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COLUMN ONE : The Fast, Rocky Rise of Jay Kim : As the first Asian immigrant elected to the Congress, his success was a cause of celebration and hope for millions of other Asian-Americans. Now, federal investigations have shaken his career.

October 27, 1993|CLAIRE SPIEGEL and K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than half a century ago in Seoul, Jay C. Kim's mother had an auspicious dream about the baby she was carrying. A maiden in flowing Korean attire offered her three magnificent jade hairpins, and she chose one. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she was pleased. Awakening, she was certain that her child would be special.

Last year, Kim rose to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first Asian immigrant elected to Congress. His success was a cause of celebration and hope for millions of other Asian-Americans. For the Korean community, feeling battered by the Los Angeles riots, his victory was deeply gratifying.

But after a meteoric leap from the Diamond Bar City Council to national office, Kim now faces federal investigations into alleged violations of campaign, labor and tax laws related to his engineering business and his handling of his 1992 election campaign. His political career and reputation are at stake. His standing as a rising star in the Republican Party, a champion of free enterprise and an advocate of campaign reform are shaken.

His critics say Kim's political career has been marked by a disregard for basic campaign financing regulations. In formal complaints, opponents have alleged that Kim won his congressional seat unfairly by secretly using about $400,000 from his corporation to finance his campaign.

His defenders say Kim is a decent man who would not intentionally violate any regulations and who is being unfairly singled out for scrutiny because he is a Korean-American. He has a certain naivete about the political system, they say, in part because he comes from a different culture and a small-business background.

In interviews with more than 100 personal and professional associates, a portrait emerged of a man whose memories of war and poverty fed his determination to acquire material wealth and prestige. With the help of government programs, he built a small civil engineering firm into one of the nation's top 500 engineering companies and became a multimillionaire. Trading on his Asian heritage and a gregarious personality, he pursued his political aspirations with the same zeal.

As a new congressman, Kim plunged into his duties. His attendance was perfect, and he made speeches virtually every day. He went on the attack against inefficiency in government, including Congress itself. His Republican colleagues loved him. They were amused by his bluntness and misadventures as a newcomer. He was voted most outspoken freshman in the House.

On the road to recognition, however, Kim has been accused of cutting corners, of valuing the ends more than the means to success. And he has found himself in disputes--over unpaid bills and back taxes, over government audits and campaign finances.

Kim declined to be interviewed for this article but has repeatedly said he did nothing improper. During a gathering of ethnic Korean reporters he apologized for the anxiety his problems have caused the Korean-American community. "I have tried hard to live honestly without violating laws," he said. "My disappointment is indescribable. . . . My dream was to use this opportunity to become a great congressman."

*

Chang Joon Kim, whose name means Golden Splendid Law, was born in Seoul in 1939. His father, a learned man who managed a big restaurant, had waited eight years for a child. He wanted to give his son a particularly elegant name.

Chang Joon was a sickly child so his mother often carried him on her back to a doctor or a mudang, a female spiritualist.

"I handled him like precious gold or jade. . . . I gave him only the best food I could find," said the mother, Woon Kil Choi, now 83 and living in a federally subsidized apartment in Koreatown. "I decided that I would make sure Chang Joon received the finest education possible, even though I myself have never even entered a school gate."

As a boy, Chang Joon was outgoing, always the center of attention. He was generous too, sharing precious rice cakes with his friends. He sang well and visited hospitals to entertain patients. He loved being an only child. "He'd go to the back of the house and pray that he wouldn't have a sibling because he wanted to monopolize our love," his mother recalled.

Chang Joon was in his early teens when the Korean War broke out in 1950. To evade being abducted into forced labor by Communists, his father hid inside their home. His mother was ordered to repair bombed-out railroad tracks at night.

After their home was destroyed, the family put their belongings on a cart and walked 90 miles to Taejon. "My husband pulled the cart, I pushed it from behind and Chang Joon walked beside it," Choi said. "Every now and then, he'd turn around and ask: 'Mother, are you all right?' My son always thought of me."

Even during their three years in Taejon, Chang Joon was irrepressible. He would tell stories to the neighborhood children and make them laugh. People said he would make a good lawyer.

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