He is a scientist and ultra-wealthy, a low-key Navy veteran who could pass unnoticed at a Wizards or Caps game but who happens to be a part owner of both teams.
Now Jeong H. Kim, 52, may be about to add another line to his glittering résumé: Cabinet secretary in South Korea, where incoming president Park Geun-hye has tapped him to run the ministry of science and technology.
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.”
Kim was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States when he was a young teenager. According to the University of Maryland’s Web site, he earned a doctorate in reliability engineering from the school after completing undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and a master’s degree in technical management at Johns Hopkins University.
His early career encompassed computer design, satellite systems design and data communications. He spent seven years as a nuclear submarine officer in the U.S. Navy.
The sale of Landover-based Yurie Systems to Lucent turned heads among Washington’s entrepreneurs, and Kim quickly developed relationships with other Washington-area tech moguls such as Raul Fernandez, Ted Leonsis and Steve Case.
While working at Lucent, he hit the philanthropy circuit, putting his name on a showcase engineering building at U-Md.’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. After a stint on the Maryland faculty, Kim became president of Bell Labs in April 2005, serving in that post for nearly eight years.
He became a significant, if quiet, player on the Washington business scene, making important investments.
One of those was in the Leonsis-led group that owns the NBA Wizards, NHL Capitals and the Verizon Center. He remains a partner and owner in the group, which operates as Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
Fernandez, who is vice chairman of Monumental and a close friend of Kim’s, called him “a world-class entrepreneur.”
“Any company, country or partnership would be lucky to have him as part of their team,” he said. “His experience, integrity, intellect and self-made drive makes him a global role model.”
As president of Bell Labs, Kim developed an advisory relationship with the CIA. In-Q-Tel, where he served as a director, helps the CIA maintain relationships with tech start-ups whose products can help the intelligence community.
He also served on the External Advisory Board, an informal group of advisers that counsels the CIA’s top leaders oninteractions with businesses and the public. Other members have included former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, investment banker Vernon Jordan and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers.
A person who answered the telephone at In-Q-Tel said the firm would have no comment. The CIA also declined comment.
According to the Alcatel-Lucent Web site, when Kim resigned from Bell Labs, he said, “I have very mixed feelings today. I am very sad to leave an incredible team and a role that I’ve been passionate about for the last eight years, but at the same time, am truly honored to take up a pivotal public role in the country I was born in, and left at the age of 14 with my parents to emigrate to the United States.”
“I am really proud of him,” said Cindy Kim. “I know he will do really well. He told me he wants to make a difference.”