For the new impactmania and UCSB program: Human Mind and Migration (HMM), we are featuring migrants who have been contributing cultural, social, and economic wealth and health to their adopted countries.

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In 2008, Korean-born Sukhee Kang, became the first Korean American to serve as mayor of a major United States city. The Circuit City salesman turned to mayor spoke with intern Alex Ho Geun Moon for impactmania’s Human Mind and Migration program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).


What is your immigration story, Mr. Kang? 

First of all, thank you Alex for having me here today. My wife, Joanne, and I came to America when I was 23 years old in 1977. I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, where I attended Posung High School, Korea University, and also finished my 34 months military duty. My brother Barney, who came to the U.S. in 1962, was my inspiration to migrate to the country I only read about in history books. My wife and I were looking for the American Dream, 43 years ago, looking for a better life during the time of political chaos and economic development in South Korea.

I started working for an electronics company called Circuit City Stores. I was the first Asian salesman in the company and became a top salesman in just four months. I wanted to show my boss, who hired me, and the rest of the sales team that I, Sukhee Kang, can do it.

After two years as a salesman, I became the general store manager in Orange County and continually set the record in sales and management. But after sustaining a high level of productivity, I was passed on promotion to the next position. I felt that I reached a glass ceiling no matter how hard I worked and accomplished. I decided to leave the company after 15 years working at Circuit City in 1992 and conduct my own business. I became an entrepreneur.

How did you get into politics? 

The Los Angeles riots were the first time I felt inspired to get involved with the Korean American community. In fact, it was a wake-up call for me because I never associated or worked with the Korean American community until then. On TV, I saw thousands of Korean businesses burning down to the ground and people died. Many Korean American small business owners lost their lifelong establishments and for the first time, I felt injustice had occurred in America. I felt very strongly that I needed to get involved to empower the Korean American community.

But frankly, I didn’t know where to begin because I had never associated with the Korean American community before. One day, one of my church members asked me if I was interested in joining the Korean American Scholars Foundation (KASF), a nationwide scholarship organization to raise funds to offer scholarships to high school and college students of Korean descent, to cultivate future leaders who will represent us in the mainstream society. I served as president of the KASF Western Region from 2002 to 2004. This led to the founding of the Korean American Coalition Orange County (KAC), an organization in advocating and promoting the relationship with local, state, and federal political offices and Korean American Democratic Committee (KADC) that empowers the Korean American community politically. In both capacities, I served as Chairman of KAC Orange County and the President of KADC.

These efforts continuously led me to make connections with prominent political figures in American politics. In 2002, I had the opportunity to be involved with the city of Irvine as Finance Commissioner. During the first meeting with the mayor, we spoke about Korean businesses and the hard-working community in Irvine. The mayor and I sponsored numerous events, such as town hall meetings, Korean American festivals and inviting Korean Americans to get involved in many civic activities to promote the Korean American business community. Those events afforded me to establish a strong relationship with the then-mayor. 

One day, the mayor invited me to a breakfast and asked if I was interested in running for City Council. I was quite surprised because I’ve never thought about it, but I asked him what it would take to win if I were to run. Well, I said to myself that I always worked hard and achieved great results and I was confident I could win! I decided to run for City Council and I began a door-to-door campaign by knocking on 20,000+ doors in my first race in 2004. After 6 months of door knocking, people started to recognize who I was and what I stood for. As a result, over 26,400 people voted for me and I was elected to the Irvine City council. I had a privilege to become the first Asian American council member in the history of Irvine. I was re-elected in 2006. I ran for mayor in 2008 and became the first Korean American mayor in a major U.S. city and was re-elected with the 64.1% of the vote, the highest percentage ever in Irvine’s history and the record still remains.

What was your goal as a politician? 

Servicing people and providing the highest satisfaction always has been my top priority. I shifted my priority while serving as the mayor of Irvine to make it the safest city, the smartest city, and the greenest city in America. That was my top three goals as I was going into the political arena.

The City Council position in Irvine is a practically a voluntary position, however, you can display leadership by exercising and implementing local policies. People look up to you because you do this for the people of the local community where everything begins. A person like me coming from a different cultural background, certainly promoted and inspired a lot of immigrants in Irvine to get politically empowered, especially for the Asian community who used to be a silent majority. They felt a sense of pride having an Asian American as their mayor and I became a role model for many young Asian Americans leaders. 

What was your biggest accomplishment as the Mayor of Irvine? 

I was proud to serve as the first Korean American mayor with 250,000 people in the city during the financial crisis in 2008. During this tough economic down-turn, we managed to balance the City’s budget every single year during my tenure as mayor, provide 100% of core services to the community without any funding cuts, raising any new taxes, and with no layoffs or furloughs of a single city employee.  

We set aside more money in reserve for future rainy days, brought in more than $120 million to enhance the public transportation system from the state, and brought stakeholders together to resolve Veterans Memorial issues. We dedicated the Gratitude and Honor Memorial to honor the fallen who have given their lives during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. With everyone’s sacrifice and compromise, we successfully recovered the economy in four years. 

How is Korean culture such as K-Pop impacting America? 

When I first came to the U.S. in 1977, people generally asked if I was Japanese or Chinese when they first met me. Average people didn’t know much about Korea, then. Sometimes, it used to hurt my pride as Korean. However, a tremendous transformation has happened in the perception of Korea and Korean Americans in the last 20 years because of Korea’s economy, music, culture, and cuisine. 

The Korean Culture Wave has positively changed the perception of Korea. Now, when they hear my name, they say Annyeonghaseyo (“Hello” in Korean, 안녕하세요). This phenomenon presented second-generation Korean Americans tremendous pride and helped embrace their Korean identity in the U.S. 

What do you see as the root cause of Korean Culture Wave? 

When I was working for Circuit City, I am sure everybody remembers, Sony was, indeed, the king of color TVs. They dominated the electronics market in America no others came even close to their fame. I remember very clearly that the first LG black-and-white TV (it was called Gold Star, then), arrived in the American market in 1978. It was one of the lowest priced advertised models. But, look at now, Samsung and LG have surpassed Sony and they have become the top two brands in the world. This was also the case for many home products, smart phones, and cars. Who would’ve thought the Korean products would dominate the global market? Hard work and innovation are the answer to this question. Koreans have great potential and hard work paid off.

For over 100 years in Korean movie history, they have never come to a final nomination of getting an Academy Award. This year, Bong Joon-Ho, the director of the movie Parasite, received four outstanding Oscar Awards. Nobody has ever even imagined that a Korean movie would have been able to receive not one or two, but four awards.

Judging from that trend, I think Korean products and movies present great potential to people in the global market as well. One great example is that a lot of people in the world are addicted to watching Korea dramas because of their high quality and great themes.

How does the wave of Korean Culture affect the minority status for Korean/Asian Americans in the U.S.? 

When we talk about the minority status, I think it’s all in our head. When you consider yourself as a minority, obviously, it doesn’t give you much pride. We must feel proud to be Korean Americans given the Korean Culture has proven to be excellent and it should give every Korean American great confidence and pride. 

If we box ourselves in the concept of minority and show lack of confidence, we are not going to be able to overcome challenges and reach our full potential. We always want to think bigger and higher, that we are making a difference in mainstream society and take ownership in our culture and services to others. It shows the power of our possibility as a community 一 not just as minorities, but Americans who can contribute to our community in full potential. 

Do you have advice for future Korean/Asian Americans leaders? 

Find your own niche (talent) and give your best to create your own skill sets and foundations. Some people find it early on, some people take a lot longer than others. I suggest trying to be exposed to different fields as quickly as possible to find out what you are good at, whether it be politics or business. 

The most important elements to becoming a successful leader are transparency, integrity, and true leadership. Your role is to bring people together and come to an amicable resolution to achieve success. You have skills to negotiate, convince others to make a positive outcome, and build trust with people. Please be straightforward and honest with people you are interfacing every single day. For example, when there’s an issue that impacts the economies of local cities, you have to bring a consensus. Nothing will be 100% satisfactory, but when you come to a reasonable compromise and resolution, most people in the community will trust and respect. This is what I call leadership. 

What is Sukhee Kang’s next goal? 

I’ve been in politics for over 20 years, and of course, I won many elections and even failed a couple times. I have worked hard to bring great public policies and feel I accomplished a lot, which I never thought was possible until I tried. So, what I want to do next is to play a role as a mentor to cultivate the future leaders for the next generation. I want them to continue their legacy as Korean American leaders and continue to shine in America. With that goal in mind, I’ve been supporting and helping candidates who can become the true leaders of our society. I will continue to do that in the months and years to come. 

The comments below from the former Mayor Kang were requested on May 31, 2020 and added to the original interview in light of current events. The interviewer appreciates Mr. Kang for providing his insight in such a sudden request and inspiring communities to build bridges as the U.S. needs to be united more than ever.

Many news media have referred to Korea as an exemplary country that countered against COVID-19. How and why was Korea successful in containing the spread of the disease?

Korea was hit hard in the beginning before it hit the U.S. As you remember, more than 100 countries rejected Korean visitors and in fact, it put Moon administration in hardship especially right before the general election held on April 15. But, thanks to many selfless and dedicated medical professionals and volunteers who tirelessly worked hard day-and-night to contain the situation, Korea came out of the corona crisis much earlier than most countries. I believe the very reason for success came from the number of tests they executed to find accurate status of confirmed cases and follow through with every infected patient.

In your opinion, what could the U.S. have done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and contain it?

The U.S. should have reacted much earlier in testing patients and adopted measures to deter by wearing masks and implementing social distancing policies throughout the country.

The data shows that African American and Hispanic populations are the most vulnerable to the disease. What can America do to address this issue? What does America’s healthcare system have to do with this issue?

Unfortunately, records indicated that there were higher tendencies for low-income families who were affected more than other families. American health systems need more work done to provide better coverage and protection for low-income families, especially families with young children.

Both the 1992 LA riots and the George Floyd protests were fueled by police brutality towards African American men. How do you see this issue, and what has and has not changed since 1992? Why is history repeating itself?

Two incidents of police brutality resemble their nature of racism or racial bias. The only difference is that the LA Riots severely damaged K-Town in Los Angeles where many Korean businesses were targeted by the protesters, but the current protest has been spreading all over the U.S. expressing their anger of injustice and extreme racism. 

The Korean community was unprotected in 1992 and therefore, damages were unprecedented. It was, indeed, a lesson learned for the Korean American community that they couldn’t live alone. They learned how to build bridges with other ethnic communities and the Korean American community has contributed a great deal in economic prosperity for the region and social justice. 

So, on these protests that are spreading across the country, while I support “Black Lives Matter,” violence should never be justified and tolerated. It reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King’s immortal speech: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” After all, this is the United States of America where everybody is welcomed and respected regardless of origin, color of their skin, or religion.

We all should be united, not divided. I sincerely hope this protest ends soon.


impactmania’s past interviews and programs have been featured in international media, a number of universities, the UN, U.S. Consulates, and have been cited by Harvard Business School, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and Duke University Press. impactmania’s Women of Impact program was awarded the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant (2019).