It took Steve Kim just 45 seconds to leap over a low concrete embankment in front of the UN, blast seven rounds from a Smith & Wesson, toss out a sheaf of leaflets decrying the North Korean regime, and surrender to security guards. National and local newspapers sensationalized his stunt for approximately one day. Now, two and half months later, the former postal worker languishes without bail in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. His hearings have continually been postponed, his legal counsel remains uncertain, and the public imagination has long since moved on.
Steve Kim did not shoot anybody, nor did he intend to—he allegedly aimed his pistol skyward and pulled the trigger so that New York’s bustling throngs would pause and pay attention to his poorly spelled pronouncements: “In a shinning and civilized 21st century, most people in the world enjoying peace and freedom. [North Koreans] however . . . don’t even have the most basic of human rights.” His action could be considered a political performance piece, a sacrificial gesture from a lone maverick whose intentions were just.
At least that’s how a small corps of fellow South Korean immigrants interprets his one-man march. While the rest of the globe worries about Al Qaeda and Iraq, they’re helplessly watching as the people of North Korea starve under a totalitarian ruler. More than half the population of 22 million is malnourished. Despite eyewitness reports that there are citizens who are so hungry they pick and eat the grass from state parks, General Secretary Kim Jong Il funnels most financial resources into the army and its nukes—a situation that recently spurred donors like Japan and the United States to declare they’d wean North Korea off support.
For his Korean American supporters, Steve Kim is almost a martyr. What he did may not have been rational, they say, but it was fueled by principle. “There are two ways of looking at him—one is to criticize him badly,” says Henry Kim, owner of a New York City liquor store and executive director of North Korean Refugee Inc. “But I think he stuck up for what he believed in. He was brave.”
Henry Kim read about Steve Kim in the Korea Times and sympathized with his motives, if not his actions. The shopkeeper made headlines himself in May 1997, when he embarked on a dangerous mission to help his twin brother and 13 others flee from North Korea to South Korea on a fishing boat—the first direct sea escape to the South. He wishes America would rouse from its oblivion to Kim Jong Il’s draconian government. “Most people in this country don’t pay attention. Even Korean Americans have not enough time to think [about the regime]. I want to see Koreans be more active, more engaged in politics. Steve Kim at least was making people aware.”
Soon after his arrest, a loose confederation of groups in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago banded together to campaign for Steve Kim. First-generation retailers, ministers, and greengrocers are shaving off time from their demanding jobs to rally for the father of two. New York’s Human Rights Coalition for North Korean Refugees plans to raise money for his wife, Nancy Kim, who without her husband’s paychecks is bereft. Byung Sun Soh, vice president of the Human Rights Coalition and a professional tenor, says they have already scraped together $1000 for her. They’re also trying to raise money to hire a private attorney. Meanwhile, there’s talk of a plea bargain, and of psychiatric testing. “A good lawyer wants $100,000, which we don’t have yet,” says Soh. “This takes time and we just started.”
Soh calls Steve Kim “a great man” and asserts that his protest brought “big attention to the regime.” One committee in Chicago is preparing a petition that endorses Kim’s objectives and asks for leniency. Peter Lee, a lawyer who will spearhead the project, plans to circulate the letter around the Korean American community and send the signatures to the State Department, targeting lawmakers like Illinois representative Mark Kirk. When asked if he believed that Kim should be found innocent of his charges—ranging from weapons possession to making a violent attack on foreign officials—Peter Lee replied, “It’s not just that he’s innocent or guilty. There is a range of penalties by the court. We want to shed some light into the motives and causes.”
Family and friends of Steve Kim were shocked about the incident, which they say was out of character for him. Kim, his wife, and his adult sons, Steve and Michael, have lived in Des Plaines, Illinois, since 1982. After receiving his masters in math from Northeastern Illinois University, Kim worked as a mail processing clerk for 14 years. According to relatives and co-workers, he is a kind and civic-minded man who spends his free time reading poetry and listening to opera. He had no criminal record and had a spotless work history.
His modest life in America belies his history in South Korea, where he attended Yook Goon Sa, a military academy with the prestige of West Point. He was at the top of his class. In the army, he was promoted to major and joined the highly elite KAIST, a research group that recruits South Korea’s top scientists, engineers, and academics. But in 1979, Kim sacrificed everything when he peacefully protested the ironfisted government of President Park Chung Hee. Despite his formidable stature, Kim assumed the role of a student demonstrator, parading alone down a main thoroughfare in Seoul and handing out leaflets opposing Park’s leadership.
He was immediately arrested, stripped of his rank, and kicked out of KAIST. No one would hire him. The Kims were devastated. “Our life was miserable for three years after that,” Nancy Kim says. “But then we moved to the United States and we had a very quiet life. Until now.”
Family members are trying to win him clemency, especially Steve Kim Jr., who spoke on behalf of his father at a press conference in October. But for Nancy Kim, this new incarceration has forced a reliving of their earlier ordeal. Asked for a Korean copy of the leaflet, she refuses, saying it’s too painful to look at.
His kin say they don’t know what catalyzed Kim to act as he did after years of quiet living in Des Plaines. Not even his son Michael knew what Kim had in mind when they traveled to New York in September and took a tour of the UN. Two days before the incident, court papers show, Kim, imagining the worst, began surreptitiously starving himself in order to facilitate surgery if he was shot. Then, on October 3, he told his wife he was taking a vacation in Seattle, but instead boarded a morning train from Des Plaines to New York City, carrying a .357. At approximately 1:10 p.m., he clambered over to the western side of the Secretariat building and discharged the seven rounds. A couple of stray bullets pierced windows on the 18th and 20th floors, barely missing employees. Kim dropped his gun, released the pamphlets, and backed away. The guards were on him in an instant.
Otherwise, he’s looking at up to 16 years in prison, but the support of people like Henry Kim and Byung Sun Soh may indicate he hasn’t forfeited so much freedom for a mere few minutes in the news. In a letter responding to written inquiries, Kim explained that he couldn’t answer due to a pending hearing. But in a large, looping script, he expressed appreciation for the interest and signed off, “Waiting for better times . . . “