Singing rap, citing Buddhist teachings, and once dreaming of being a sports star, the likely next head of the World Bank may not be widely known — but he’s no faceless bureaucrat.
Korean-born Jim Yong Kim is the president of Ivy League Dartmouth College, a medical doctor and, above all, a renowned campaigner against AIDS and tuberculosis in some of the world’s poorest regions.
The 52-year-old’s CV glitters with prestigious posts at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, among others. An anthropologist, Kim is also one of the foremost actors in the kind of global health problems that are often seen as nearly hopeless.
In the mid-1990s he worked in Peru to develop the first large-scale treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in a poor country, a program now run in some 40 other nations.
Between 2003 and 2007 he also led a World Health Organization initiative to bring antiretroviral drugs to three million new HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries, while a nonprofit he co-founded, called Partners in Health, works with impoverished communities everywhere from Haiti to Russia.
That work has brought Kim fame in academia and global health institutions, but the bespectacled professor tapped by President Barack Obama to head the World Bank is virtually unknown to wider circles.
A closer examination reveals a passionate character prone to a surprising mix of the straight-laced and quirky.
From the day his parents brought him from South Korea to Muscatine, Iowa, at the age of five, Kim was the archetypal, breathtakingly high-achieving American immigrant.
At Muscatine High School he was all-American — both class president and quarterback on the football team.
“My childhood dream job was that I would play quarterback either for the Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Bears,” he said in an interview last week on the Charlie Rose television show.
Kim’s dentist father taught at Iowa University and his mother had a Ph.D. in philosophy, so not surprisingly the young sports fan quickly veered to more cerebral pursuits, graduating first from prestigious Brown University, then Harvard Medical School, and finally earning a Harvard Ph.D. in anthropology.
Married to Younsook Lim, a pediatrician who has worked with HIV children in Africa, Kim talks movingly about his work in combating infectious diseases.
“The lowest points were back in the mid-1990s when we discovered all of these patients who were suffering from drug-resistant tuberculosis… sitting there in a slum in Lima, Peru, watching them die,” he recalled in the Charlie Rose interview.
Dealing with such misery, he said, was easier thanks to lessons learned from a Buddhist monk.
“One can be mindful and at peace and experience great happiness while at the same time struggling against some of the most difficult problems one can imagine,” he said.
But thanks to his job at Dartmouth, there’s a racier aspect to this serious and outwardly placid man’s life.
Although the college is something of an ivory tower, it’s been embroiled since January in allegations of revolting initiation ceremonies at a frat house, where new members were supposedly made to swim in vomit and other bodily fluids.
Kim’s own partying might raise eyebrows among his more staid colleagues at the World Bank. Last year at the university’s “Idol” music contest, the college president appeared in a studded white leather jacket, with fingerless gloves, spaceman glasses and glowstick bracelets, to rap alongside students.
“I came up in here to make it rock, light a fire, make it hot,” he sings in a widely circulated video of the performance, while doing a robot dance.
From the cheering in the audience, it appears the probable future head of the World Bank stole the show.
(US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with newly announced nominee for president of the World Bank, Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim. AFP Photo/Win Mcnamee)