A citizen battles the governmentPersonal struggle against unjust power is a frequent topic in Hollywood movies. The “Mission Impossible” series starring Tom Cruise and the “Bourne” series of Matt Damon are notable films of that genre. The movie ends in triumph, and the protagonist becomes a hero. But in reality, it is just too painful for an individual to fight against the power of establishment.
A Korean-American has been living this struggle for three years. This is the story of Stephen Jin-woo Kim, born in 1967.
The Kim family immigrated to the United States when Stephen was 9 years old. By the time he was 11, his father would ask him what the New York Times editorial of the day was about, and if he couldn’t provide a solid answer, the father would say he didn’t deserve to have a meal. Thanks to the rigorous education, he skipped grades in elementary school, attended Fordham Preparatory and graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He earned his master’s degree at Harvard and a doctorate at Yale. Then, he went to work for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the largest federally funded nuclear research center in the United States. During the Bush administration, Henry Kissinger was so impressed by his briefing on North Korea’s nuclear program that Kissinger referred him to Vice President Dick Cheney.
But his American dream ends there. Now, he is on trial for espionage against the U.S. government. He is charged with making an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information when he spoke to Fox News reporter James Rosen after the nuclear experiment in May 2009. At the time, Kim was working as senior adviser at the State Department’s Verification, Compliance and Implementation Bureau. The “secret” was that the Central Intelligence Agency has learned from a North Korean source about Pyongyang’s additional nuclear and missile experiments. Federal prosecutors indicted him for leaking the information in August 2010.
Kim rebutted that he was asked by a State Department communications official to explain North Korean issues to the news agency and that North Korea’s test was widely anticipated. He has also claimed that the espionage charge is excessive as he never worked for another country. After the indictment, prosecutors have kept the investigation confidential, and the trial is being postponed. In the meantime, he has used up nearly all his assets to pay attorney fees.
Last week, the Washington Post featured a story re-examining the Stephen Kim case while addressing the government’s excessive snooping on news media.
While the Korean-American community has raised funds to help him, public attention has diminished over three years. Kim is being neglected by both the country he was born in and the country where he grew up.
“My life has stopped here,” Kim said as he continues the battle all alone.
How long can an individual stand up against a powerful institution? As I interviewed the Korean-American intern harassed by the crooked Blue House spokesman, the tragedy of Stephen Kim kept coming to mind.
*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo Washington bureau chief.
by Park Sung-hee