For the last few years, Orioles have been making presence in signing East Asian talent from countries like Japan and Korea. For every Koji Uehara and Wei-Yin Chen that worked out decently-to-well, there is a Tsuyoshi Wada (who I remember being one of Team Japan's aces to never getting to throw a pitch at ML) and Tae-Hyong Chong (who initially agreed to a deal but withdrew). And then there was a case of LHP Seong-Min Kim, who ended up getting banned from South Korean baseball competition, along with Orioles scouts being barred from Korean games.
As a team ace of Sangwon High, Kim had been in scouts' radar since he was in middle school. At age 17, he was topping out at 144 km/h (around 89.5 mph) and earned the MVP honors of the national high school tournament after going 3-0 without allowing an earned run. There's a saying in Korean baseball community: "A young lefty fireballer is worth a trip to hell to acquire." Considering his immaculate performance, his history of top-prospect-status and physical room for growth, Kim certainly fit into that billing and was projected to be a top 5 pick of 2013 KBO draft.
The problem started when Kim agreed to sign with the Orioles with around 600-million won bonus (which converts to roughly $560K). It's obviously not a small amount. In fact, half-a-million dollars is a top-10 tier salary in Korean league. Kim's bonus is the same amount as 2013 salary of outfielder Byung-Kyu Lee, a franchise star of LG Twins, the 2013 batting title winner (with a .348/.384/.455 slash line) and one of the most popular players of the country. In a league where the top 2014 salary is worth around $1.4 million, (for Hanhwa Eagles 1B slugger Tae-Kyun Kim) the amount that Orioles promised to Kim was a huge chunk for an amateur. The amount of money and the prospects of playing in MLB is hard to say no for any high school prospects.
When the news of Orioles agreeing with one of the nation's top lefty came to attention of KBO officials, they were not happy. The officials accused Kim and Orioles for disobeying one of the clause between KBO and MLB that an amatuer player who is still enrolled in a school prior to draft cannot be signed by a foreign team. The regulation on ML teams signing Korean talents have been stricter since 1997 when Atlanta Braves signed top high school prospect LHP Jung-Keun Bong (better known as Jung Bong) during his sophomore year. Later, two top prospects RHP Byung-Hyun Kim and 1B Hee-Seop Choi (both went on to have a ML career) forewent entering KBO draft as college players to sign with ML teams - they were permanently banned from playing in Korea (which obviously is not in effect anymore as both players are now members of KBO teams).
The controversy of Korean amateur talent signing with ML team is nothing new and Korean officials decided to drop a big hammer to prevent any similar happenings - they placed a permanent ban on Seong-Min Kim from playing in Korea and Orioles scouts from entering games. A week after the ban, MLB agreed with KBO to void Kim's contract with the Orioles. Basically, Kim went from being the MVP of the biggest amateur tournament in nation to not being able to play forever in a matter of several months.
That pretty much marks the line of how much the American media reported on Kim. It might have been a controversy that is decently covered in U.S.; in Korea, it was a major sports news that became that talk of everyone. While some argued that KBO's punishment on Kim is harsh, many agreed that is an appropriate measure to remind that rules are nothing to mess with. It is also not the only major player ban in KBO in last few years. In February 2012, (so around the time of Kim ban) two LG Twins pitchers were charged for fixing games. RHP's Hyun-Jun Park (who had a successful 2011 by going 13-10, 4.18) and Sung-Hyun Kim were banned from competition in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and U.S. and were sentenced to months worth of prison.
In April 2013, Kim enrolled to Fukuoka Economics University in Japan as a 4-year scholarship student. According to the link, it is extremely rare that a foreign player would earn a full scholarship - which indicates that the institution saw his potential to be very high. In his freshman year, he didn't see much action on the field - in 9 games, Kim went 1-2 with 5.78 ERA. Obviously not a great statline but he was only a freshman. Also, according to Ilgan Sports, his fastball currently clocks around high-80's to low-90's and he's made considerable upgrade to his curve and change-up while being a positive energy in team chemistry.
On February 26, 2014, Korean Baseball Associations released Seong-Min Kim from the permanent ban, which means he will be allowed to play in Korea in the future. However by law, Kim won't be able to enter the KBO draft until 2015. According to an article in Naver.com, he still plans to complete his four years in Fukuoka Economics University and enter the Nippon Pro Baseball draft - nonetheless, it is a relief for him that he will be able to play in his homeland in case his career in Japan doesn't work out. Why did KBO decide to overturn the decision that they made two years ago? Many feel that it might have to do with the case of Viktor Ahn.
If you followed the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, you might be familiar with Russian male speed skater Viktor Ahn. Ahn was one of the biggest stars of the tournament, becoming the first short track skater to win four Olympic golds by winning the 500 m, 1000 m, 1500 m, 5000 m relay, and was a big boost to Russia's first-place finish in Sochi Olympics. However, Ahn isn't actually Russian - he was a Korean athlete who became a naturalized Russian citizen. Ahn had a falling out with South Korean speed skating federation and felt that he would not be able to resume his career as desired in Korea. As a result, Ahn delivered Russia four golds and Korean men's short track delivered none. After watching a talent that slipped away dominate for other nation, it doesn't seem out of realm that Korean Baseball Association did not want Kim to be another Viktor Ahn. Nothing is confirmed (yet), but a lot speculate this as the major reason why they are letting Kim back to Korea.
Meanwhile back in Baltimore, despite being banned from scouting in Korean competition, Orioles have not shied away from signing Korean talent by acquiring RHP Suk-Min Yoon, one of the nation's finest pitchers. While the nightmares of Seong-Min Kim have not died down between Korean baseball fans, they are counting on Yoon to survive in the tough AL East environment and Orioles seemed to have gained a good amount of fan support from the nation. Korea has definitely emerged as one of the major baseball powers and Orioles have been aware of it. The Kim fiasco was a result of overeagerness and clumsiness - it ruined a team's reputation and almost a player's career. The wise thing for both teams and athletes to do is to revisit and make wiser decisions to avoid repeating another Seong-Min Kim incident.
In addition to the links embedded in this article, MLBspecial.net was used for history on Seong-Min Kim.
Sung-Min Kim is a journalism student at University of Maryland. In the campus, he does news photography, radio station DJ'ing and programming, hosting a sports show and occasionally interviewing indie artists. He's from South Korea and has been living in Maryland since 2006. You can find him on Twitter @SungMinKim116.