A brief chat with U.S. Foreign Service Officer Yuri Kim

September 4, 2017

It’s hard to imagine a more disheartening time to be a career diplomat or foreign service officer for the United States. President Trump has made clear his disdain for diplomatic niceties or the traditions and understandings that underlie the work of the U.S. State Department. In what was later and unpersuasively described as a joke, but then reiterated  by the president, Trump actually thanked Russia’s Vladimir Putin for kicking out more than 700 American diplomatic personnel there, saying, untruthfully, that it would save the government payroll money.

 

FSO Yuri Kim, who grew up on Guam, maintained a stiff diplomatic upper lip as she spoke to a group of University of Guam students about potential foreign service careers, noting that she’s one of three foreign service officers officially from Guam.  She wants to encourage more Guam young persons to take the foreign service exam.

 

Kim, a graduate of Academy of Our Lady said: “I felt that the exposure I had to various cultures here, including Korea where I was born, Japan, where we have so many of our tourists and our business connections, Taiwan, China and Australia were important to me. Guam has become increasingly cosmopolitan and important over the years. So I think this is a great platform to jump off of.”

 

In over 20 years as an FSO, Kim has served tours in China, Japan and Turkey, acquiring the language skills and cultural knowledge required to function in these nations. Daily attire during her stint in Iraq was a flak jacket. She also worked for President George W. Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell.

 

More recently, Kim had to develop expertise on the North Korean nuclear program.

 

“I tell people, if you’re a quitter, then the Foreign Service is for you because the quitting is built in. Every two to three years you get a new assignment and I find that exhilarating. You gotta learn a new country, a new set of subjects every two or three years. And having had zero background in (North Korean) nuclear issues, I had to make myself an expert on this set of issues.”

 

Ever the diplomat, Kim ducked a question about morale at the State Department under the current administration:

“We go through phases and very few things are permanent. Some presidents will emphasize the military aspect of national power. Others will emphasize the economic aspect, others the diplomacy. What gets emphasized is, in a fundamental way, a choice that the American public authorizes the president to make. We have elections every four years and I think the American public decides, delivers their judgment on whether the person in the White House has done the right thing or the wrong thing. For us in the Foreign Service, we are apolitical. We can belong to parties in a personal capacity, but when we’re outside, representing the United States of America, we’re not Democrats, we’re not Republicans, we’re Americans...”

 

“The program is set by the musical director—the president—elected by the American people. And so while you may not like every single piece of music that you’re asked to play, that’s your job. You chose it and you gotta do it. On the other hand, there are going to be situations when you hit your limit and that’s a very personal matter. When you say, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t agree with this policy.’ And I have friends who have quit, not just in this new administration but in administrations past. For example, there was a whole slew of people who quit in the 1990s, during the Balkan wars when the United States, the Clinton administration, did not take military action soon enough, in the view of these people. And they found that morally reprehensible, found they could not associate themselves with that sort of policy and they left. So we’ll always have that sort of thing. It’s very tough to pass judgment, very tough. Only you can decide where your lines are.”

 

It’s not a 9 to 5 job, Kim warned the students, but for her, it’s been “a very fulfilling two decades.”

 

On her return to Washington, Kim will be director of the Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy.

 

Bruce Lloyd is a veteran journalist, who has been a longtime resident of Guam and Saipan. Send feedback to editor@pacificislandtimes.com

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