Three Korean Americans were honored during a ceremonial dinner hosted by the American Korean Friendship Society Inc. on Feb. 23 at the Le Meridien Hotel Perimeter during which some 200 guests feasted on a menu of both steak and halibut. The location for the dinner seemed particularly fitting since Le Meridien had just opened only a few months before Le Meridien Seoul, in the heart of the Korean capital’s famed Gangnam District.
Han C. Choi, managing partner of the Atlanta office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr LLP, received a “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Byung J. “Bjay” Pak, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Steve Stirling, CEO of MAP International, received “New American Hero” awards and $10,000 each.
The dinner featured a q&a format where Dan T. Cathy, chairman and CEO of Chick-fil-A Inc., replied to questions from Frank Blake, chairman of both the society and Delta Air Lines Inc. and Sunny K. Park, a founding member of the society and CEO of General Building Maintenance Inc.
Mr. Cathy acknowledged that in its early days of the family-owned restaurant offered chicken feet, but that they are no longer on the menu even though they are well accepted in some of Georgia’s main export markets. He even recalled his father, Truett Cathy, who founded the chain, saying “Those toe nails can be pretty tough.”
At the prodding of Mr. Park, who promised his guests a surprise, Mr. Cathy also skillfully played a trumpet solo. He has much to celebrate. On March 1, the third locally-owned and operated Chick-fil-A restaurant is to open in Midtown Manhattan across from Grand Central Station at the corner of East 42nd street and Madison Avenue. It is to employ more than 200 under the leadership of local franchise owner Ellie Kim, a first-generation Korean immigrant who moved to New York with her family at age 16.
Mr. Cathy, however, was not the only performer to entertain the guests. Soprano Bokhee Min, who sang both the national anthems of the U.S. and South Korea, and the Hope Johns Creek Orchestra, a youth ensemble, performed as well.
The society defines itself as a nonpolitical civic organization which celebrates and strengthens “the unique relationship” between the peoples of the Republic of Korea and the U.S. Its founding committee chair was U.S. Marine Corps General Raymond G. Davis, who served in three wars and was one of the most highly decorated U.S. military officers having received the Medal of Honor for leading a storied rescue of fellow marines besieged by Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Prior to his death in 2003, he lived in Stockbridge.
Other founders include Dr. James Laney, former U.S. ambassador to Korea; Dr. Sang-chul Kim, former mayor of Seoul, Korea; Dr. William Chace, former president of Emory University and retired U.S. Army General William Livsey.
The recent death of evangelist Billy Graham and the departure of the Army’s 1st Tank Brigade from Fort Stewart to serve a nine-month rotation in Korea both set the stage for the dinner which evoked religious themes and patriotism from the hero award recipients as well as other speakers who recalled surviving the Korean War, their transitions and eventual success in the United States and their faith in the face of the current challenges presented by North Korea.
Young-jun Kim, the Atlanta-based consul general of Korea, in his introductory remarks spoke of the important economic relations between his country and the U.S., and emphasized the partnership of the U.S. and Japan, which was represented at the dinner by Japan’s consul general, Takashi Shinozuka, in their alliance with South Korea. He spoke of a need to “balance pressure and dialogue” in dealing with North Korea to assure “peace and stability.”
Han C. Choi, managing partner in the Atlanta office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr, was honored with a “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Having engaged the night before in the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Annual Lunar New Year Banquet and Board Installation where the inauguration of the Han C. Choi Mentor Award and Scholarship was announced to honor a “trailbrlazer who embodies grit and courage int he face of great adversity,” Mr Choi understandably did not attend the Friendship Society’s dinner.
A video, however, reviewed his career and community involvement, rising through top law firms after graduating from the Emory University School of Law and his efforts to help Korean companies invest in the Georgia. He serves as the managing partner of Ballard Spahr’s Korea practice team, which assists Korean companies in all aspects of setting up new business operations, acquiring real property, constructing or retrofitting facilities and establishing employment policies and procedures.
Byung Bjay” Pak, who was born in Seoul, moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 9 years old eventually earning a degree in accounting from Stetson University and a law degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Illinois College of Law. Instead of joining a law firm upon his graduation, he clerked for Richard Mills of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.
Although he spent time as a litigation associate at Alston & Bird, and worked at other firms, he told the gathering that he wanted to become involved in public service following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
He served in the Georgia House of Representatives as a Republican from 2011 to 2017, and was the state’s first Korean-American legislator. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia for six years prosecuting a wide range of cases.
Last year, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, the state’s first Asian-American to hold such a position.
In his comments at the dinner, he spoke of his commitment to law enforcement and traced the history of his the role of U.S. attorneys to the Judiciary Act of 1789, saying he was the 25th appointment to fill his current role.
He expressed his sympathy and regret for the loss of 26-year-old Locust Grove police officer Chase Maddox who was killed when backing up officers delivering a warrant. Despite his support for law enforcement, he added that his awareness of the state’s past including cases of lynching made him equally sensitive to protecting individual rights.
Mr. Pak gave his check as a donation to the Grady Hospital over to Mr. Blake, who serves as chair of the hospital’s board of directors.
Steve Stirling, a Korean-born American and the president of the Medicine Assistance Program (MAP) International, a Christian global health organization, also was honored.
Mr. Stirling was born in Seoul in the mid-1950s but at the age of two contracted polio from his father who had come in contact with another polio victim. When he was only 5-years-old his father left him and his sister at an orphanage where he lived for six years until the two were adopted by an American family living in Anchorage, Alaska.
Mr. Stirling said at the dinner that he had hardly been hugged in his early years except by the American soldiers who would hold him. He also recounted that he only was adopted because his sister who had been given some candy by her prospective parents ran away to share it with him. When they saw her affection for him, they decided to take him home as well.
His remarkable life, which he credits to the care he received from his adoptive parents as well as the guidance provided by his faith in Jesus Christ, took him to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and then for a masters of business degree to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.
After a career working for large corporations, Mr. Stirling was offered the position as CEO of MAP, the nation’s 80th largest nonprofit that provides medicines, prevents disease and promotes heath in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Mr. Stirling, who recently visited Liberia, donated his $10,000 award to the Carter Center for its work in Africa.