It was back in the early 1970s that Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield sat down with Richard Nixon and began setting the groundwork for the president’s historic visit to China.

The trip that followed in 1972 made world headlines, and America watched as Nixon shook hands with the Chinese premier, opening a welcome channel of dialogue between the two nations.

“I spent a lot of my academic career on China, and you never read about the role Mansfield played, but really, he was doing a lot of the background negotiations,” said Abraham Kim. “He was a leader at an all-important and monumental time in U.S. history.”

It’s here on the fourth level of Mansfield’s namesake library at the University of Montana that Kim keeps his office, serving as the new director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.

In literature, the center is best described as an academic branch of UM, a place where ties are built with Asia and where world leaders, policymakers and scholars speak on issues of global importance.

But for Kim, it is much more.

“The center sits in a unique position within the university,” said Kim. “With our inward mission, we want to provide an international environment for our students and expose them to the world’s big issues.”

Four months into his new job as director, Kim sees the Mansfield Center as a host for summits on pressing U.S.-Asian issues, and a place where the university’s Global Leadership Initiative will continue to grow.

In recent months, speakers arranged through the center have included David Steinberg, a scholar on Burma from Georgetown University, and Kathleen Stephens, the first female U.S. ambassador to Korea.

Mansfield Center programs also cover the Far East, including the countries of Vietnam, China and Japan. Next summer, it will host a federal program for students looking to study leadership and community development in Cambodia.

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The center’s outward mission is one that Kim is well-suited to grow. He arrived at UM from the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, D.C., and he has advised decision-makers – both corporate and governmental – on issues relating to North and South Korea, from security matters to foreign relations.

“I see myself as an ambassador for the university,” Kim said. “The center can function as a representative of Montana in Washington on these international issues. A lot of people don’t know about Montana, but it has a lot to offer to Asia, from energy to experts on climate change and education.”

The center’s focus on Asia stems back to the legacy established by Mansfield, a statesman whose knowledge on U.S.-Asia affairs landed him foreign policy assignments under presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford.

Kim’s own background also looks across the Pacific. He earned his doctorate from Columbia University in political science, his master’s degree from Harvard in East Asian studies, and his bachelor’s degree from Boston University in international relations.

“There’s a lot we can learn from Asia, and there’s a lot they can learn from us,” Kim said. “There are opportunities for the two sides to work together to promote this mutually beneficial relationship.”

In the globalized era, Kim said, people move more freely from country to country. That includes the movement of students looking to attend U.S. colleges, the majority of them arriving from China, India and South Korea.

Kim believes the Mansfield Center can leverage that interaction on behalf of UM, especially as the university strengthens ties with its Asian partners. The school’s international program continues to grow, as does its presence on the world stage.

“Students are coming to the U.S. because the U.S. still has the top education system around the world,” Kim said. “They see this as an opportunity for education and training. The center can also serve as a place for global thinkers – for people interested in tackling big issues and wanting to get away from the fray.”

While UM offers the basics in education, Kim said, it also provides world-class expertise in emerging areas, including the environmental sciences – a point of growing focus for several Asian nations.

Kim said a recent visit to Peking University in Beijing drove the point home. Visitors from Montana engaged that university’s division of forestry and environmental sciences, and several Chinese students in the program said they’d studied at UM to learn more about the issue.

“When it comes to energy, Asia is where the demand is,” Kim said. “There’s a booming energy market, and there’s also a large concern on environmental issues. Montana is a wonderful location where those two worlds are coming together.”

Kim, who’s married with four children, gave up the humidity and his four-hour commute in D.C. for a seven-minute walk from his Missoula home to the Mansfield Center.

During his tenure, he’s become versed on Mansfield’s career, one that spans the statesman’s election to Congress in 1942 to his reappointment by President Ronald Reagan as the U.S. ambassador to Japan – a post now held by Caroline Kennedy.

But it’s what Mansfield stood for and what the center represents that gets Kim talking.

“A lot of times you can’t tackle these issues in D.C. because it’s too politically sensitive,” Kim said. “I’ve been through policy, financial and defense issues, and one of the things I’ve learned in my career is that what really matters is who you work for, and what you’re working for.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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