Ambassador to Albania Reflects on Career in Foreign Service

Yuri Kim spoke on her experiences traveling the world as a U.S. diplomat and advised students on the benefits of exploring new cultures and perspectives at an event hosted by the Taiwanese American Student Association.

By Sabrina Chang

On Saturday, January 29, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Albania Yuri Kim spoke to students at the Taiwanese American Student Association’s virtual speaker series event. Kim reflected on her past experiences, offering advice on finding one’s path after college and navigating the challenges of being a minority figure in the workplace.

Kim, who was born in Korea and moved to Guam as a child, is the first Korean American woman and the first person from Guam to represent the United States as an Ambassador. Prior to this position, Yuri held many other high-profile offices in the State Department and worked on key foreign policy and national security issues across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Kim attained a B.A. in political science at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and hoped to pursue a career in law. However, after failing to get into her desired law school, she found herself at the University of Cambridge, where she earned her M.Phil. in political theory. “The best success often comes from failure,” Kim said.

After her time at Cambridge, Kim returned to UPenn to find a job that would let her see the world. “I was waiting to speak to my counselor, and while I was in the waiting room, something caught my eye,” she said. “There was a brochure that was kind of colorful, and it turned out to be the brochure for the foreign services exam.”

Kim began her career in foreign policy in Beijing taking Chinese language courses, then she served as a political-military officer in Tokyo. She then returned to Washington D.C. and served as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I learned a lot. Part of it was seeing the places, but a greater part of it was meeting people in these countries and other members of the State Department,” Kim said.

From there, Kim served as a political officer in Korea, then a member of the American delegation to the six-party talks focused on denuclearizing North Korea. She traveled to North Korea several times, sometimes even alone. Kim said, “I knew Korea through the eyes of a Korean child, so to be going back there as an American diplomat and being able to see Korea from another angle was truly eye-opening.”

However, Kim did not want to be known as the “Asian who just did [East] Asia.” She signed up to travel to Iraq to serve as the Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “For one year, I lived in a place where bombs were going off on a regular basis, and I was calling home to my family to keep them calm,” Kim said. “When we got a warning that a mortar was coming in, we would climb under the bed or go into the bathtub to maximize the chances of survival.”

Kim’s frequent travels made her realize the value of observing different cultures. “Being a diplomat is all about learning the language, both figuratively and literally,” Kim said. “And my background as an immigrant had a huge influence on how I relate to the world and how I relate to other people.”

After her time in Baghdad, Kim worked in Turkey for three years as the Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. From there, she took on her current job as Ambassador of Albania, a personal representative of the president.

“The most rewarding part is getting to represent the country I love so much,” Kim said. “It feels amazing to be the person who gets to sit in front of the American flag.”

As an Asian-American woman, Kim is usually outnumbered in a room, but she does not let that drown out her voice. “Assert your rights and don’t accept injustice as culture,” Kim said. “If you are artificially suppressing half your population based on sex, you are denying yourself talent, labor, and ambition.” She also stressed the importance of having allies in these situations. “A lot of times when you are trying to change the situation, it is really important to have people stand up for you, but you also have to be able to stand up for others,” Kim said.

While speaking about her assignments and travels, Kim continuously emphasized the value of seeking out new perspectives. “Life is full of surprises, and if you’re open to those new experiences, they can be wonderful,” Kim said. “As you go from experience to experience, try to build a story.”