MUSCATINE, Iowa–The son of Korean immigrants, Jim Kim arrived in Muscatine as a young child unknown but ready to make friends. Oct. 8, he returned to his hometown to share the experiences of his long and fruitful career. At the Community Foundation’s annual meeting, he shared his life’s story and how his extraordinary opportunities have helped him improve public health and grow prosperity around the world.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Korea had fallen into such deep poverty that not even the World Bank would give it a loan. Kim’s mother fled as a refugee as a child and at 19, his father convinced a border guard to let him cross into South Korea where he studied dentistry and learned English, which later allowed him to work as an interpreter for the US Army during the Korean war. Kim’s parents met in New York while his father studied periodontistry. The couple married and returned to Korea where they had Kim and his two siblings. Five years later, the immigrated to the United States. Eventually, they moved to Muscatine, where Kim spent most of his childhood.
Kim thrived in Muscatine, getting very involved in extracurricular activities in high school. Kim loved playing golf, football, and basketball; participating in Model UN, and serving as senior class president. Along with giving him many fond memories to look back on, Muscatine also taught him many of the life skills he would need to succeed later. “Muscatine is a great place to grow up and it prepares you to deal with everything in the world,” he shared. “I somehow emerged from here fearless of learning something new and I never feel fully alive unless I am banging my head against a problem.”
After a year at the University of Iowa, Kim transferred to Brown University to complete his bachelors degree in human biology. He then continued his education at Harvard, simultaneously completing a PhD in anthropology and medical school. At first, Kim felt unsure if he had chosen the right path. However, the words of a friend’s father spurred him onwards. “You’re going to go to college and do well and you’ll probably go to medical school, but it won’t be enough for you, and when opportunities beyond medical school come, take them.”
The first such opportunity came when he met Paul Farmer and several others at Harvard interested in relieving the plight of impoverished people in Hatti. Kim traveled to Hatti with Farmer and saw for himself the awful conditions people lived in. It made him think, “What is the nature of our responsibility, give our ridiculously elaborate educations?”
Together, Kim, Farmer and several others founded Partners in Health, which provided medical care first to people in Hatti and then in Peru to fight drug resistant tuberculosis. Through Kim’s advocacy, the World Health Organization changed their stance on treating the disease in poor countries, working with drug manufacturers to produce drugs generically so that more people could get the lifesaving treatments they needed. Kim later led the World Heath Organization’s campaign to bring HIV drugs to African countries affordably, saving numerous lives since the early 2000s.
Kim’s zeal for helping developing countries eventually let President Barack Obama to name him head of the World Bank. During his seven year tenure, Kim worked with world leaders to help get money to important causes. He also had the opportunity to meet President Xi Jinping of China and to discover their surprising Muscatine connection. Kim now works to encourage private investment in developing countries to improve their infrastructure and help them realize their aspirations for a better future.
In closing, Kim encouraged people to take what they had learned in Muscatine, along with their own skills and passions, to make the world a better place. He had faith that people would heed his call. “This is a very special place and it asks itself good questions,” he observed.