"The letters I exchanged with the late president Park Chung-hee are historical records of the past. I hope that the letters will fill some missing links in historical records about that past."
Dr. Kim Wan-hee, 83, a former Columbia University professor of electronics engineering, made these remarks when he sat for an interview with the Korea IT Times at a hotel in downtown Seoul on Monday, May 25. He arrived in Seoul the previous day for a week-long visit. The purpose of his latest visit was to donate about 130 personal letters and reports he exchanged with the late president Park Chung-hee, and letters his wife exchanged with Park's wife, the late Yuk Young-soo, to the Presidential Archives and Records Administration while he was in Seoul. Dr. Kim is called the godfather of the Korean electronics industry for his contribution to laying the foundation of Korea's electronics industry in the late 1960s.
Q: Why did you decide to donate your personal letters you exchanged with the late president Park Chung-hee
A: Some 130 letters and reports I exchanged with, and copies of reports I submitted to, the late president Park Chung-hee are historical records of the past. I hope that the letters will fill some missing links in historical records about that past. They will show how President Park tried to promote the country's electronics industry with my help. However, it is a donation with strings attached -- the Presidential Archives and Records Administration will have their ownership and I will have the right to use them. President Park's official presidential activities were recorded in archives, but his unofficial activities, like his frequent meetings with me, were not. So I call these parts "missing links."
Q: This year, Korea marks the 50th anniversary of the launching of its electronics industry. As the founder of the industry, you must have many things to recall.
A: Fifty years have passed so fast that I can't even feel those years have really gone. Currently, the electronics and IT industries account for two-thirds of the entire industry of the country, which we couldn't even imagine in the past. We only hoped that the electronics industry would take up about a third of the entire industry. At that time, it was very difficult to get even a phone installed in your home. But now the development of cellphones, computers and semiconductors is remarkable.
Q: Please tell us something you still remember vividly regarding your one-on-ones with the late president Park.
A: I still vividly remember what I recommended to President Park - the introduction of color TV broadcasting. I was then chair of the electronics engineering department at Columbia University at a very young age. In a tete-a-tete with President Park over dinner one day, I recommended that the country introduce color TV broadcasting. But he was reluctant, because of his consideration of low-income people who couldn't even afford black and white television sets. But I laid emphasis on color TV broadcasting's potential creation of high value added.
Q: As seen in the global market share of Korean semiconductor chips and cellphones, Korea's electronics industry has developed rapidly over the past few years. How do you see the current status of the country's electronics industry
A: The semiconductor sector has developed remarkably thanks to government support and continued investments by businesses despite difficulties. Though still unsatisfactory, the communications sector has developed much more rapidly than expected. What the government and the industry should do now is make continued efforts to catch up with new global technological trends.
Q: What problems do you think the Korean electronics industry now have
A: The first and foremost problem is that the industry is too much dependent upon government support and lacks self-confidence. In other words, the industry pins too high expectations on the government. The second problem is, the domestic market is too small for electronics manufacturers to test their prototype products. That's why they're making a long list of trials and errors in the process of developing new products. Businesses should be courageous to develop and apply original and creative ideas to their new inventions.
Q: Last but not least, please tell something to young electronics engineers or the electronics industry as a whole.
A: Although the country lacks many natural resources, young Koreans are very creative and have original ideas. And they can adapt to circumstances very well. Unfortunately, I haven't found any world-renowned software inventions made in Korea. Software is what we can create with as little capital as possible. I hope that next-generation young Koreans will develop and create a lot of new software programs in the future. They need to focus on some specific fields, not broad and general ones.
Dr. Kim obtained his MS and PhD degrees at the University of Utah after graduating from Seoul National University in 1950. In 1956, he obtained a faculty position at Columbia University, where he taught electronics engineering for 22 years. He was the youngest and first Asian professor who obtained tenure as a full-time faculty member at Columbia, one of the Ivy League schools. He currently is a special advisor to International Technological University in Sunnyvale, California.
He lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife. He has one son and one daughter, both lawyers practicing in New York. His son, Richard K. Kim, is the first Asian partner at a prestigious law firm in the city, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.