52-year-old Kim won the job over Nigeria's widely respected finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, with the support of Washington's allies in Western Europe, Japan, Canada and some emerging market economies, including Russia, Mexico and South Korea.
Unlike previous World Bank elections, the decision was not unanimous among the 25-member board. Among the emerging economies, Brazil and South Africa backed Okonjo-Iweala, while three sources said China and India supported Kim.
"The final nominees received support from different member countries, which reflected the high caliber of the candidates," the Bank said in announcing its board's decision.
Kim, president of Dartmouth College, will assume his new post on July 1 after the Bank's current president, Robert Zoellick, steps down.
In a statement, Okonjo-Iweala congratulated Kim and said she looked forward to working with him. However, she said the selection process needs to be improved.
"It is clear to me that we need to make it more open, transparent and merit-based," Okonjo-Iweala said. "We need to make sure that we do not contribute to a democratic deficit in global governance."
The United States has held the presidency since the World Bank's founding after World War Two, while a European has always led its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner welcomed the decision and said Kim's background would be valuable in advancing the Bank's work in fighting poverty.
"His deep development background coupled with his dedication to forging consensus will help breathe new life into the World Bank's efforts to secure fast economic growth that is widely shared," Geithner said in a statement.
Unlike previous heads of the World Bank, Kim is not a politician, a banker or diplomat. He is a trained physician and anthropologist who has worked to bring health care to the poor in developing countries, whether fighting tuberculosis in Haiti and Peru or tackling HIV/AIDS in Russian prisons.
There had been a three-way contest for the presidency of the poverty-fighting institution until Friday when former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo withdrew. He said the process, which was meant to be based solely on credentials, had become highly political.
South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan welcomed the fact that non-Americans competed for the post for the first time, but also said there were concerns the process was not fully merit-based.
"I think we are going to find that the process falls short of that," Gordhan told the Foreign Correspondent's Association in South Africa, adding that there were also "serious concerns" the decision was made without full transparency.
Zoellick said Kim's science-based drive for results will be invaluable for the World Bank as it modernizes.
Andrew Mitchell, British secretary of state for international development, said Kim had shown he can drive change. "As the first development professional to head the World Bank, Jim Kim's considerable experience will be vital as he leads it through its ambitious reform and modernization program," he said
(Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012)