My emotions in the wake of this bizarre experience were much as you can imagine. But the lesson I take from it concerns the value of nationalism in a world increasingly driven by the transnational flow of people, capital and ideas — a world in which the immigrant is increasingly not a person without a country but a person with two countries or more.
My life as an immigrant in the United States began at age 14. The product of the proverbial “broken home,” I struggled in those early years with economic hardship, language barriers and cultural issues. But like so many other immigrants, I was determined to pursue the American dream.
Thanks to the kindness and guidance of a few individuals, my journey took flight: I got a great college education, started my own business and sold it for more than $1 billion, succeeded at a global corporation, taught at the University of Maryland and even led the iconic Bell Labs. I became one of the owners of the Washington Wizards and Capitals. And I served on the boards of corporations, nonprofits, universities and government agencies — including the external advisory board of the Central Intelligence Agency, a request that I was proud to accept but that turned out to be grist for the rumor mill after my nomination to lead South Korea’s new ministry.
Most important of all to a child of divorced parents, I was blessed with a stable and loving family.
My love for the United States is deep and strong, and I will be eternally grateful for its blessings. That is why I committed myself to serving this country when and where I could, including as an officer in the U.S. Navy for seven years. But I’ve always loved the country of my birth too, and witnessing its economic miracle over recent decades filled me with pride in my Korean heritage. So I was receptive to President Park’s call.
For all its achievements as an “Asian tiger,” South Korea faces profound challenges. Lacking natural resources, the country forged an export-led economy based on its hard-working people and their indefatigable industry. But outward appearances mask a nagging weakness. For instance, the top 10 Korean conglomerates account for 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but employ less than 6 percent of the workforce. Why? Because they move production overseas to remain price-competitive or to placate trading partners. Unemployment is worryingly high, especially among college graduates. Furthermore, the durability of the South Korean miracle is threatened by rising economic prowess of much bigger neighbors such as India and China.