|Sukhee Kang stood at the end of the jetway beaming. He was home, and it felt good. Presidential looking in his blue suit and bold red tie, the Irvine mayor had just stepped from the jumbo jet onto Korean soil at Incheon Airport and was absorbing the moment, almost oblivious to the stream of passengers filing past into the terminal.
“It feels good,” he said to no one in particular. “It’s a beautiful day.”
Two hours earlier, Korean Air Flight #706 had left Japan under cloudy skies. But now a bright noonday sun filtered through the windows at Incheon, casting a warm yellowish glow on the mayor Wednesday. All was right in Kang’s world. This was not the first trip back to his native Korea since making history 12 months ago, becoming the first Korean-born American to win an election as mayor of a major U.S. city. But it was the first official visit with a delegation of city officials and Irvine business leaders. It is a coming out of sorts for a man who immigrated to the U.S. in 1977 and has built an expanding political base in one of the most diverse cities in California. His victory made headlines on both sides of the Pacific, and he has been leveraging that mandate ever since.
It was evident at a late-afternoon meeting with the powerful and highly popular mayor of Seoul, Se-hoon Oh, that Kang has political juice in this megalopolis of nearly 12 million residents. He orchestrated a 30-minute closed-door meeting in Oh’s private board room during which the Seoul mayor referenced Kang as the “Obama of Irvine,” an obvious nod to the arrival here overnight of the U.S. president, who is also hop-scotching Asia right now. Oh, with his boyish good looks and soft-spoken delivery, called Kang a “good friend” and expressed a desire to expand relations as he ends his first term and prepares for a re-election. Back on the bus after meeting with Oh, Kang was energized.
“He is a leader that moves people and agendas,” Kang said of Oh and their budding friendship.
Thirty minutes later across from the Han River at Korea’s National Assembly building, Kang stepped from a tour bus and was greeted with a vigorous handshake from his boyhood friend, Korean General Secretary Kye Dong Park. Walking shoulder to shoulder up the steps of the landmark government building, which houses the Korean legislature, the two seemed like they’d never been apart. Park led Kang and the Irvine delegation on a rare after-hours tour of the Assembly’s chambers, and then he hosted a private dinner there, which was further confirmation of Kang’s widening reputation on the Korean peninsula. One reason is the connection between Korea and Orange County, which has nearly 55,500 Koreans, third highest in the U.S. Kang gets it and wants to leverage the ties by bringing more Korean businesses and investors to Irvine.
With tours of Samsung’s Suwon Complex, Samil Pharmaceuticals and the Hyundai-Kia R&D Center still ahead, Kang is trying to impress on the business leaders on this trip that Irvine and, frankly, Orange County, must get aggressive about attracting new business. Kang knows his vision is ambitious, but doing nothing to create new jobs is unacceptable. That’s one big reason he has traveled halfway around the world. The other was plain as day as he stood smiling in Incheon Airport today. Like most native sons and daughters, it’s special to come home.
Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang just stepped off
Korean Air onto his native soil in Korea Wednesday at noon.
Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang and Seoul, Korea, Mayor
Se-hoon Oh pause together.
Downtown Seoul from the 23rd floor of the Lotte Hotel
OC METRO Publisher blogs at Narita International Airport
Wednesday morning waiting to board Korean Air bound for Seoul.