Transcript of Interview of U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim
With Blendi Fevziu, Opinion, TV Klan
Tirana, October 21, 2020
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador Kim, welcome to the studio of Opinion. I hope you will be open today for this discussion.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Blendi Fevziu: I want to ask you directly. Let’s say, some days ago, ten days ago, parliament approved some changes in the electoral law, the electoral code, but the change was not made according to the compromise, the consensus we had on June 5. After that, we saw a statement by the U.S. Embassy and the European Union. Both sides agree that the support of the U.S. Embassy was for them. The opposition said “it is support for us” and the government said “it is support for us.” Who is wrong and who is right in this case?
Ambassador Kim: I think that the statement that the U.S. Embassy issued was quite clear, which was that the method by which the June 5 agreement was reached was a good one and should have been used as a model for future agreements. At the same time, we cannot deny the competency of the parliament to pass legislation. On the question of whether the June 5th was broken or not, different people have different opinions. If you ask my opinion…
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, I want to ask about your opinion…
Ambassador Kim: My opinion is also very clear on that. What happened beyond June 5th goes beyond June 5th but I don’t consider it to be a violation of June 5th.
Blendi Fevziu: But in fact, in the last 30 years, I can say 28 or 29, we always had a compromise, a consensus let’s say on the electoral code. It’s the first time after 30 years, when we have a change of the code, certainly in parliament, which is not a product of consensus. Is this one, let’s say, a problem for Albania or for the international community?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s very disappointing that the second part of electoral reform was not reached in the same way, because the first part, June 5, was done in a good way. And, it should have been repeated. I think that it’s unfortunate that the main opposition was not present in parliament, and I think it underlines the responsibility of everyone to stay engaged.
Blendi Fevziu: In fact, June 5 was a product of pressure by the international community or the will of the Albanian political parties.
Ambassador Kim: You know, Albania is a sovereign country and politicians here are quite skilled.
Blendi Fevziu: Sometimes they are a sovereign country, sometimes…
Ambassador Kim: I think what they needed was a friend to help them reach consensus. I have been in diplomacy for a while and I have sat at negotiating tables many times and I can tell you that in this particular situation, they wanted to reach a deal and they were happy to have the help of their friends.
Blendi Fevziu: It was the first time the American Ambassador hosted all political parties in her residence to find a solution. Was it impossible for the Albanian parties to reach or to have an agreement or consensus without your help?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s important for leaders to stand by their word. So, all of these political parties agreed that they would reach an agreement by March 31, right? And some time was given because of COVID, but when it dragged on too long, I think it became clear that they needed a little help and I was happy to offer it.
Blendi Fevziu: I think there are a lot of comments in the Albanian media by analysts or journalists, even by the President of the Republic, saying that the embassies or the international community pretend to be independent, but in the end, it is supporting the government. Is that story or comment true?
Ambassador Kim: I think that that’s a misunderstanding of diplomacy. As a diplomat, in my case, I’m dispatched by the President of the United States to represent my government and my country and, what that means is that in the first instance, I engage with the government that is legitimately in place, right? That includes the Prime Minister, the President, but it also includes the rest of the country, which means I talk to regular people, I also talk to the opposition. So, this is not a matter of taking sides. That’s not what we do.
Blendi Fevziu: And then, what is your relationship with the President of the Republic. I think there has been a difficult relation between the U.S. Embassy, including the former ambassador Donald Lu and you at the moment.
Ambassador Kim: I know you guys want me to have a role in your domestic soap opera and I understand that, but what I can say is: my job is very specific. I am here to represent only one side, which is the United States of America. I try to build positive, productive relationships with everybody in power, that includes the President, the Prime Minister, the opposition leader and regular people, and I try to do that as best as I can.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, let’s talk about judicial reform. It was done under the supervision of the United States, the European Union and with their financial support. Now, four years and four months after this reform has been voted in parliament, we are still stuck. What has happened?
Ambassador Kim: I disagree with your characterization. I don’t think that we’re stuck. You know what it is? You’re right: four years and four months is a long time, but I tell you that progress has been made. Four years and four months ago, the laws were put into place with unanimous support from all the parties, right? Since then, courts have been established, judges and prosecutors have been hired, judges and prosecutors have been vetted. In the last month and in the last few weeks, the Constitutional Court is also moving forward. Those two positions that are vacant now have candidates. So, I think it’s a mischaracterization to say that we are stuck. I think that there are people who want to believe that we’re stuck, who want to make us stuck, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck.
Blendi Fevziu: But in 2016, when parliament voted this judicial reform, your idea was that it would take so long to implement it?
Ambassador Kim: It was what?
Blendi Fevziu: In the beginning, the idea was to spend a lot of time for the implementation of the reform?
Ambassador Kim: I think of course, the sooner the better, but I can tell you that in other countries as well, when you’re looking at something as significant as judicial reform, remaking an entire judicial system, it takes time, it’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s not perfect. So, I do not lose hope in the situation in Albania. But, it is also true that we are at a critical moment. Those who are opposed to judicial reform are intensifying their efforts and I think that for those of us who support judicial reform, I count the United States, I count your European friends, I count the people of Albania. This is the time to really dig in and push ahead.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, judicial reform moved out of the system too many judges and prosecutors but at the moment it is very difficult to replace them. That means that we do not have the resources to replace them. What will we do in this case?
Ambassador Kim: I think that the number of judges and prosecutors who were found to be corrupt was far higher in percentage than people anticipated. More than 60% so far have been removed from the system. I think though that the School of Magistrates is working hard to produce more judges and prosecutors. I also think that the judges and prosecutors who have passed vetting already are stepping up to do more so, I think we’re moving forward. Again, it’s not easy, it’s not quick, it’s not perfect, but we’re moving forward.
Blendi Fevziu: You are satisfied with this reform or the product of this reform?
Ambassador Kim: I’m never satisfied and neither are the Albanian people but that’s why we need it.
Blendi Fevziu: But we heard from a long time now, Ambassador, that the big fish will be caught and sent before the court. Until now, no big fish is going to court and the big fishes that were in jail are going out because of these last court decisions. What happened with the big fishes?
Ambassador Kim: Blendi, I sometimes have the impression that these buzz words that you are using are used as a distraction. What I will focus on is the facts. For too long, powerful people in Albania have operated with impunity. That time is coming to an end.
Blendi Fevziu: What do you mean it’s coming to an end?
Ambassador Kim: What it means is that within the last few months, you have seen SPAK announced indictments in very high-profile cases. Now, they can’t talk about this publicly, that’s the nature of their job as prosecutors, but I do think that we are going to start seeing some results.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, but the facts are that we are the most corrupt country in Europe according to reports. We have had many problems until now and none of the powerful people have been punished in the last 30 years. When are we going to have the concrete results of these investigations, SPAK, or the judicial reform?
Ambassador Kim: I think people are right to be frustrated. You pointed out earlier four years and four months, it’s a long time, but we have seen in the last few weeks and months cases that have come up, that are being prosecuted and I think we will be seeing some results.
Blendi Fevziu: There was a lot of hope in the beginning when SPAK was created that SPAK will start fighting corruption and other implications of high officials, but now people are feeling that SPAK is out of its main subject. Is that true? Do you believe in SPAK?
Ambassador Kim: I believe in SPAK. The American taxpayers believe in SPAK. We have invested tremendous amounts of contributions to make sure that SPAK is up and running. There are people who will always be pessimistic about this project. Pessimism is so easy but I look at the facts and what I see is that we have things for example, the National Bureau of Investigation, which didn’t exist and it now exists. There was an attempt to prevent the Director from taking her role. We overcame that. We had just a few people applying for the investigator jobs; in fact, in the end, more than 600 applied for the 60 slots. So, there is progress. These people are now undergoing testing. So, I want people not to give up hope. Those who want justice reform to fail want you to give up hope. They want you to believe that nothing has happened and nothing ever will happen. This is false, it’s propaganda. Look at the facts.
Blendi Fevziu: In fact, the National Bureau of Investigation have only your support or also your assistance? That means, is there U.S. assistance in those two institutions and, if the answer is yes, what kind of assistance are you giving to them?
Ambassador Kim: We have been providing very strong support in the form of technical assistance, expert advice, training, also material assistance for example computers, helping make sure that they have the equipment that they need to do their jobs. We put our money where our mouth is. We don’t just say that we support SPAK and NBI and SPO, we’re actually putting in the investment to show our support.
Blendi Fevziu: Are there American investigators involved in concrete cases in SPAK or NBI?
Ambassador Kim: They are there to provide technical assistance and expert advice. I have a former FBI agent who is part of the staff in the Embassy who provides some of that assistance. But rest assured, we are there to support as fully as we can.
Blendi Fevziu: Can SPAK be a little bit faster than they are? As fast as we want them?
Ambassador Kim: I think we want everything to go as fast as possible but we need to make sure that as they move forward, they are doing so with firm footing, because if you rush too quickly, you will risk failure. And we don’t want this to fail. What I will also say is this: again, propaganda. Those who don’t want justice reform make very high expectations that cannot be met and right now, I think they’re creating this impression that justice reform, NBI, SPO, SPAK, is like an action movie.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, everybody is thinking that…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, one day you wake up and all the criminals are in a net or behind bars. Real life is not like that. Justice reform is going to be difficult. It will take time. It will be imperfect. There will be mistakes along the way, but you know what we have to stick with it because this is a matter of continuing to move forward, one rock on top of another to build this system.
Blendi Fevziu: But we are talking in general because we have a concrete case, for example. The DP, the largest opposition party has sent two dossiers about the incinerators case. They make let’s say the case against Rama, Minister Ahmetaj, Minister Gjiknuri, and some others. It’s the first time SPAK has some documents, I don’t know about the quality of the documents, SPAK will verify them, against the biggest fishes in this country. Do you think SPAK will react as soon as possible in this case?
Ambassador Kim: I have every expectation that the SPAK will do its part. These allegations have been made, the evidence has been presented, and it’s now the job of SPAK to view that evidence and then take it from there.
Blendi Fevziu: Have you heard about this – I think yes, because everybody in the media is writing about this – about the case of the incinerators? Do you have any idea about this?
Ambassador Kim: As I said before, I think the allegations have been made, the evidence has been presented to SPAK, and it’s now in SPAK’s hands. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, one of the conditions of the European Union for the integration of Albania into the EU is the problem of the functioning of the Constitutional Court. Why is it a condition for us when the Constitutional Court is under the supervision and help or direction of the international community?
Ambassador Kim: I think you will have to ask the EU about their position but what I’ll say is the Constitutional Court is absolutely necessary. It a core part of judicial reform. It’s been stuck for a long time, progress has been difficult. But look at what has happened over the last few weeks. In the last few weeks…
Blendi Fevziu: It’s moving, yes…
Ambassador Kim: …both the president and the parliament have published their lists of candidates. Those candidates are now being evaluated by the Judicial Appointments Council and once that’s through, I have every expectation that there will be a functioning Constitutional Court by the end of the year. And I say that because as you said, four years and four months is a long time. It is time to move on, it is time to deliver some results.
Blendi Fevziu: And when do you think judicial reform will be over?
Ambassador Kim: I think that this is going to be an ongoing process. In no country do you have…
Blendi Fevziu: What do you mean an ongoing process, you mean a long process?
Ambassador Kim: What I mean by that is that judicial reform, like democracy itself, is a project that requires constant vigilance and attention, engagement, it’s not something that happens automatically. It’s not something where you wake up one day and say: now we’re finished. That’s not how it works. I do think though that there will come a point when most Albanians agree that they have a judicial system that is transparent, that is fair and that functions according to the rule of law and that’s when we can say ‘we’ve won.’
Blendi Fevziu: And ambassador, the most important event in the Albanian society will be the election of April 25. What are your expectations about those elections?
Ambassador Kim: The rules have now been set. Parties have to stay engaged in this process. And my expectation is that, as before, the international community including the United States, as well as the OSCE and ODIHR, will participate to provide the support that Albania needs to ensure that there are free and fair elections. I think it will be a rough political season…
Blendi Fevziu: Who will guarantee that there will be free and fair elections?
Ambassador Kim: Who will guarantee that? The Albanian people have to guarantee that. The Albanian Government has to guarantee that.
Blendi Fevziu: In 30 years, we never accepted the elections…
Ambassador Kim: There will be support from the international community, but the prime responsibility lies with the country itself. I know people have been disappointed with past elections but ODIHR is also very clear on the recommendations that they have for making elections better in Albania. So, I think that there has been progress, little by little, for example, as part of the June 5th agreement, there was an agreement on implementing biometric identification. That will help eliminate fraud at the voting stations. There are also other requirements and you can find those in ODIHR’s website.
Blendi Fevziu: But Ambassador, the problem is that none of the people who has bought the votes or created problems with votes have been punished. You know very well that there are two dossiers in the hands of justice about the Dibra and the Durrës case, but nobody has been sent to court for this crime.
Ambassador Kim: I think that now that SPAK is fully functional, when clear evidence is presented, they will take action.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, if I ask you, what advice do you have for PM Rama, what will be your advice?
Ambassador Kim: On what?
Blendi Fevziu: On politics.
Ambassador Kim: Life in general?
Blendi Fevziu: I will focus on the elections of April 25.
Ambassador Kim: Look, I’m not an elections expert, but ODIHR is and they have provided some clear recommendations on what should be done for elections in Albania. I will leave it there.
Blendi Fevziu: And what is your advice for Lulzim Basha?
Ambassador Kim: Same thing, again, I’m not in the business of dispensing advice, but I think it’s important for all political leaders to be transparent and honest with voters, to stay engaged in the process, do not walk away and to deliver on the promises that they make to the people.
Blendi Fevziu: Why did you call him Luli Basha and not Lulzim Basha?
Ambassador Kim: You know, this was one of the funniest episodes…
Blendi Fevziu: It’s a detail, I know, but I’m curious.
Ambassador Kim: You know, he calls me Yuri. I call him Luli, and I have this kind of friendly relationship with a lot of people in Albania. And I thought nothing of it, so I was surprised when I saw this article that it’s a sign of disrespect. In fact, that’s the last thing that that is.
Blendi Fevziu: And if I ask you about advice for President Meta?
Ambassador Kim: Same thing.
Blendi Fevziu: The same thing?
Ambassador Kim: Yes.
Blendi Fevziu: He won’t be in the elections because he will be the president, but he is very active in politics in the last months.
Ambassador Kim: So, that’s a very good point. I think that there’s a very unique and very important role that only the president can play as the unifier of the country. And when he played that role in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and he convened the National Security Council, bringing together not only the Prime Minister, but also the main opposition leader, I thought that that was a really powerful and positive example. And I hope that that is something that he will replicate. I know that it is a role that the Albanian people would appreciate. I know that it is certainly a role that Washington appreciates so, I’m looking forward to him playing a very positive role.
Blendi Fevziu: And going from internal policy to Albanian-American relations. What are the most important dossiers or issues we have between the two countries?
Ambassador Kim: I have three priorities here: democracy, defense, and business. On democracy, rule of law and justice reform, getting rid of corruption are core to that. And we’re moving forward on that. The second is on defense, making sure that we provide the support that Albania needs to be an even more capable ally in NATO. And finally, on business, I’m told that I’m the first American Ambassador to really emphasize this point, but to me that’s a natural outgrowth of the relationship. Two weeks ago, the Under Secretary of State was here and we signed an historic Memorandum on Economic Cooperation, first time we’ve done this between our two countries. I think, long overdue, but it’s a good thing that we did it and it’s not just words, because immediately following that, one of America’s biggest companies, Bechtel, signed a Memorandum of Understanding about the Skavica hydropower plant. If that comes to pass it’s going to be the biggest contract involving an American company in Albania. Now, yesterday, I’ll also tell you that I helped celebrate the fifth anniversary of ABI Bank, which is another American investment. They have invested more than 100 million dollars and they own assets of about 750 million dollars in Albania. This is the kind of thing I want to see more of. Why? Because it’s good for Americans, it’s good for Albanians. But what does it require? It’s not free. It requires rule of law. It requires an assurance that when an American investor buys property, he or she is assured that that right will be respected, that contracts will be enforced, that when there is a dispute, they can take it to a court and they will get a fair and transparent judgment. Now, I’m afraid that that’s not quite there right now. And that’s why justice reform right now.
Blendi Fevziu: And those can change also the business climate?
Ambassador Kim: Exactly. Many people think of justice reform and corruption as moral issues. I don’t. I think of them as very practical issues and an issue of business and prosperity. If you don’t have rules that are clear and processes that are clear, you are hurting yourself, as Albania, as a nation. And for me, the most amazing thing is, when I meet young people in Albania, it is clear to me that this is an amazing country, with amazing people. There is no reason that Albania should be poor. No reason that young people should leave here. But you know what, the responsibility lies not with them to stay, the responsibility lies with those in power, all of them, the adults to create the conditions that keep them here. That’s their responsibility. And I hope that when they fulfill that promise, a promise they made, a promise that they showed in the unanimous vote in parliament for justice reform, when they deliver on that promise, people will vote with their feet, they will stay, and Albania will be a better country for it.
Blendi Fevziu: This is a big problem for us, Ambassador, because in the last 30 years of the democratic era, we lost almost half of the population, leaving Albania for better countries or a better life – the United States, Italy, Greece, Germany, and now we have to stop this problem. We have to build our country according to the standards of every other democratic country in the world.
Ambassador Kim: You are absolutely right.
Blendi Fevziu: And, last question. There are a lot of comments that say that the United States, or the attention of the United States, or the foreign policy of the United States, is lower in the Western Balkans in last years. Is that true or not?
Ambassador Kim: Again, don’t listen to the propaganda. Look at the facts, Blendi.
Blendi Fevziu: This is President Trump.
Ambassador Kim: No, look at the facts, look at the facts. I’m really a very practical person. Look at the facts. The President of the United States not only nominated a Special Envoy to work on the Western Balkans but he also had one of his closest aides named as a Special Presidential Envoy to work on Kosovo and Serbia. So, last month, you had a historic agreement, not the full political agreement, but a very practical, real agreement that focuses…
Blendi Fevziu: …yes, on the economy…
Ambassador Kim: …on the economy to get the issues, the broader issues addressed. So, this is real. So, if it were not for COVID, you would see even more visitors, but even in the COVID age, look at what’s happened just in Albania – a historic Memorandum on Economic Cooperation between the United States and Albania, a six-hundred million dollar deal on Skavica that is about to become finalized, a major U.S. bank investing here in Albania. I’m going to work very hard and I’m looking forward to working with the Albanian leaders, businesses, and Albanian youth because this country is wonderful. It has tremendous potential and we need to stay optimistic. We need to stay focused and we need to keep moving forward.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, is the American community in Albania big?
Ambassador Kim: The American community here is medium-size, I think, and they’re quite active.
Blendi Fevziu: And they are focused mostly on? They are Albanian with American passports or American Americans?
Ambassador Kim: They are all American Americans.
Blendi Fevziu: I know, I know. But there are Albanians who get the American passport in the U.S. and there are those born Americans.
Ambassador Kim: I know we have different mixes here, but yes, we have a sizeable number of people who were born in Albania but who are now American citizens.
Blendi Fevziu: I will thank you very much for this interview tonight, Ambassador Kim.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you, Blendi.
Blendi Fevziu: Thank you, it was my pleasure.
Ambassador Kim: My pleasure.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador Kim, thank you very much for hosting us at your residence.
Ambassador Kim: It’s a pleasure to have you here. Welcome.
Blendi Fevziu: You have been here since the beginning of January?
Ambassador Kim: That’s right.
Blendi Fevziu: How is your stay in Albania?
Ambassador Kim: It’s wonderful. It’s the best.
Blendi Fevziu: What do you mean wonderful?
Ambassador Kim: It means that Albania is one of the best countries in the world for an American. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Blendi Fevziu: Because it’s a pro-American country or…
Ambassador Kim: It’s because it is a pro-American country with a rich history and wonderful people.
Blendi Fevziu: But you have been before even in Turkey in a mission. Turkey has almost the same history as us, rich in history, rich in culture. Why do you say Albania is the best country in the world?
Ambassador Kim: Because…
Blendi Fevziu: Or are you speaking as the Ambassador?
Ambassador Kim: I am speaking both as the Ambassador and as a person. For me, Albania…
Blendi Fevziu: It’s not a diplomatic…
Ambassador Kim: No, no. No, Albania is a special place, I think, very very special in the world.
Blendi Fevziu: Because of the sun, because of the weather? Because all previous American ambassadors told me in interviews that the sun is the best thing in Albania.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah. The sun here is bright, warm, but it’s also very gentle. That’s different from every other place in the world.
Blendi Fevziu: Did you have any idea before coming to Albania about our country?
Ambassador Kim: A little bit. I had met with all the previous ambassadors…
Blendi Fevziu: Before being nominated as the Ambassador.
Ambassador Kim: I knew a little bit, but you know it is…
Blendi Fevziu: …general information…
Ambassador Kim: …yeah, exactly… You know, there are many legends about Albania but I didn’t know Albania.
Blendi Fevziu: And then you had meetings with the former ambassadors to Albania? What did they say?
Ambassador Kim: They all told me that once you come to Albania, it never leaves your heart.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s the same for all of them, I think?
Ambassador Kim: All of them.
Blendi Fevziu: What was the best advice they gave you?
Ambassador Kim: I think the best advice they gave was from Ambassador Ryerson who told me
Blendi Fevziu: The first ambassador after the restart of diplomatic relations in ’91…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, he told me about how special this place is, that the place has come a long way, that the United States and Albania have a very unique relationship, and that it’s one that has so much potential, so I’m glad to be here.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador Ryerson has been here at a very memorable moment when Secretary of State James Baker came to Albania. It has been a crazy, crazy day for us and I think for American diplomacy as well.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Blendi Fevziu: You are born in Korea, you are Korean-born
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Blendi Fevziu: and then you were transferred with your family to Guam, which is an American territory.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Blendi Fevziu: There are similarities between Albania and Korea, have you found any in Albania? They are so far…
Ambassador Kim: So far… Koreans and Albanians do not wear shoes indoors so, I feel immediately we have something very significant in common.
Blendi Fevziu: That’s very interesting.
Ambassador Kim: Family is important, tradition is important, where you come from is important. Relationships are important.
Blendi Fevziu: What age did you leave Korea for Guam?
Ambassador Kim: I left when I was 3 but I would go back every summer to visit with my grandparents and relatives.
Blendi Fevziu: How was the life of a girl in Guam, a very far island from everywhere.
Ambassador Kim: Yes. I think for everyone…
Blendi Fevziu: I’m sure, most Albanians don’t know where Guam is. Even for us, it was at the center of attention of the story between Kim Jong Un and the Americans and the missiles.
Ambassador Kim: It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the middle of the Pacific but I also like to think as being in the middle of the world.
Blendi Fevziu: Yeah, the center of the world is where the people live.
Ambassador Kim: Yes.
Blendi Fevziu: And, how did you leave Guam for the United States? How did you start diplomacy?
Ambassador Kim: When I went to university. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, I studied political science, and when I finished there, I wanted to go somewhere different so I went to Cambridge University, in England.
Blendi Fevziu: In England.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Blendi Fevziu: For how long?
Ambassador Kim: Just for one year.
Blendi Fevziu: One year. And then you started diplomacy?
Ambassador Kim: And then I came back and I was looking for a job.
Blendi Fevziu: It was by occasion or you loved diplomacy?
Ambassador Kim: No, it was by coincidence. I came back to Washington and I knew that I wanted to do something in public service. I didn’t want to go into business.
Blendi Fevziu: Ah, you wanted to go into public service.
Ambassador Kim: Yes, definitely.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s important, difficult…
Ambassador Kim: Yes…
Blendi Fevziu: and it’s a duty.
Ambassador Kim: Yes. So, I was looking at various jobs and while I was looking, I happened to see the brochure for the State Department for the Foreign Service. And, you know, there’s a practice exam, in the back. So, while I was waiting, I was looking at it and thought – this looks like fun. So, I signed up for the exam and I kept passing every stage and that’s how I became a diplomat and I feel very lucky.
Blendi Fevziu: And you started your mission, let’s say. During those years in diplomacy, where have you been?
Ambassador Kim: I first spent half of my career in Asia. It was in Beijing and then in Tokyo, and then I came back to Washington to be a special assistant to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Blendi Fevziu: Beijing and Tokyo, two very important sites let’s say for American diplomacy.
Ambassador Kim: And then I was special assistant to Secretary Colin Powell.
Blendi Fevziu: How is Colin Powell?
Ambassador Kim: He’s fantastic.
Blendi Fevziu: I read his book, it’s fantastic.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah. He’s truly great. Then I went to Korea to handle domestic politics and then I came back to Washington…
Blendi Fevziu: What does it mean to handle domestic politics?
Ambassador Kim: Well, in every embassy, in the political section, there’s the external affairs and internal affairs. And external means for example Albania’s relations with Greece or with other countries. Internal means the internal situation, the domestic political situation. So, in Korea, I was in charge of covering the internal
Blendi Fevziu: South Korea?
Ambassador Kim: Yes. And then, I came back to Washington. Chris Hill who was the Ambassador to Korea when he became…
Blendi Fevziu: Well known in Albania because of his mission in Albania in 1991-1993, I remember…
Ambassador Kim: He asked me to come back to Washington to work with him on North Korea.
Blendi Fevziu: You worked in North Korea?
Ambassador Kim: Not in North Korea, on North Korea. So, we were doing negotiations for the six-party talks. They lasted for three years. It involved several trips into North Korea…
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, and did you visit North Korea?
Ambassador Kim: Yes…
Blendi Fevziu: How was North Korea?
Ambassador Kim: It’s a place that is running out of reasons to exist.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s a crazy country. I visited 118 countries in the world but I couldn’t visit North Korea. I sent a lot of emails to the company that arranges travels there and they always said “no, for journalists, it’s almost impossible.” How was life there? Did you have a possibility to move freely in the streets or…
Ambassador Kim: I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a communist country and I think Albanians know what that means.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, I know better than anyone
Ambassador Kim: Exactly. I read your book, by the way.
Blendi Fevziu: I spent 21 years in a communist country.
Ambassador Kim: It’s a communist totalitarian state and I understood that when I was allowed to walk in the streets, I was being allowed to walk in the streets. So, I saw what they wanted me to see. I think that people are born to be free, whether they are Korean, American, Albanian, people are born to be free.
Blendi Fevziu: Absolutely.
Ambassador Kim: And they will eventually be free.
Blendi Fevziu: Let’s hope. And then, from let’s say the mission on North Korea, you spent time where?
Ambassador Kim: Let’s see. After North Korea, I decided I should see the rest of the world and that I should also do something a little bit riskier. So, I went to Iraq.
Blendi Fevziu: Iraq?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, for one year.
Blendi Fevziu: In what year?
Ambassador Kim: 2009-2010…
Blendi Fevziu: In the worst moment for North Korea…
Ambassador Kim: No, not exactly. It was difficult, but we got through it.
Blendi Fevziu: I think some former American ambassadors spent time in Iraq also. James Jeffrey…
Ambassador Kim: Chris Hill, I was there with Chris again.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, you spent how much time there?
Ambassador Kim: Just one year.
Blendi Fevziu: Just one year. How was life in Baghdad? Or it was in the Green Zone?
Ambassador Kim: It was different, a lot of time spent in the Green Zone. I got to go out a little bit. You had the sense that this is a great civilization
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, it is a great civilization.
Ambassador Kim: I’m looking forward to seeing that country restored to what it is supposed to be.
Blendi Fevziu: Yeah, the past, the history of the country, of Iraq. Baghdad and Basra are incredible. Very important centers of civilization in the middle ages.
Ambassador Kim: You have been?
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, I’ve been to Iraq and Iran, both of them.
Ambassador Kim: I’ve never been to Iran.
Blendi Fevziu: Iran is very interesting, because of the history, but in general, the life is crazy because the society is split into two parts, the supporters of the Ayatollahs and the people who are against them. A very horrible story when you see the people under the pressure of a dictatorship let’s say.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Blendi Fevziu: And then, from Iraq?
Ambassador Kim: From Iraq I went to Turkey.
Blendi Fevziu: Turkey? How many years?
Ambassador Kim: Three years.
Blendi Fevziu: Three years, how was Turkey? Turkey is a little bit the same history, not the same but some similarities with the history of Albania. We have been part of the Ottoman empire for five centuries. How was Turkey?
Ambassador Kim: Turkey is an amazing country.
Blendi Fevziu: You were in Ankara not in Istanbul?
Ambassador Kim: I was in Ankara but I did spend quite some time in Istanbul.
Blendi Fevziu: Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Ambassador Kim: Exactly.
Blendi Fevziu: I have seen a painting or a gravure of Istanbul.
Ambassador Kim: Yes. Welcome.
Blendi Fevziu: Thank you. I have been here for the first time in 1994 when Ambassador Joseph Lake invited the journalists for the opening of the American residences.
Ambassador Kim: Right.
Blendi Fevziu: 26 years ago.
Ambassador Kim: Amazing.
Blendi Fevziu: It has been a long time… And here is Istanbul. It’s a painting?
Ambassador Kim: It’s a panting by an artist I admire, Devrim Erbil.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s beautiful.
Ambassador Kim: Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world.
Blendi Fevziu: Very interesting. You spent… you may sit. You spent three years in Turkey?
Ambassador Kim: Three years.
Blendi Fevziu: And after Turkey, again in Washington?
Ambassador Kim: I went back to Washington to head the office that is responsible for NATO and the OSCE. And then, I was asked by Deputy Secretary Blinken to be his Chief of Staff so I did that job. And when that job was finished, I went to our training facility to do some research and then, after that, I came back to be the head of the office that handles Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.
Blendi Fevziu: And who decided for you to be Ambassador to Albania?
Ambassador Kim: I think the President decided.
Blendi Fevziu: The President signed but it was the State Department that proposed to…
Ambassador Kim: Correct.
Blendi Fevziu: How is your life in Albania, in the last nine months let’s say?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s been great. I feel very lucky to be here.
Blendi Fevziu: But difficult because of the pandemic? Different from the other ambassadors.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, but I think if you look at the difficulties that life can offer, the difficulty of having to stay home is not really that difficult.
Blendi Fevziu: I’ve seen you are not very afraid of COVID-19.
Ambassador Kim: We take precautions. You noticed that when I’m seen without a mask…
Blendi Fevziu: But you travel a lot…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, but when I’m in a car, I always have a mask on. I don’t have a mask on when there is sufficient social distancing or when I’m outdoors.
Blendi Fevziu: What does it mean for you or for an American to be the American Ambassador in Albania?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a tremendous honor to be asked to represent the United States anywhere around the world, but for American diplomats in Tirana, it’s a special treat because it is so pro-American.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, I know that, but is it difficult to be the ambassador? The American Ambassador?
Ambassador Kim: No.
Blendi Fevziu: Because everybody is watching you, everybody is following you. The media everywhere. Politicians always care about their relation with American Ambassador. It’s a big responsibility.
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a pleasure.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s a pleasure?
Ambassador Kim: Yes, of course.
Blendi Fevziu: What relations do you have with Albanian politicians?
Ambassador Kim: You know, my job is to have relationships with everybody who has any role in shaping the relationship between the United States and Albania. Now, that includes the elected officials. It also includes opposition leaders, but mostly, it involves the people of Albania. Because elected officials come and go, people stay.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador Kim, you have visited a lot of places in Albania. Which was the most interesting in your opinion?
Ambassador Kim: I would say…
Blendi Fevziu: It’s difficult for an ambassador…
Ambassador Kim: Every city that I visited is unique. That’s what so amazing about Albania.
Blendi Fevziu: What do you remember?
Ambassador Kim: I remember the beautiful architecture of Berat.
Blendi Fevziu: A UNESCO place.
Ambassador Kim: The beaches of Himara…
Blendi Fevziu: South Albania.
Ambassador Kim: Right. The stone roofs of Gjirokastër and the quiet elegance of the place. Shkodër, I love.
Blendi Fevziu: You love Shkodër?
Ambassador Kim: I love Shkodër. You know why? Because people there enjoy life, they understand the arts, they know who they are.
Blendi Fevziu: You visited the Museum of Memory?
Ambassador Kim: Yes.
Blendi Fevziu: What is your impression?
Ambassador Kim: I think it makes very…
Blendi Fevziu: With the idea of North Korea, you understand…
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s very clear that communism does not work and when it works as it wishes, it is a scourge for any country.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes. You made a hike, let’s say from Valbona to Theth.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah.
Blendi Fevziu: Which is one of the most beautiful paths, let’s say. What was your impression?
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a tough hike. That first hour and a half going up in Valbonë…
Blendi Fevziu: Yes…
Ambassador Kim: is a bit difficult, yeah, exactly right. But with most things like that, it’s a matter of putting one step in front of the other, having somebody there who will hold your hand and help you get to the next stage. I’m quite pleased I got to meet a few people on the trail. I think people were surprised but the view is breathtaking.
Blendi Fevziu: Especially the high part where you can see both Theth and Valbonë on the other side.
Ambassador Kim: Yeah, this is a beautiful country.
Blendi Fevziu: And what is your life, let’s say, outside being an ambassador? Traveling is one thing, other?
Ambassador Kim: I read a little bit.
Blendi Fevziu: Do you have friends here?
Ambassador Kim: A few, sure. And I’m looking forward to making more.
Blendi Fevziu: I’ve seen that you are very active on social media. Talking to people, conversations online. I’ve seen…
Ambassador Kim: Yeah…
Blendi Fevziu: A few days ago, I saw you had a conversation with young people. Why are you using so much the social media?
Ambassador Kim: Because I want people to know that I am listening. You know, for me, social media is not just about transmitting what I think. I said at the very beginning, let’s connect, and when I say let’s connect, for me, that’s a two-way street. And when people have real questions and when they have real comments, I want to respond to that. Because they deserve that, they’ve taken the time to say something to me, I want to say something back to them that is real. I try not to give canned, diplomatic answers. I try to be real.
Blendi Fevziu: And, in your opinion, during these conversations with young people, do you think that the young generation will change this country?
Ambassador Kim: I sure hope so.
Blendi Fevziu: We lost a lot of chances to make the country a member of the European Union, even 30 years after the fall of communism. What do you think about the young generation?
Ambassador Kim: I think that it’s extremely important for young people to keep their idealism. And to remind themselves who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Life can be full of cynicism and there are people who will try to change you, to make you just the same as everything that is. And I think it’s important for young people to reject that and say: this country is my country. We’re going to make it different. The relationship between the United States and Albania is important, I’m going to strengthen it. I think young people can be the change agents.
Blendi Fevziu: You know very well the young people want to leave Albania. They are learning German language, because I think most of them know English. They want to leave the country. Most of the people in polls, they want to leave. This is a problem. Who will build this country, if the young generation will leave?
Ambassador Kim: I think it is the responsibility of those who are in power now to ask themselves that question and to take on the responsibility of creating conditions that draw the young people to Albania.
Blendi Fevziu: The people in power are the same in the last 30 years.
Ambassador Kim: It’s up to the voters.
Blendi Fevziu: We didn’t change much the elite…
Ambassador Kim: It’s up to the voters.
Blendi Fevziu: It’s up to the voters?
Ambassador Kim: Yeah!
Blendi Fevziu: Always?
Ambassador Kim: Always.
Blendi Fevziu: And do you have any message for the voters?
Ambassador Kim: I think voters should try to be as informed as possible. They should ask tough questions. They should remember that they have the power. In a democracy, it’s the people who have the power, those who…
Blendi Fevziu: If they will vote freely…
Ambassador Kim: Let me finish. Those who are elected, are elected by the people, to serve the people. And I think, sometimes, that relationship gets reversed. And it’s important for people to remember that they are the boss. They are the ones who decide who sits in the throne of power. The rights that citizens have is not a gift that is bestowed by leaders, it is their right. So, I think it’s very important for people to recognize that power.
Blendi Fevziu: Yes, that’s true, theoretically, but you know, we have a saying, you vote and we count. The problem is how the vote and the vote count change. This is the problem.
Ambassador Kim: I don’t understand your question.
Blendi Fevziu: Let’s say, the people vote. And the politicians count your votes. The vote and the vote count are not always the same.
Ambassador Kim: I think that we need to…
Blendi Fevziu: It is a problem for us…
Ambassador Kim: I think it’s a problem in a number of different countries and there are mechanisms and procedures that should be put into place to eliminate it or at least minimize this kind of situation, so that people do have their voices counted.
Blendi Fevziu: I hope that in the elections of April 25, we will have a different way of voting and counting the votes.
Ambassador Kim: I don’t know what you’re saying, sorry.
Blendi Fevziu: I am saying that let’s hope that on April 25, we will have a different way of voting. That people vote freely, without having problems, because every opposition here accused power of deforming votes, counting votes, or let’s say having a lot of fraud.
Ambassador Kim: I think that certainly the international community, along with the OSCE, will be providing as much assistance as possible to ensure that there are free and fair elections in Albania.
Blendi Fevziu: Ambassador, you have let’s say two and a half more years here. What do you think of your mission here? What will you do? Do you have a plan?
Ambassador Kim: Yes. I have three priorities here: democracy, defense, and business.
Blendi Fevziu: Can you explain each of them?
Ambassador Kim: By democracy, I mean the foundations of democracy, which is accountability of leaders to their citizens, the rule of law, the elimination of corruption, and all of that is captured by justice reform. Secondly, for defense, we want to make sure that Albania continues to be a strong, capable ally in NATO. And, finally, with business, we want to create the conditions for U.S. and foreign investors to want to come to Albania. Now, a couple of weeks ago, the Under Secretary of State Keith Krach was here to sign a historic Memorandum of Economic Cooperation. It’s the first time that the United States and Albania have done this and not only that, but immediately, in that same room, Bechtel signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Government to move forward the construction of a huge hydropower plant…
Blendi Fevziu: Skavica
Ambassador Kim: Skavica. If that is completed, it will be the biggest U.S. contract in Albania in history.
Blendi Fevziu: The biggest contract in history?
Ambassador Kim: For America.
Blendi Fevziu: I think we have a problem with foreign investment in Albania, very low. And I don’t know why this is, is it our problem or is it a foreigner problem.
Ambassador Kim: I think I’ve been clear on this, that the issue is corruption, rule of law, procedures, property rights.
Blendi Fevziu: And judges…
Ambassador Kim: Correct. You know, Albania is a country with a population of about 2.7 million or 2.8, however you count it. It has a GDP of around 13 billion dollars a year. These are not huge figures, right? In order for foreigners to decide that it’s worth it to come to Albania and I think it’s worth it, but for businesses to decide that it’s worth it. They have to decide, if I buy a piece of property, is my property right guaranteed? Question number one. Question number two: If there is a contract dispute, can I take it to a court and get a fair judgment? And unfortunately, we have had some examples that show you cannot get a fair judgment. So this is discouraging.
Blendi Fevziu: I agree.
Ambassador Kim: Finally, you want to have the assurance that the rules that you are playing by are the same ones that apply to everybody. I hope to create a situation, Albanian authorities, Albanian business leaders, along with the judges and prosecutors, where American investors, foreign investors, and Albanians themselves are able to trust the system and make the long-term investment that this country needs.
Blendi Fevziu: Thank you. We’ll have another part about politics in the interview, but I want to ask you. Aside from politicians and businesses, do you have a connection with art, artists?
Ambassador Kim: Yes. Thank God.
Blendi Fevziu: Thank God. Have you visited painters, let’s say, or writers? I’ve seen you visited the Museum House of Kadare.
Ambassador Kim: Yes, I’ve been there. I have had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Kadare a few times. He was here at the residence…
Blendi Fevziu: He received a very important prize from the United States.
Ambassador Kim: Yes. Last week when I was in Vlora, I went to visit with Artan Shabani and look at some of his art, get some advice about the art scene in Albania. So, it’s all good.
Blendi Fevziu: Thank you very much for the interview.
Ambassador Kim: Thank you.