Joon Kim on Immigrants, ‘Jeong’ and Why We Are as American as the Founding Fathers
The theme of the Korean American Community Foundation (KACF) annual gala this year was Jeong, and honoree Joon Kim delivered a rousing speech encouraging the 700 attendees to share the power of jeong with their American brethren. Kathleen Kim, creator of the first Korean American muppet on Sesame Street, and actor Teo Kim were also honored.
“Jeong is what makes us cheer when we read about the successes of our fellow Korean Americans, ones we’ve never even met, and it’s what makes us feel the pain in our community of those who are suffering”, said Kim.
“…we as a community are mostly just one or two generations removed from those who left everything they knew and everyone they loved in search of a better life in America, MiGuk, the beautiful country. And you know who else did that? Our founding fathers.”
As the Honoree at KACF 2023, Joon Kim was celebrated for his distinguished career, commitment to pursuing justice, and exemplary leadership in both the public and private sectors. Kim is currently a law firm partner who served much of his career as a public servant. Educated at Stanford University and Harvard Law School, he served many years as Assistant US Attorney and then as the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, during which time he took on terrorists and tackled international scandals, according to the NY Times.
Here is a video recording of Joon Kim’s speech with a text version of the speech below.
Transcript of Joon Kim’s speech at the KACF Gala on May 10, 2023:
Jeong is the theme of tonight’s Gala, and I think it’s a particularly fitting theme for an event for KACF, a group that does so much to support and serve the Korean-American community.
KACF’s work exemplifies the meaning of jeong. And jeong as you know is a uniquely Korean word. There’s no perfect English translation. It’s a combination of a number of ideas and ideals: love, friendship, passion, compassion, warmth, empathy, and loyalty.
Jeong is a big part of what makes Koreans Korean, and it manifests itself in many different ways. For example, it’s what keeps us out for just one more drink when we’re together with old friends. It keeps us singing just one more song at 1 am at the noraebang before we call it a night with the requisite final song, “My Way”, that everyone wants to sing and everyone puts in at the same time.
Jeong is what makes us cheer when we read about the successes of our fellow Korean Americans, ones we’ve never even met and it’s what makes us feel the pain in our community of those who are suffering.
And so jeong is at the heart of what KACF does to lift the Korean-American community to help those who are struggling to get a foothold in America. Very importantly, KACF helps these groups feel and truly come to believe that they belong here, to give them the confidence that they can thrive here in America.
KACF serves the American dream and for many years, about half of my career, I served as a federal prosecutor, first as an Assistant United States Attorney and ultimately as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. And when you’re an Assistant United States Attorney you have the distinct honor at the start of each court appearance to stand up and announce, my name is Joon Kim and I represent the United States of America.
It’s something that gave me goosebumps every time and it still does, and in that courtroom on that day you literally represent the United States of America in every sense of the word. Your position is the position of the United States. Your words are the words of the United States and importantly your face is the face of America.
That was always incredibly meaningful to me because in immigrant communities like ours, we’re not always quite sure whether we are truly American or more accurately we’re not always quite sure whether others see us as truly American but the fact of the matter is and I’m absolutely certain of this now, immigrant communities like ours are at the heart of what it actually means to be American.
We as a community are mostly just one or two generations removed from those who left everything they know and everyone they loved in search of a better life in America, MiGuk, the beautiful country. And you know who else did that? Our founding fathers.
In the most important and meaningful ways, we, and immigrant communities like ours, share more in common with this country’s Founders than those who have been here for generation after generation. We and communities like ours embody the American dream we are as American as apple pie or kimchi tacos. And we absolutely belong here.
We belong in our courtrooms.
We belong in our boardrooms.
We belong in our operating rooms.
We belong in the cabinet room.
And we belong in our sports arenas.
And by being there we can make them better. And that’s why it’s such a privilege for me to be here tonight in support of KACF and to be one of the honorees because KACF through its work supporting new immigrants to this country helps those who may be harboring doubt about whether they belong. They convince them that they do and by doing so KACF not only helps sustain the American dream but helps expand and shape it for the better. In the way KACF does its work with compassion, warmth, empathy, KACF introduces the beautiful Korean ideal of jeong to our collective American conscience.
It is a process that is making jeong as American as it is Korean. And that’s a great thing.
So let me thank and congratulate a few people first thank all of you tonight for coming here and to support this great organization and cause.
I want to thank my law firm Cleary Gottlieb, we have a table over there. It’s the greatest law firm in the world. A firm that believes not only in legal and professional excellence but its people and values. I hear some laughter; I hope that’s not a client. But if any of you have work, you can call Cleary Gottlieb at cgsh.com. Thank you for your support.
I want to congratulate my co-honorees tonight Kathleen Kim and Teo Yoo. They are pioneers who have showcased Koreans and Korean Americans on big and small screens around the world and in particular, I want to thank and recognize Kathleen Kim. How great is it that we have a Korean-American muppet on Sesame Street? I loved Sesame Street growing up and it’s not just because it was one of the few shows on AFKN, the one English-language channel in Korea at the time. They had ‘Knight Rider’ too which I loved. Who doesn’t love David Hasselhoff?
My favorite Muppet was Cookie Monster. Obviously the closest resemblance. But now Asian American kids have more options to choose from and they can actually see their faces reflected on such an iconic show; so thank you.
And finally I want to recognize, as we all should on such occasions, my family. First my father. He was a career diplomat who passed away too early when I was just a teenager. But he taught me at a young age through his life’s example– pride in our Korean heritage and the dignity of a life dedicated to service, to community, and service to Country. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him but I often think about and hold close to me the example of his values and his principles.
My mother, who is in Korea, gave me the priceless gift, as many of us have received, of unconditional love. She taught me that in some very special people, strength and humility go hand in hand, as does grit and kindness. At the end of the day treating people fairly and doing the right thing is what matters most.
My brother and sister, both of whom are here today, I’m so lucky to be their youngest brother. My whole life I knew that they were there for me even if they weren’t physically there. I knew that I had them in my corner cheering me on. That’s the superpower of being the youngest, the baby, the mangnae. I know you all you mangnaes know that. You can do no wrong.
And of course my wife Mina. I could not have done or achieved anything without her. First of all because as the Korean men know, I can’t do anything without her permission in the first place. But more importantly, while I was focused on being a prosecutor, a lawyer, or maybe sometimes getting that extra drink, or singing that extra song, Mina was handling everything. She was an accomplished lawyer in her own right who I met in law school, and who by the way did way better than me in the one class we took together. We stopped taking classes together. It’s not good for the relationship. But she’s also taking care of everything else. She takes the kids to the doctors, files our taxes on time, and fixes things that are broken in the house. She does everything. Yes, I am pretty much useless in the house. I’ve said before in other gatherings, the most powerful force on Earth is not gravity, it’s Korean women.
And finally, my three boys, two of whom are here today the third’s off in school. Ryan, Alex, Matthew. Yeon Jae, Yeon Jin, Yeon Woo. Those are your Korean names, guys. I don’t want them thinking there are like three others that they didn’t know about. I’m so proud of the three of you. You’re growing up into such good, smart, young men. You’re the best thing that has happened to me and your mother. Even if you’re on your phones way too much. Be kind, be generous, be useful. And look around the room tonight because this is part of your community. Cheer these folks on; they’ll cheer you on. And take inspiration from their generosity of spirit and from the power of their jeong.
Thank you all. Thank you for the honor. Thank you KACF for everything that you do.
About Joon Kim
Joon Kim has worked for over two decades at the highest levels of government and in private practice at Cleary Gottlieb. He has advised and represented some of the world’s largest companies with their most significant legal disputes and crises.
From March 2017 to January 2018, Joon Kim served as the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. As the most senior federal law enforcement officer in the district, he oversaw all criminal and civil litigation conducted on behalf of the United States and supervised the work of 220 Assistant U.S. Attorneys handling a wide range of cases, including securities fraud, corruption, money laundering, international sanctions, tax, terrorism and racketeering.
The Korean American Community Foundation (KACF) was founded in 2002 by a group of Korean American leaders in New York with a simple idea: the creation of an organization to help fellow Koreans and give back to the community. The goal was to address challenges in the community by raising funds for programs serving under-resourced Korean American individuals and families, while also mobilizing community members to embrace a culture of giving.
Many Korean Americans are thriving in this country, but there are also many who are struggling. According to recent data from the Asian American Federation: 18% of Korean Americans live in poverty and 88% of Korean seniors have limited English proficiency. As of 2020, KACF has given more than $10 million in grants to lift up the most vulnerable in our community.
For more information on KACF, please go to KACFNY.ORG