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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Remarks to Persons Being Naturalized as
U.S. Citizens by the Honorable Paul Friedman
U.S. District Court, Washington, DC, June 20, 2000

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Thank you, Judge Friedman. My fellow Americans: I am very proud and honored to be here on this beautiful day, to witness this wonderful and touching event: people from every part of the world choosing to become citizens of the United States of America.

Although my parents were born in Korea and came to this country in 1948 and 1949, I was lucky. Unlike you, I never had to decide whether or not to become an American citizen; that decision was made for me when my parents decided that I would be born in this country. But all of you have made a difficult choice that most Americans never have to make. You have made a choice that will change your lives. For years now you have been members of the social and economic community that is the United States of America; now you have chosen to become part of our political community as well. In many ways, you are no different from what you were only 10 minutes ago; but in other ways, you will never be the same.

How are you different? Do you have a coin in your pocket? A nickel, dime, quarter, even a penny? Please take one out and look at it now. Do you see the phrase "E Pluribus Unum?" What does that mean? Does anyone know? In Latin it means "From many, one." From many countries, one ountry. Only 10 minutes ago you were Canadian, Chinese, Colombian, Eucadoran, Dominican, Egyptian, English, German, Greek, Guyanan, Indian, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Korean, Filipino, Polish, Portuguese, Syrian, Russian, and Vietnamese. Now you are all Americans. From many countries, you have become citizens of this country. So in a sense, today's ceremony is a civic sacrament, like the religious sacraments of baptism or marriage in the church. In a way, you have been born again, like some people are spiritually reborn when they join a religion or personally reborn when they marry someone they love. This is something that you all share. So I'd like to ask you new citizens to take just a moment now to celebrate this civic sacrament -- your union with one another -- by shaking the hand of your fellow citizen on either side of you and saying, "Congratulations."

Just as a coin has two sides, becoming an American citizen has two sides as well. In order to become a U.S. citizen, you must swear absolutely and entirely to renounce all allegiance and fidelity to the country of which you were a citizen until today. I know that was not an easy decision for any of you to make. Although my mother and my older sister have both been naturalized as American citizens, my late father, who lived here for 40 years, remained a citizen of Korea. Even though my father loved this country as much, if not more than many American citizens do, he chose to die as a Korean citizen, because even after all these years in this country, being Korean meant so much to him.

All of you have made a different choice, and by so doing, you have lost something: the tie that bound you to the land where you were born. But as so often happens, when you lose something, you also gain something. Now you are American citizens.

What does it mean to be an American citizen? Obviously, each of us must give his or her own answer to that question. I first began to think about that question about 26 years ago, in the spring of 1974, when I attended my first naturalization ceremony. At the time, my older sister was living in Boston, studying for her Ph.D. in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). Her husband, a Korean citizen, had decided to return to Korea to work. Before they left, my sister decided that it was time to apply for U.S. citizenship. As her brother, I was one of the witnesses that my sister brought to the naturalization interview.

As I was going to the interview, I met a friend whose mother had recently been naturalized, and I asked him, "What questions did they ask your mother at the naturalization interview?" My friend answered, "Oh, it was easy. They asked her three questions: `Who is the President of the United States?' `Who is the Vice President of the United States?' And `What are the words to the National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner?'" So when I went to the subway, and met my sister for our trip to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office, I asked her: "Who is the President of the United States?" And she answered, correctly, "Richard M. Nixon." Then I asked, "Who is the Vice President of the United States?" And she answered, correctly, "Spiro T. Agnew." Then finally I asked, "What are the words to the Star Spangled Banner?" To which she said, "I don't have the slightest idea." And I said, "You don't know the words to the National Anthem!" And she answered, "I study chemistry, not music." So, in a panic, I tried to teach her the words to the Star Spangled Banner in the few minutes before the subway arrived downtown. By the time the subway car reached downtown Boston, all my sister could remember were the words "Oh say can you see."

After a short wait at the Immigration Service office, my sister's name was called, and the hearing officer said, "Aha, you are the lady with the Ph.D. from M.I.T. I know you will be able to answer all of my questions." And my sister looked at me and said, "I hope so." The officer asked, "Who's the President of the United States?" And she answered, "Richard M. Nixon." "And the Vice President of the United States?" And she answered, "Spiro T. Agnew." And the hearing officer was so delighted, he said, "And of course you know the words to the Star Spangled Banner," to which my sister said, "Oh say can you see?" And the officer said, "That's enough! Congratulations!" And that is how my sister became a U.S. citizen.

Now at the time I remember being very happy for my sister, but I was also a little disappointed at the way things had turned out. I wondered, "Doesn't being an American citizen mean something more than just knowing the opening to the National Anthem?" But less than 6 months later, I learned the answer to my question. That same summer, in June of 1974, I went to the Republic of Korea to visit my sister and brother-in-law. And while I was in Korea, it was a very tense time. Someone tried to assassinate the Korean President, but accidentally killed his wife. The entire country went on military alert. Everyone was afraid to go out into the street. There were soldiers everywhere. And during that summer here in the United States, the United States Congress was holding something called the Watergate hearings. Does anyone here remember those hearings?

As the summer went along, first Vice President Agnew, and then President Nixon resigned from office. I remember sitting in my sister's apartment in Seoul, Korea, listening on the radio while Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford was sworn in as the new President of the United States. Next January, we will again have a new President. We don't know who he is yet, -- it could be George W. Bush or Al Gore -- but we do know that we will have a new President.

And when our new President is sworn in, please listen to what he says. He will say what Gerald Ford said that day: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." As I listened to President Ford taking that oath as President, it struck me how much it was like the oath of U.S. citizenship that my sister had taken only 6 months before. She swore, as you did just a few moments ago, "to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America." While I listened, I realized three things about what it means to be an American citizen. First, it means that "we are a government of laws, and not people." What does that mean? It means that your first duty as an American citizen is not to obey any particular people, but to obey, support, and defend the "Constitution and laws" of the United States. We live in a country where what is supreme is not Bill Clinton or Anthony Williams, but laws, the Constitution and laws of the United States. In Korea, where I was listening, things were very different. For generations, power had always passed from one government to another by force, or violence, or assassination, or rioting and fighting in the streets. But in August 1974, Richard Nixon gave up more power than anyone in Korea or in the world had ever known -- the power of the President of the United States -- and there were no soldiers, no tanks, no violence, and no fighting in the streets. The power of the United States government passed peacefully. And for the first time, I really understood what it means to live under a "government of laws and not men and women."

The second lesson I learned that day is that in the United States there is a difference between power and authority. When someone can tell you what to do, they have power over you. But when you recognize that someone has the right to tell you what to do, that person has authority.

Why do we obey Judge Friedman? Where did he get his power to make you citizens? Is it because he is so strong? Is it because he is so wise? Is it because he wears a black robe? No. Of course, he is a very strong and wise man, and yes, he does wear a black robe. But in the end, the reason Judge Friedman has power in this society is because the Constitution and laws of the United States give him authority. He has power because the law gives him legal authority.

Now in many countries in this world, people have authority because they have power. In Korea, anyone who commanded the armies could become President. In Korea, the ruler of the country was President because the armies obeyed him.

But what is special about the United States of America is that people have power because they have authority, and authority is not taken by force, but given by law. Until August 9, 1974, the U.S. Army and Navy obeyed Richard Nixon because he was the President; after that date they obeyed Gerald Ford. When Richard Nixon lost his legal authority, he lost his power. He was just another American.

The third thing that struck me as I listened to Gerald Ford take the oath of office on August 9, 1974 was his humble beginnings. How many of you know that Gerald Ford was adopted? But even so, he was able to become President. And that made me realize a third thing about American citizenship: that this a country where ideas and ideals matter: the ideal of equal opportunity; the idea of freedom and human rights; the ideal of equality; the idea of democracy.

Now you know as well as I that this is not a perfect country. Far from it. In America, as in other countries of the world, there is poverty and discrimination and injustice. But in this country, everyone has a chance to strive for something better. Each generation can do better than the last. When my father came to this country in 1949, he could hardly speak English. Now I, his son, have the privilege of being Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human rights, and Labor. Like you, my boss Madeleine Albright came to this country as an immigrant. Now she is Secretary of State. The same was true of Henry Kissinger, who was born in Germany. In many countries, it would not be possible to come so far in one lifetime. But in the United States, it is possible. Why? Because in this country, ideals and ideas matter more than money, or birth, or class, or race.

These are three lessons that I have learned about being an American citizen. America is a government of laws and not people. It is a country where power comes from authority, and not the other way around. It is a country where ideals and ideas matter.

In closing, let me say that, just as I have learned three lessons about being a United States citizen, I have discovered that being a U.S. citizen carries with it three solemn responsibilities, which are also great privileges.

First, you bear the responsibility of understanding your citizenship. Please understand your citizenship. Please read this little book: The Constitution of the United States. This year it is more than 200 years old. It is not a perfect document, but it is a beautiful document, a living document. The first time you read it you will not understand all of it, or even most of it. But try to read it and understand it, because it says so much about what it means to be a United States citizen. Please read the first sentence: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." We the People of the United States: now that includes you. "E Pluribus Union -- from many one."

And please read the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which tells you about your rights as U.S. citizens. It tells you about your human rights, your inalienable rights. If you read the Constitution, you will understand your new citizenship far better.

Your second responsibility is to exercise your citizenship. Please exercise your citizenship. Please vote. It will be easy to vote this year, for there will be a presidential election. But it will not be so exciting to vote next year, when the only elections will be for local government offices. In the same way as you cannot develop your mind and body unless you exercise them, you cannot develop your citizenship unless you exercise it. Like naturalization, voting is one of America's civic sacraments. My late father was a political scientist, who spent his whole life studying American and East Asian governments. But he never had the privilege of voting here. Every time I go to vote, I think about him. When I vote, I bring my children with me into the voting booth, so that they will understand how important it is to exercise their citizenship. Please bring your children with you when you vote, so that you can teach them what it means to govern ourselves.

Third, and finally, please honor your citizenship. Honor your citizenship. How do you do this? Now that you are an American citizen, please act toward others as you would have liked American citizens to have acted toward you. Please be tolerant. Please respect the rights of other citizens and aliens alike. Please participate in your community. And perhaps most important, remember where you came from. You have come from one great national tradition, and that will always be a part of you. But now you are becoming a part of another national tradition. Someone once said, "Americans who were born here love America like a child loves her parents. For they are the only parents she has ever known, and she had no say in choosing them. But Americans who become American citizens love this country like a man or woman loves a lover, with the passion that comes from free choice." I envy you for this love affair of citizenship that you are about to enjoy.

My fellow citizens, welcome and congratulations.

[end of document]

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