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About Stephen | Stephen's Story

Stephen's Story as Told by His Sister


With his birth on August 15, 1967, my brother, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, took his place in the river of history — what came before him and what was yet to be. My brother was born on the 22nd Anniversary of Korean Liberation Day (from Japan) in a small hospital in Seoul, Korea.

Though born prematurely, my brother grew up healthy and strong under the loving care of our warm, devoted, and creative young mother. She provided not only physical comfort and wonderful home-cooked meals, but a loving, intellectual, and tolerant home environment. She taught us how to play the piano, shared with us her appreciation for horticulture, and tried her very best to fill the void left by our father who was absent during most of our early years, traveling for his export company.

Legacy of Survival

Women played a central role in our upbringing, both grandfathers having passed away during the Korean War. Our maternal Grandmother Chang had a strong influence on Stephen, instilling in him a distinctive sense of history, a sense of where he fits in the history of the Korean peninsula, and undeniably, his sense of humor. With her husband’s death during the Korean War, she became a single mother at the young age of 33, with four small children (from 3 months to 10 years old; our mother was the eldest). She was a remarkable and admirable survivor of the tragedies of Korean history leaving a powerful, poignant, and indelible legacy.

Her stories of survival — of being a refugee in her own country during the Japanese occupation (forced to take on Japanese names and speak the language, amongst other colonial oppressions), of the poverty and devastation she endured raising four children alone throughout the Korean War and the lean years that followed, of her fight against the stigma that came with her children being fatherless, of the violent tearing that the Korean war wrought on the security and prosperity of the Korean people, and of her dreams and wishes for a prosperous and modern Korea — resonated deeply in Stephen.

Through Grandma Chang, Stephen incorporated into his psyche the personal stories behind the tumultuous and violent history of the Korean peninsula beyond what was taught in school, of the Korean nation’s incredible will to survive and to emerge from the ashes of a brutal war, of one nation and its people’s will to survive the unspeakable destruction and poverty caused by years of colonization and occupation, and then the Korean war. Her life story taught Stephen about finding oneself in the face of adversity, of maintaining dignity in the face of unfathomable humiliation and hardship. Grandmother Chang’s extraordinary story of survival mirrored the Korean nation’s survival through the destruction and hopelessness of war and Stephen experienced this firsthand.

Stephen was Grandma Chang’s favorite grandchild amongst the seven that she had. They shared a sense of humor, playing practical jokes and making games with plays on words and rhymes. Both of them were highly intelligent and charismatic, which meant that most of us could not follow their level of play and struggled to keep up. Until her death in 1998, Stephen remained close to his favorite Grandma Chang, spending as much time with her as he could during summer and winter visits to Korea, holding tight to the special relationship that was formed during his early years.

Our father was a self-made man, highly intelligent, curious, humorous, and athletic. When the Korean War broke out, he managed to pass through middle and high school, working as a houseboy for a British family (where he learned English), running errands on the American and Australian Army bases, and studying hard to prepare for the college entrance exam.

Upon graduation from Seoul National University, he married my mother who had graduated from Ewha University, and joined a growing export company. Because he was one of the rare Koreans who spoke English, he was sent abroad to meet with potential buyers to obtain the sales orders. And he succeeded. Through his travels abroad, he came to appreciate cultural differences, the need for tolerance and open-mindedness, the need for discipline and sports — characteristics that Stephen embraced and absorbed growing up. The link between our father and Stephen through those many years of absence when Stephen was young was the post cards our father sent home from abroad and the hundreds of mini-cars that he brought back without fail, for his little boy. Stephen loved these mini-cars which came to represent the touchable link to his absent father that he missed painfully and the chance to dream of flying all over the globe with his Dad.

From visiting over 30 countries for his work in the export company, he observed first-hand and greatly respected the tolerance and freedom of open societies. He wanted his family to be able to experience the freedoms he had seen abroad during all these years and he wanted his children to have an education based on freedom of thought and creativity. So in 1976, he moved his family to America, to the land of freedom, opportunity, tolerance and meritocracy. This move was the defining moment for the Kim family and laid the foundation for the most formative years of Stephen’s life.

The American Experience

Our family of four immigrated to the United States in September of 1976, settling in the middle-class, predominately Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale in the northern part of the Bronx, New York. My brother and I enrolled in the 3rd and 5th grades, respectively, at Public School 81. Despite the lack of English and being quite shy, Stephen excelled in school and eventually skipped the 6th grade after his teachers said he was too advanced for his peers. He went on to Junior High School 141, then Fordham Preparatory school, an all-boys Jesuit prep school with a dress and hair code.

With no special English language support from school and with a mom who did not speak English, the bulk of the teaching fell on our father. Every evening, our father required that we learn English by reading the Charlie Brown Pictionary book (this was our first English book). We had to write out entire books by hand. My brother and I became study-mates, repeating the words and definitions by Snoopy, Lucy, and others in the cartoon Pictionary book. We also helped each other decipher homework assignments. We had a lot of catching up to do in school if we were to get admitted to top tier colleges, which was our goal. It was a sink or swim situation: we decided we would “swim.”

As challenging as these first years in the United States were, they also produced some of my fondest memories of my brother. With virtually no other friends and both of us ostracized by our respective bullying classmates, we were each other’s best and most reliable friend and spent all of our free time together hanging out. Every night we peered out of the windows of our shared room on the 10th floor of our apartment, wondering about our futures and missing our friends left behind in Seoul.

As a teen, Stephen was skinny, tall, and athletic. He was an excellent swimmer (he remains so to this day), played on the varsity tennis team in high school, and later learned to play golf.

He was a typical American kid; he just loved being a simple kid. We had countless, endless lazy summer days hanging out together, bicycling, swimming, making hamburgers and ham sandwiches for lunch, watching him guzzle can after can of his favorite grape soda, and collecting and trading baseball cards. But at a dinner when he was 11 years old, our father looked at Stephen in his sweat-stained baseball uniform and asked him: “So, what were the contents of today’s New York Times’ editorials?” He gulped as he had no answer. But it was expected that from that day on he would know the contents of the editorial page — and he did.

He read voraciously. He read every single book written by Hemingway by the time he was 14. By 17 he had read Plato’s Republic and was mesmerized by ancient Greek philosophy (especially the pre-Socratics) and the Existentialists. But he was not all about books. While our father taught him that a man needs to be athletic as well as intellectual, our mother taught him to be warm, passionate, and have empathy for others, especially those less fortunate. Stephen taught Sunday school at our Catholic church every week, worked as a volunteer at the local hospital, and helped our mother at her floral business by delivering floral arrangements in Manhattan.

I remember my parents’ decision to send my brother to Fordham Prep, a private Jesuit school in the Bronx. At Fordham Prep, he came to love, respect, and adore the Jesuits and the Jesuit way of teaching, and briefly considered becoming a Jesuit priest. After graduation from Fordham, he went to Oxford University for the summer where he studied Shakespeare and kindled his enduring love of English literature. To this day, in his conversations, emails and briefings, he sprinkles his remarks with quotations from some of his closest “friends” — T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and W.H. Auden.

He graduated with honors from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, received a Masters degree in National Security from Harvard University, and earned his Ph.D. in Diplomatic and Military History from Yale. To this day, Stephen remains adamant that the study of history is the real deal.

After receiving his doctorate from Yale, Stephen was expected to become a professor. He received a tenure-track position offer but he confided to me that he simply could not imagine teaching the same course for 30 years. He said, he would be bored but what about the poor students?!  He always cared about imparting what he knew to the younger generation. I’ve always said, and my parents accede, Stephen looks young but thinks like an old seasoned veteran. Mom always said that Stephen would utter, out of the blue, deep philosophical observations — as a young child. Anyway, by my mom’s account, he was a precocious child who kept on asking, what time is it? His sense of time was something I laughed at then but know now why – he was always in a hurry because he always knew how little time a life is. He tells me that he tells people who are very close how much they mean to him because saying that every day is not enough.

In an incredibly bold move, he declined the academic position. He had no back up, no Plan B. He had no job prospects. Even after declining to opt for a secure professorship, he undertook another risky move. He wanted to convert his dissertation into a book. He was deeply bothered that no one ever read a person’s dissertation, even after the student sacrificed years and years of hard work. He was determined for his work to not go to waste. While converting his dissertation into a book (which came out in 2000) Stephen opted to apply to government-related organizations. He thought that the understanding of history could be of use. He always believed that. He used to tell me that the prejudice against the art of history (he called it an art) was so ingrained among the elite and the public. Yes, they say, it’s nice to know what happened but so what? Stephen thought that history was alive. He thought history was the only real data humanity has. He declared to me, I studied history to change history!

Career in Foreign Policy and Intelligence (drawn from conversations with Stephen’s former colleagues )

Center for Naval Analysis

He gained employment with an operation research organization called, The Center for Naval Analysis. There, he was asked to analyze Operation Allied Force (Kosovo), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). He participated in war games with with the Commander in Chief, US Naval Forces, Europe/European Command (CINCUSNAVEUR/EUCOM) at Stuttgart. He even participated in an urban warfare training operation with the Marines. He was leading a comfortable life when September 11 happened. He lost 3 friends that day and he still does not talk about it much. But he told me that he would not just let history pass before him. He was itching to do something but did not know how he could contribute. He was too old to join the Marines (he still to this day admires the Marine Corp; he says they are just like the Jesuits, except they are nicer!!!). He felt he could not master a new foreign language at his age. At this time, someone from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had an informal conversation with someone from Harvard, and Stephen’s name was mentioned, and one thing led to another and Stephen found himself in Livermore, CA. There, he worked as the North Korean country team analyst.

Work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Because of his background and academic studies, Stephen was an ideal candidate for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (“Livermore”). He went to the lab in 2002 with a deep and unique understanding of North Korea, and the cultural elements that inform policy. Stephen’s expertise, however, extended well beyond Korea. He had extensive knowledge of East Asian geopolitics, in particular the unspoken prejudices, resentments and assumptions that influence policymaking in and toward Asia.

At the same time, because of his education and experience working in Washington, D.C., when Stephen arrived at Livermore, he had an understanding of the workings of the Washington national security community. Stephen’s prior experience gave him insight into the needs of the Intelligence Community and policymakers, as well as an understanding of their frustration with the seemingly intractable nature of the problems in North Korea. Indeed, as Stephen understood better than anyone, the United States’ efforts to significantly influence North Korean behavior had proved to be largely ineffective.

At Livermore, Stephen immediately began to use his expertise to increase the Intelligence Community’s understanding of North Korea. Upon being assigned to a project pertaining to North Korea, Stephen quickly absorbed intelligence and technical information and married it to his existing knowledge of the country in order to develop a more holistic view of the country’s nuclear weapons program. Stephen’s efforts yielded valuable insights that created an expanded array of options for policymakers to pursue.

The deeper Stephen analyzed the problem, however, the more it became clear that satisfying the desire of policymakers to find ways of influencing North Korea’s nuclear policy, required a systematic study of what made the North Korean regime tick, what were its strengths and weaknesses. Stephen was eager to pursue this study because he saw an opportunity to bring to bear his expertise to substantially enhance the United States’ ability to gain leverage vis-a-vis North Korea.

Stephen was acutely aware of, and deeply affected by, the injustices visited upon the people of North Korea by their leaders. He vehemently opposed the regime’s policies and practices and was in touch with dissidents and heroic individuals who were rescuing North Korean escapees. In fact, he had enough personal integrity and credibility that Chun Kiwon, the Oscar Schindler of North Korea, and Kim Sungmin, President of Radio Free North Korea (and a North Korean defector) granted him an in-depth meeting to talk about their on-the-ground experiences and invaluable insights into North Korea. Stephen had a deep visceral reaction to the suffering of the North Korean people and he saw it as his duty to do everything in his power to provide the U.S. Government with sound analysis that brilliantly dissected the weaknesses of the regime and how these weaknesses could be exploited to change the situation in North Korea.

Stephen developed a briefing about the state of North Korea, emphasizing indigenous developments which were being largely ignored by others, why these developments were important indicators of the regime’s stability, and how these developments were key indicators of potential profound ferment within North Korea.  This briefing also provided an excellent analysis of the underappreciated extent to which the regime relied heavily on the supply of goods from abroad to maintain its power and to keep key pillars of the regime content. Stephen culled information from all sources to arrive at his groundbreaking and coherent analysis. No intelligent person receiving this briefing would have failed to draw inferences regarding what steps the United States could take in order to exploit this analysis. (Later, in a separate study, Stephen explicitly outlined how these developments could be exploited).

Stephen had the opportunity to provide his briefing to the Defense Policy Board.  When he finished his presentation, I am told the audience was very much taken aback by his penetrating analysis (they had never heard anything put together like this before).  Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in the audience.  Stephen’s presentation made such an impression that he was asked to brief Secretary Kissinger again, this time with former Secretary of State Shultz.  Following this, he was asked to give his briefing to President Bush’s National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley and Vice President Cheney.

Work at the Office of the Secretary of Defense – Office of Net Assessment

After his success, Stephen had many offers for employment in DC. He rejected them all. He liked being a Livermore employee. He asked if he could find a temporary assignment in Washington, DC. Soon, a unique opportunity presented itself. Andrew Marshall, I am told, is legendary in defense policy establishment circles and is called deferentially, “Mr. Marshall,” by everyone. He ran the Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Mr. Marshall had been in the same position as Director of Net Assessment since the Nixon years. His influence and power of intellect were legendary. The reputation was that he picked only the best and the brightest. Stephen was brought in to look into China’s nuclear command and control, a topic that no one had touched since there was no information available. To be sure, he continued to follow world events as he always did, seeing links, separating out causality with correlation, rechecking the data, rechecking the source of data. After the one year detail to the Office of Net Assessment concluded, Stephen explored other assignments and found an assignment at the Department of State.

Work at the Department of State

On a detail assignment from Livermore, Stephen accepted a position in 2008 with the Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Bureau in the Department of State. The bureau was responsible for developing and implementing verification and compliance policies related to arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and commitments.

Because a broad range of issues fell under its purview, the bureau engaged in an ongoing and extensive review and analysis of intelligence information. To accomplish this review and analysis, the bureau needed a diverse group of analysts (verification experts, technical experts, country and regional experts, and intelligence experts) to work the bureau’s portfolio. Stephen was a tremendous addition to the bureau’s team and his unique background greatly expanded the bureau’s capacity to engage in an informed and substantive way on many issues, including most directly on issues related to verification plans for assessing the accuracy and completeness of North Korea’s declaration and dismantlement of its nuclear programs. Stephen was also entrusted with reviewing intelligence information across a range of issues and obtaining access to this information for bureau personnel. Stephen excelled in his responsibilities because his perspective on intelligence was informed by a deep knowledge of history, keen cultural understanding, and superior linguistic expertise.

In his work at the bureau, Stephen was responsible for conducting exhaustive reviews of intelligence information from a variety of sources, making sense of and connections across seemingly unrelated reports, and gleaning from a massive amount of information what was most important and relevant to the policymaker. Stephen excelled at evaluating intelligence information and distilling it down to its essence in a way that was accessible and meaningful to key officials. Stephen took his job very seriously and handled sensitive information with the utmost care because he knew all too well the ramifications and implications of its mishandling.

Stephen’s combination of gifts made him uniquely suited to advise the bureau on matters of national security, particularly matters involving Asia. Stephen’s career with the bureau was guided by a deeply-rooted belief in this country’s principles and potential, and a desire to inform and impact global politics. Through his dutiful work, Stephen strove to raise the consciousness of others about North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and the region as a whole. Through Stephen’s eyes, because of who he is and where he came from, informed by years of study and analysis, policymakers could see the region in ways it hadn’t before and they had a window into the perspectives of these countries that afforded opportunities for policy change.

During this time, Stephen was also invited to be the Red Team lead for a war game on nuclear deterrence and escalation sponsored by the U.S. Naval War College and Strategic Command. Through four intense days of engaging on issues of nuclear command and control, nuclear escalation, perceptions of threats, and deterrent decision making, Stephen was lauded for his analytical foresights and real-life crisis situational composure. His participation, they say, allowed U.S. civilian and military policy makers to see how an adversary of the United States saw, thought, and acted – and could defeat them.

Through the tireless work and careful analysis that permeates his career, Stephen has provided this country with invaluable insights into the workings of the North Korean regime and he has remained steadfast in his commitment to working to promote the United States’ interests in its foreign policy-making.


After listening to what Stephen’s friends and former colleagues have said about him, I am filled with pride, but when I reflect on my brother’s life, what is closest to my heart are my memories of the boy who read and read endlessly, quoted philosophers and poets, generals and presidents, loved animal programs on television, National Geographic and Time magazine…the boy who accompanied me to McDonalds for our first purchase in English alone when neither of us spoke English. The boy, whose letter to the editor as a college sophomore, was published by The New York Times in April 1987. The boy who asked Russell Baker what he should do as he ached to write and received a reply saying, “If you want to write, write.” The boy who preferred to read Nietsche and Socrates over comic books or magazines…the boy who begged me to come home earlier from nights out to avoid fights with Mom and Dad. The boy who saved his entire summer earnings from teaching tennis to buy Mom the sunglasses she had wanted for months…the boy who always saved in his piggy bank while I spent my allowance in advance…the boy who comforted his older sister’s broken heart by quoting Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, and Hesse…the boy who claimed that Leszek Kolokowski had to be read to understand Marxism…the boy who read Hans Urs Balthasar as well as liberation theology…the boy who claims that the six most beautiful words in the English language are from the Catholic Mass: “Through him, With him, In him.” He is still that boy but that boy grew into the man he is today.

From the skinny, tanned kid drinking grape soda, riding bicycles and trading baseball cards with me, Stephen grew to be the intelligent, loyal, considerate, humorous man that he is today. From the shy, introverted, bullied Korean kid with broken English in the Bronx, he overcame his shyness through excelling in school, emerging in his young adult years as a confident, mature, but modest and humble young student of world history with remarkable intellect.

From the complexities of his cultural origins — and the ever present pain and heritage of being part of a divided Korea — he embraced America and loves this country and all that it represents.

I am so proud of the man that my brother has become and it is my utmost hope and wish that my brother be allowed to fly again, to emerge from the unthinkable pain of this accusation, to soar, with his sanity, respect, integrity, and dignity intact to continue his life for his family and his beloved country.