ROK alliance and its remarkable transformation over a generation since South Korea’s democratization. Ambassador Kim was a graduate of Williams College (an alma mater he shared with his U.S. counterpart on many complex issues, Ambassador Donald Gregg), and Harvard, and taught at New York University and Korea University prior to joining the Blue House in 1975 under Park Chung-hee and serving as South Korea’s Ambassador to the UN and the United States from 1982 to 1988 under Chun Doo-hwan.
Ambassador Kim was one of the leading foreign policy intellectuals and practitioners of his generation in South Korea. And it was no easy task to promote the interests of South Korea and manage the U.S.-ROK alliance under South Korea’s authoritarian leadership in the 1970s and 1980s. Following government service, he became one of South Korea’s “wise men,” leading the Seoul Forum on International Affairs and serving as an essential interpreter of South Korean politics and foreign policy for many foreign observers as South Korean democratization unfolded in the 1990s.
Having received a world-class liberal education in the United States but having sought to maximize South Korea’s national interests under authoritarian governments, Ambassador Kim held a complex view of South Korea’s democratic consolidation and economic advancement. He was unquestionably proud of South Korea’s accomplishments and was a firm believer in the strategic importance of South Korea’s relationship with the United States.
I first met Ambassador Kim in 1990, at which time I worked for The Asia Society on several projects that were co-led by Ambassador Kim and Professor Robert A. Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley, including a report that advocated the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula in advance of the decision of the two governments to remove nuclear weapons from South Korea in late 1991. Both men were superb intellects and were extraordinarily generous and patient with me as a junior program officer; Ambassador Kim always welcomed me at his office at the Institute of Social Science. In his capacity as President of the Seoul Forum, Ambassador Kim and Nicholas Platt co-chaired with Richard Haass as project director the second CFR Independent Task Force Report, Success or Sellout? The U.S.-North Korean Nuclear Accord, published in 1995.
Even while struggling with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the early 2000s, Ambassador Kim remained a sharp observer of Korean politics whose contributions were cut short much too early by his illness. He would no doubt have been impressed and proud of the depth and breadth of the U.S.-ROK relationship as it stands today, and his efforts to build and hold together the relationship during one of its most difficult periods deserve our appreciation.