Reshaping His ‘American Dream’ – DSS Special Agent Reflects During Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

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Special Agent Scott Kim, posted to Seoul, South Korea, is monitoring more than 50,000 protestors gathered outside the U.S. Embassy Seoul in 2009. (Personal Collection)
Special Agent Scott Kim, posted to Seoul, South Korea, is monitoring more than 50,000 protestors gathered outside the U.S. Embassy Seoul in 2009. (Personal Collection)

Reshaping His ‘American Dream’ – DSS Special Agent Reflects During Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Special Agent Scott Kim grew up in a small, blue-collar town in the shadow of New York City’s metropolitan skyline. Living among predominantly Irish and Italian American families, his was the only Asian family in the neighborhood. Yet his Korean heritage was always present in his family life, due in large part to his parents’ efforts. And his appreciation of his Korean roots only grew as he entered adulthood. His cultural journey continued into his career with Diplomatic Security as well as in his personal life as both a husband and father.

“Growing up with my family having the only Asian faces in town, I was always aware of being different than everyone else. But I was raised to never believe or allow that our ethnic and cultural background would ever impede me from achieving success or the American Dream,” said Kim. “My family was always very good about maintaining our culture in a positive light, whether it was eating Korean food, attending a Korean church, or taking classes at a special Korean cultural immersion school. Instead of playing Little League on the weekends, I took classes on Korean language, culture and tae-kwon-do. We also spent summer vacations in Korea visiting grandparents.” 

“My parents were all about achieving the 'American Dream.' To them, this meant succeeding in school, in work and in raising a family. So education played a huge part in reaching that goal. It was a foregone conclusion that I, as well as my siblings, would attend graduate school and go on to become professionals,” said Kim. “Following undergrad, I went on to attend law school in New York City, so I guess I was on the path to success, according to my parents."

“But then, I met a retired DSS agent who shared his experiences and stories about serving overseas and with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).” said Kim. “I’d never really considered government or foreign service as a career choice. But the more he told me about his experiences and opportunities, the more interested I got. Fortunately, he called me up one day and said, ‘DSS is hiring.’ I applied and was hired.”

Special Agent Scott Kim escorts Team USA moments before they enter the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies parade of athletes in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Personal Collection)

Throughout his career as a special agent with DSS, Kim always considered what success and the American Dream meant to him. At first, his family was concerned about his career change. His first few assignments in the DSS Los Angeles Field Office, as an Assistant Regional Security Officer in Algeria and then as a team leader with the Office of Mobile Security Deployments was about as far from the courtroom as can be. His next assignment to Seoul, South Korea, turned out to be a turning point for him and his family. 

“I consider being posted to Korea a significant moment in my career with DSS. Not only was it an exciting and busy time to be in Korea, but I also met my wife there. Together, she helped me to further reconnect with Korean culture,” said Kim. “I’m one generation removed. So even after arriving to Korea, I was still considered an 'outsider.' My accent, my haircut, my clothing, always gave away the fact that I was born and raised in the United States. But my wife helped me bridge that gap and finish that tour with an even deeper and more profound understanding of my cultural identity."

That connection to his Asian roots continued at his next overseas assignment as the Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Shenyang, China. The Consulate was one of four among the constituent posts at U.S. Embassy Beijing. But unlike all the other Mission China posts, Shenyang was the last Consulate operating as a “lock and leave” post. Without a Marine Security Guard (MSG) detachment, Kim was literally responsible for securing the building every night at the close of business.

“It is common at most posts around the world to have a detachment of MSGs helping to support security. When I arrived to Shenyang, there was no MSG presence.” said Kim. “But during my assignment, I helped activate a detachment under some very strict guidelines. I’ve been told that it usually takes about two years to identify a post, get the preparations ready -- housing, staffing, all the infrastructure, security, countermeasures, etc. We did it in seven months.” Because of his work in Shenyang, Kim subsequently was awarded the 2014 MSG Company C (East Asia and Pacific Region) RSO of the Year.  

Special Agent Scott Kim (center) with the Marine Security Detachment while serving as Assistant Regional Security Officer in Seoul, South Korea, in November 2007. (Personal Collection)

“We had wonderful leadership, colleagues, and locally employed staff there. So, it was a great overall experience, although the pollution was challenging at times,” said Kim. “The State Department’s Chinese language training I received was also particularly helpful.”

Now back in the United States, Kim is currently a supervisory special agent in the DSS Washington Field Office. But he still considers his favorite assignment was South Korea.

“I like to joke that I’m contractually obligated to say that Korea was my favorite assignment because I met my wife there -- but it’s true,” said Kim with a laugh. “I definitely wanted to serve there for personal reasons -- to maintain and learn about the culture and my roots. I was eager at that point in my life to see the world and to see where a career with DSS would take me. ” 

“During my tour in Korea, there were also many other Korean American officers serving there -- it was a very close knit group. We all came from different personal and professional experiences. But when we got there we realized we all had similar backgrounds. The colleagues I met there were from different agencies, age groups, and parts of the country. But we all came to reconnect, to relearn, re-experience what it means to be a Korean American. So, that was the unknown benefit -- that I developed many deep friendships,” said Kim. 

“You don’t realize until you are a parent how important connecting and maintaining ties with your culture is,” said Kim. “I try to maintain that identity for my family and am always looking for opportunities to promote that within my family.”

Diversity Working Group Chair Scott Kim (left) leads a meeting of the Diversity Working Group at DS headquarters, Arlington, Virginia, in January 2018. (U.S. Department of State)

Yet Kim noted that as he continued to expand his personal knowledge of his cultural roots, he also came to realize and respect the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace as well. When he returned to the Washington, D.C. area, he became involved in the DSS Diversity Working Group, which advises DSS leadership on workplace diversity and inclusion issues, and he has served as co-chairperson of the group for the past year. 

“Working with people from diverse backgrounds definitely helps us all embrace multiple perspectives and draw talent from all segments of society. When I started working with the Diversity Working Group, I started really understanding the importance and value of diversity and inclusion -- not only in the workplace but also in life generally. That is what will define my version of the American Dream,” Kim concluded.

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About the Author: Barbara Gleason serves in the Office of Public Affairs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.