The honorary consul general of the Republic of Korea in Philadelphia doesn’t receive a dime. But he does get a reserved parking spot right outside his swank Market Street office.
The man who has literally traveled the world and done things most of us couldn’t imagine — cycling through Europe, horseback riding in Iceland, backpacking in the Himalayas — when he wasn’t building a law office from the ground up into a top firm, says he continues to challenge himself and try to stay young.
After all, Harris Baum is “only” 82 years old.
“I’ll never forget once crossing a bridge made of ropes 14,000 feet high,” he recalls, discussing his penchant for traveling the world and doing the unusual. “I’m leaning against a mountain, digging my fingers into a rock, seeing the clouds below. I started to hyperventilate and say to myself, ‘What’s a kid from Logan doing here?’ ”
A Jewish kid, no less. One who attended Olney High and Temple University, where he was a psychology-political science major.
He started out working in a law office and before long became deputy attorney general under Gov. David Lawrence in the early 1960s, working in the antitrust division of the film industry. Some of his clients there included Esther Williams and Elvis Presley’s father.
His first wife, Joyce, passed away at 46, leaving behind three children.
He later married Myrna Field, who became a judge in the Family Court system. They were together until her death in 2007.
So Baum has never taken the easy route in his life or his career, the last 10 years of which he’s spent as the honorary consul general. It’s quite a gig, one he attained almost completely by accident.
“I was always involved in exercise and taking care of myself,” explains Baum, a trial attorney who formed a partnership with mergers and acquisition specialist Norman Zarwin 57 years ago. “Getting my brown belt in tae kwon do I developed some friendships with a number of Koreans. I had a professor at Penn attempt to teach me the language. In 2001, we were going to South Africa.
“I’m on a bus from Philadelphia to JFK airport, sitting next to a Korean gentleman and started speaking Korean,” continues Baum. “He was flabbergasted. He gave me his card and told me he’d call me when I got back.”
The man was Mun Chang, one of the largest importers of wigs in the United States. Before long, Mun became a client, then began introducing him to more influential Koreans.
It was through the connection that Baum learned there was an opening as an honorary consul in Philadelphia, which is not to be confused with an actual consul general, a diplomatic — and paid — position. He went through channels, applied for it and assumed his post in 2006.
So what exactly does an honorary consul general do? And how many more are there like him?
“I get involved in the political aspects of Korean-American life,” answers Baum, who recently fired off a letter expressing his outrage to the Korea Times following a series of published anti-Semitic attacks against Paul Singer, the president of Elliott Associates, the American hedge fund that tried to block a merger between subsidiaries of Samsung, the country’s largest corporation.
“I will attend funerals. I once identified the body of a tourist who died. I officiated a Buddhist wedding, which I’d learned to do while in Tibet. I’m involved in getting the people out to vote,” he adds. “And I’m also making sure — or at least attempting to make sure the younger generations don’t become too Americanized, forgetting the history and beautiful culture of Korea.”
According to Baum, there are 18 honorary Korean consuls general in the United States, including a Jewish one in Connecticut.
Besides them are a number of consuls general, part of the country’s traditional diplomatic corps led by a single ambassador.
Baum has made four trips to South Korea, as well as three to Israel, where he once met the Korean ambassador.
“We went into his library and I saw all these books on Judaica behind him. I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, I’m very impressed.’ He said to me, ‘The Jewish people and the Korean people have three things in common: family, education and helping each other.’
“I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, you must be part of the Lost Tribe.’ And he laughed.”