But there is a hitch. Kim’s diverse background also happens to include time working with the Central Intelligence Agency. Now this unassuming Potomac resident is not only becoming a household name half a world away, but he is also setting off a political firestorm there.
His connection to the CIA has stoked fears among some South Koreans that Kim would act as a spy for the U.S. government. Political opponents of the new president have publicly criticized Kim’s nomination, which could be decided by Tuesday. Korean news reports predict that his nomination is likely to be approved.
Kim reportedly has gone as far as offering to forfeit his U.S. citizenship to appease critics. Korean news reports say he is seeking to regain his South Korean citizenship. He also resigned from his position as president of New Jersey-based Bell Labs this week.
The concern centers on Kim’s service as a director of the External Advisory Board at the CIA from 2007 to 2011, while he was president of Bell Labs. He also served as a director at In-Q-Tel, an Arlington venture capital firm set up in 1999 with CIA funding.
“No country in the world would appoint someone to a government post who formerly served as an adviser to a foreign intelligence agency,” said Park Jung-soo of Ewha Woman’s University, according to Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper.
Kim said in a statement this week that his relationship with the CIA was merely advisory, according to Korean news reports.
He could not be reached for comment, but his wife, Cindy Kim, said that the appointment by South Korea’s first woman president took the family by surprise.
“Nobody expected it,” she said in an interview. “She just appointed him.”
Kim is well known in Korea, where his immigrant success story has been celebrated in documentaries, especially after he founded a technology firm, Yurie Systems, and sold it to Lucent for $1 billion in 1998, said Cindy Kim. She added that the family has maintained a residence in South Korea for the past decade and has spent many summers there.
After his nomination was announced, several stocks linked to Kim enjoyed a rally, including Alcatel-Lucent Korea, a division of Bell Labs, according to the IT Times in South Korea.
Victor Cha, an international affairs and Asian studies scholar at Georgetown University, called the opposition to the nomination “a nationalist knee-jerk reaction.”
“Koreans have no problem with a Korean as U.N. secretary general and a Korean-American like Jim Kim as World Bank president, but this is closer to home, so maybe they balk a bit,” Cha said.
Cha said Kim may be the victim of Koreans’ lack of enthusiasm for the incoming president’s “close-hold style of governing thus far. So they tend to be a bit critical of perceived mistakes,” he said. “This is not one of them. The man is qualified.”