UNDERCOVER WORKER at a fluorescent lamp factory, active participant of labor movements, a member of the National Assembly, and eventually the first female leader of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (MOLIT)—though there are many titles and accomplishments accompanying Minister Kim Hyun-mi (Class of ’81, Dept. of Political Science & Intl. Studies), her passion and drive never seem to be extinguished. Being at the forefront of South Korea’s housing and transport policies since her appointment in 2017, Minister Kim’s plans for transition and improvement might not seem drastic. Rather, just like her journey in life, they are diligently pursued—slowly yet surely. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Minister Kim shared her background, present life, and future goals as an individual.
Annals: We would like to hear about your younger days. Can you share some of your experiences at Yonsei University?
Kim: Though born in a small rural village in Jeongeup-si with seven siblings, I was fortunate to have parents who firmly believed that women had to be educated. After attending high school away from home in Jeonju, I was able to achieve my dream of entering Yonsei University. Upon entering Yonsei, I was determined to enjoy my hard-earned freedom, but the campus life that awaited me was not as romantic as I expected. Upperclassmen and friends were often apprehended for participating in student protests, and there were little hideouts available from soldiers who suppressed the protests.
It was from these experiences that I got the motivation to seek after the truth that was not available from the lecture halls and the library. Eventually I found myself hitting the streets of Sinchon to find my answers to the truth. It was an era of enlightenment where I shared the societal tragedy and learned to treasure many values such as democracy, equality, and co-existence that are still some of the critical values of my life.
Annals: You were a member of the National Assembly before being appointed as the Minister of MOLIT. What made you aspire to be a member of the National Assembly in the first place?
Kim: It was a norm back then to be employed as an undercover worker in factories to participate in labor movements—we would call it “being dispatched to worksites.” After graduating, when I was at a fluorescent lamp factory in Incheon as an undercover worker, I came upon the news of Representative Kim Dae-jung’s return to politics and the vacancy of a public relations (PR) manager position. I applied for the role and got it. The role of a PR manager under Representative Kim during the presidential election mainly involved following him on district campaigns and lectures to record and keep track of each session. These experiences taught me fundamentally what politics was back then—the image of a righteous politician, and what to fight and claim victory for. Above all, Representative Kim had specific plans and political visions, and this preparedness gave me the conviction that our society would be a better place to live in if his ideals of politics came true. Having believed that I would not regret joining him in changing the world was the key turning point in my life that shifted my direction from labor movement to politics.
Annals: How has your experience as the Minister of MOLIT been so far?
Kim: My initial appointment as the Minister of MOLIT came as a personal surprise. The staff within the Ministry may have been more taken aback; there were even articles expressing genuine shock over my appointment, as MOLIT had always been under the leadership of male Ministers. I personally interpret that President Moon Jae-in had perceived a female Minister to be relatively more liberal from the traditional idea of authority and bureaucracy. This was especially so since the Moon administration strived to bring a comprehensive transition to the paradigm of housing and transport projects.
Appointment as a Minister came with a significant increase in workload compared to my previous role as a member of the National Assembly. Especially since MOLIT covers a vast area across housings, urban planning, construction, rail system, and air space, there are a lot of areas to take responsibility for—there are new agendas to handle on a daily basis. There are also an overwhelming number of external schedules; there are at least three to four major conferences to attend almost every day and there are endless questions coming from the Standing Committee of the National Assembly regarding the budget and new policies. With so much to handle in and out of the office, it is common to have less than five hours of sleep most nights. There were skeptical views that I, as the first female Minister of MOLIT, would not be able to sustain my position for long. But considering that I have been diligently serving the Ministry for the past two and a half years, I take pride in clearing some of these doubts—at least pertaining to my physical capacity to endure (or persevere) as a Minister.
Annals: What was the most memorable event after being appointed as the Minister of MOLIT?
Kim: It was when I had the privilege to be present at the historic moment of the start of the North-South cooperation. In past inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, the Minister of MOLIT did not play a part. However, I attended the Inter-Korean Summit in April, 2018 as the “Minister responsible for railway” and also attended a following summit in Pyongyang in September, 2018. As I arrived at the North Korean airport, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remembered seeing me from the previous summit. It reminded me of the high commitment that both the South and the North have for the development of railways that will hopefully work like a tow truck for reunification.
Annals: What are some hardships that you faced while serving as the Minister?
Kim: There are times when conflicts of interests between different stakeholders result in postponement in implementing policies. An increase in the number of college dormitories is one of these cases. The current government had planned a policy of expanding college dormitories by constructing buildings capable of holding 50,000 new rooms in the next 5 years. This was to reduce the burden that university students face while looking for residence. However, the policy has been constantly put down due to lessors in college districts who are worried about a decrease in their rental profits.
After a series of discussions, MOLIT decided to purchase existing buildings and remodel them instead of constructing new ones. Taking into account college students’ feedback, we have built “Happy Young Houses” which are apartments for youth designed like dormitories. It provides convenient services and is highly secure. The rental fee is around ₩200,000 to ₩300,000 per month. We have built and rented out five of these apartments so far and we are planning to build more in the future. I have recently visited a newly opened “Happy Young House” in Sinchon and even from the perspective of a mother who has a son attending university, the infrastructure was excellent. I highly recommend “Happy Young House” and hope more college students make use of it.
Annals: What are some projects that you want to proceed as Minister MOLIT?
Kim: My biggest goal as a Minister is to build a foundation for a future where the youth no longer need to worry about residential issues. My marriage life began in a single room, but the situation is much worse for the current generation since they face higher costs of housing and unemployment rate. MOLIT has been and will be providing warm shelters and financial support for the youth, to cater to their needs.
We will continue to focus on generating jobs for the future generation. Facing the 4th Industrial Revolution, we are planning to develop seven key revolutionary technology including drone, hydrogen economy, autonomous vehicles, and Smart City. We will also invest in fields of domestic transport so that we can reach our goal of generating 39,000 new employment opportunities.
Annals: How do you want to be remembered by Yonseians?
Kim: First and foremost, I am not someone who has paved a new road. Rather, I have contributed to strengthening the road that pioneers have built. I am more like the second elder sister. Being a pioneer is a grand achievement, but without anyone walking on the road again, it can never be a real road., I want to be remembered as an alumna who helped shaped the road so that Yonsei graduates in the future can walk on an easier road.
Annals: Do you have any last words for Yonseians?
Kim: I am aware that I have a title of being the very first female Minister of MOLIT, but the success did not come from the impressive title or easy-earned popularity. I started from the very bottom when I first entered the field of politics. Recalling the last 32 years, I have done my best to complete my given duties and those efforts slowly changed the perceptions and judgements towards me. I sincerely hope that you confront the works in front of you rather than be frightened by them. When you resolve those problems one by one and slowly build up your accomplishments, you will one day see a different “me.”