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Apr 28, 2023 | In The News

Two brightly colored hanboks, reminiscent of springtime in Korea, stood out in a sea of glamorous gowns at the White House, where distinguished guests came together for a state dinner honoring South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee.

The hanboks — traditional Korean clothing — were worn by Orange County Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, two of the first Korean women elected to Congress.

Yoon’s visit was historic in more ways than one: It was the first state visit to the U.S. by a Korean president in over a decade in a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the alliance between the two countries.

The day following the state dinner, Yoon delivered a speech touting said alliance to a joint session of Congress — possible largely due to Kim and Steel’s efforts.

Back in February, when Kim was named chair of the Indo-Pacific Subcommittee, she and Rep. Michael McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, asked Speaker Kevin McCarthy to invite Yoon to address a joint session of Congress. Steel said she, too, implored McCarthy, who promised her it will happen.

And when Kim stopped by South Korea earlier this month as part of a delegation visiting East Asia, she and McCaul hand-delivered to Yoon the official invitation for him to address the joint session, which he accepted, she said.

The two OC lawmakers were also part of the team that escorted Yoon to the podium for his address — at the request of McCarthy.

During his speech, Yoon recognized Kim and Steel, as well as Reps. Andy Kim of New Jersey and Marilyn Strickland of Washington. The legislators of Korean descent, Yoon said, “are a testament to the alliance spanning generations.”

“He paused long enough for us to stand up and be recognized,” Kim said. “There was thunderous cheering from our colleagues on the floor and the observers sitting in the gallery which was widely watched both here in the United States, South Korea and across the globe. It was really a pivotal moment.”

Kim — who was born in Incheon, South Korea, where she spent part of her childhood before her family moved to Guam — said it’s difficult to find the right words to describe what Yoon’s visit means.

“Going back to almost five decades when I was a young girl running around that small island of Guam, I never imagined that I would be rubbing shoulders with members of Congress and members of the United States Senate as well as rubbing shoulders with the heads of state and especially with the president of my motherland,” she said. “Never imagined that this day will come.”

“It was the greatest moment,” Steel, R-Seal Beach, said. “I had never met him before until two nights ago. I really like his policy — he wants to rebuild (the relationship) between the U.S. and Korea. His speech was just amazing.”

A large Korean American community put their personal lives on hold to travel to Washington, Kim said, just to be in the same room with the South Korean president. Many of them joined a special reception hosted by McCarthy following the joint session of Congress — and they were in tears, Kim said.

“They were telling us how proud they were of being Korean American,” she said. “I just wish that my parents were still with me to witness these historic moments. This day was very special, not only to me and my family, but to the Korean community.”

Steel, who grew up in Japan, was encouraged to hear Yoon’s commitment to a strong relationship between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. — especially to combat North Korean attacks.

“Korea is my motherland, and of course, I am a proud American citizen here, and I just love this country,” Steel said. “What could I ask for more? It was the greatest moment.”

And immediately after the state dinner on Wednesday, April 26, Kim went straight back to work in the Financial Services Committee — still dressed in her hanbok since she didn’t have time to change into “regular clothes,” she said.

The committee worked for 13.5 hours straight, she said.

“I only took time off to get to the state dinner, and I didn’t miss a vote either,” Kim said.

The Orange County Register

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