Taekwondo led E. Harris Baum to the honorary consul general position for the Republic of Korea, a path he never imagined at his first lesson. Now, after a decade of working on behalf of South Korea, the recently retired Baum is reflecting on a job that required his involvement in the social, educational, religious and economic foundations of the region’s Korean community.
“It requires you to speak at various holidays — the Koreans have many holidays,” Baum said. “It requires you to speak at many American holidays, and celebrate with the Korean community. It requires you to be present at funerals. It requires you to help them with their denigration issues, help them with their business issues and economics. It’s a full-time job.”
Baum’s interest in taekwondo, a Korean martial art, led him to a greater interest in Korean culture. He started taking Korean classes with a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor.
“Korean culture is very similar to that of the Jewish culture,” Baum noted. “The Korean people, as I have found, are very interested in education, family and helping each other.”
When Baum sat next to a Korean man on a bus, the two conversed in Korean, which impressed the man, who turned out to be Mun Chung, the largest wig manufacturer in the United States.
Several weeks later, Chung contacted Baum, a co-founding partner at Zarwin Baum DeVito Kaplan Schaer Toddy, P.C., and asked him to represent his company.
Through Chung, Baum met other Koreans in the community, who asked Baum to apply for the position of honorary consul general.
In October 2006, he was approved for the diplomatic post, and sworn in for his first five-year term.
Over the years, his varied tasks have include presiding at a Buddhist wedding, identifying the body of a tourist found in the Schuylkill River and writing a monthly column in the local Korean newspaper. He has also been involved in various Korean nonprofits.
Whan Soon Chung, a retired gynecologist involved with Jaisohn, said he met Baum through his work in the Korean community. Baum, he said, puts a lot of effort into the Korean community and trying to learn its language. His efforts have resulted, for example, in the Korean translations of tour guides and brochures in tourist centers and airports.
“He’s more Korean than I am,” Chung said. “Whatever he puts his hands on, it’s made of gold.”
One of Baum’s roles was to ensure Korean-Americans don’t lose touch with their heritage. To do this, he brought them together for social events and other functions.
“It’s too easy to become Americanized and eat our hamburgers, hot dogs and doughnuts and get away from their kimchi and their normal cultural food,” Baum said. “More importantly is to instill and inculcate in each of them the understanding of where they came from and what their parents had gone through to come to this country.”
Baum has traveled to South Korea four times. The first time, he went as a representative of the United States to potentially enhance trade between South Korea and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
During his trips there, he saw the interest Koreans have in Jewish culture, particularly the Talmud.
“You will find that they have in many … homes in South Korea, the Talmud,” Baum said. “They believe that we are a chosen people and a people that they look up to in relationships with their family, their friends. Economically, they are very bright people, and they look up to the Jewish people as something they’d like to emulate.”
Though Baum is now a retired honorary diplomat, he “still has his fingers on it,” he said, mostly redirecting phone calls until a successor is found.
When it comes to his law job, he has no plans of retiring any time soon.
“There is a reason for getting up in the morning and putting on your socks,” Baum said. “That is you have to be involved with people. I like being involved with people. I like imagination. I like to look at some problem and analyze it and see how it looks from the other side.”
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