Young Kim could win California congressional race but not all Koreans are happy about it
- Although some South Koreans support Kim, others are troubled by her Republican affiliation when the party is accused of divisive politics and intolerance
- The last Korean American to serve in Congress was Jay Kim, who became the first Korean American to do so in 1992
A week ago, hardly anyone in South Korea had heard the name Young Kim. But with her tipped to become the first Korean-American woman voted into Congress, taking over Southern California’s 39th district from long-serving Congressman Ed Royce, she has been a recent fixture in South Korean media.
South Koreans and Korean Americans are divided on whether a victory for Kim, a Republican, would be a good thing. But they all agree it would be a sign of progress for Asian-American voices in US politics.
Born in 1962 as Kim Young-oK in Incheon, South Korea, Kim left the country in 1975 with her family, living in Guam before settling in Southern California. Kim studied business administration at the University of Southern California, where she was known as an outspoken and popular student. She began her political career working for Royce, spanning 21 years as community liaison and director of Asian affairs.
If her win is confirmed, Kim will from January serve as representative of California’s 39th district, encompassing Los Angeles, Orange County and San Bernardino, a region known for its large population of Korean and other Asian Americans.
Although some South Koreans support Kim, others are troubled she represents a party accused of divisive politics and intolerance towards immigrants. Until recently, Kim was all but unknown on the Korean peninsula outside political circles. Her profile is now expanding on Naver, the country’s top search portal, and in major conservative newspapers like the Chosun.
“I think Koreans are always interested in things that raise our status in the world,” said Joseph Yi, a professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul and a graduate of UC Berkeley and University of Chicago.
While earning his degrees in the US and living in California, Yi knew Kim and her political views well, and insisted the Republican Party should embrace her.
“For the Republican Party to have a future, they need to include more people like Young Kim,” he said.
As of Saturday night in the US, Kim was leading by 1.4 percentage points, or 2,423 votes, over her Democrat opponent Gil Cisneros. These numbers, however, do not take into account an undetermined number of provisional and mail-in ballots that could arrive as late as Friday.
The Trump administration has been accused of being insensitive to minorities. Last week CNN refused to run a Republican ad about a caravan of asylum seekers, deeming the ad racially offensive.
Trump has also been quoted using the term “anchor baby” and has floated the idea of ending automatic birthright citizenship in the US after claiming the policy has been abused, a move that would especially impact Chinese immigrants looking for a better life in America.
This has caused confusion for Koreans and Korean Americans who support diversity, and feel the Republican Party cannot properly represent their interests as immigrants and Korean Americans. But according to her supporters, Kim is a different kind of Republican to Trump, and she has no plans to bring divisive politics to her Southern California district.
“[Young Kim] keeps a certain independence from Trump,” Yi said. “She’s not a Trump Republican. She’s a typical Christian, pro-business conservative.”
According to Yi, the Republican values Kim represents are the ones that attracted many Asian Americans to the party over recent decades, with a focus on building strong communities through family and the church, while creating opportunity for businesses to grow.
Yi believes Trump’s divisive and inflammatory style of politics is hurting the Republican Party and will eventually alienate voters.
“If Trump keeps going with negative nationalism … [the Republican Party] is going to shrink,” he said.
What the party needs instead, according to Yi, is more representatives like Kim, who hold up its core values while still embracing diversity and remaining supportive of immigrants.
“They’re drawn to the conservative family values,” he said. “On the other hand, they also value diversity, because they’re immigrants themselves.”
Yi compared Kim to a famous former South Korean president known for his conservative values and commitment to progress.
“She’s like Lee Myung-bak, without all the scandals,” Yi said, referencing the corruption charges that caught up with Lee years after his presidency.
But there are other Korean Americans who see a problem with politicians trying to distance themselves from Trump while still flying the Republican flag.
“To see an Asian American associated with that, I don’t think it bodes well for our image in America. I don’t think it bodes well for our country,” said Ryan Lim, a student of international relations at Yonsei University.
He said that while he did not expect Kim to espouse the same divisive ideas as Trump, her association with the Republican Party and its current administration was enough to put her on the wrong side. He noted a trend of Asian Americans casting their votes for the Democratic Party, which has shown more openness to diversity and higher tolerance for immigration.
“It’s been increasingly so since 2008,” he said. “And I think the clear reason for that is because the Republican Party has been incredibly hostile towards immigration, towards diversity, towards inclusion.”
Lim acknowledged the need for Korean Americans to be represented by both parties but was more supportive of candidates such as Andy Kim, a Korean American and Democrat.
The former national security official is in a tight contest with the Republican incumbent in New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district and his lead was 1.1 percentage points as of Saturday night in the US.
The last Korean American to serve in Congress was Jay Kim, who became the first Korean American to do so after taking California’s 41st district for the Republican Party back in 1992.
Others in South Korea were less critical of Young Kim’s party affiliation, noting that her voice as a Korean American would be more important. Jane Moon, a teacher from South Korea who studied at UC Irvine, part of the district that Young Kim is running in, said Kim’s values and experience as a Korean American would be more important than her party affiliation.
“I hope she understand the problems in Korean societies in America, how Korean immigrants have gone through hardships,” she said. “Regardless of her being a Republican or a Democrat.”
This story has been updated to reflect the latest available information on California midterm results.