Interview with JaeWon Kim

ILSP alumni come from all over the world, and have experiences in a number of different practice areas. See our list of alumni statistics based on country of origin, as well as first hand accounts of the ILSP programs in a variety of languages.

Tell me a little about your background: what drove you to study law in the first place? What did you want to achieve with your law degrees?

I am a native Korean born in Busan, South Korea. Busan is located at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, very near to Japan, and is one the biggest ports in East Asia. Growing up, South Korea was under a military dictatorship. Because of this I became very interested in democracy movements and the promotion of human rights. Several brave Korean lawyers motivated me to become a lawyer when I was young, through their tireless cause lawyering, such as defending the civil liberties of political detainees. I also enjoyed reading the biographies of my two heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, which inspired me yet further.

As a graduate student at Yonsei University in Seoul, I was planning to study to become a law professor in Germany. A vast majority of Korean law professors earned their doctorate degrees form Germany in those days, and my thesis advisor was no exception. But an incident changed whole my plan, and made me want to come to the United Stated instead. On a sunny spring day, I happened to visit the library of the US Information Service in Seoul, and found a video tape recording an interview with Professor Thomas Buergenthal on international human rights issues. Up to that moment, I had never heard of the discipline called international human rights. I was so happy to find what I had been searching for. Since the video introduced Professor Buergenthal as Dean of WCL, I decided to come to WCL, and enrolled in the LL.M. Program with a specialization in international human rights.

In your opinion, what are the major legal issues facing South Korea at the moment, and how do they differ from issues in the United States?

In the last decade South Korea has achieved both political democratization and rapid economic development. As the world’s 11th largest trading nation, all aspects of Korean society have been tremendously internationalized. These changes, however, have not affected the traditional way of legal education and the system of producing lawyers in Korea. At the moment, one of the major legal issues facing South Korea is the reform of legal education. The aim of this reform is to produce lawyers who can provide high-quality legal services which are demanded by an increasingly globalized Korean society.

Tell me about your current role as Dean and law professor at Dong-A University College of Law.

I happen to be the youngest law school professor in South Korea today. It is thus not only a honor but also a severe pressure on my job. I am very much interested in legal education reform, and working on hiring as many as six or seven more faculty members who have global experience and perspectives. I am working very hard to establish academic cooperation program with foreign law schools. My first priority now is, of course, an exchange program with WCL.

How do you think Washington College of Law at American University prepared you for this role?

I cannot imagine doing what I do now without WCL. The excellent education I received at WCL prepared me to be a good law teacher. The internship opportunities at the human rights organizations in Washington, D.C. were also indispensable experiences. I spent four and a half years at WCL (LL.M. and J.D.). I have never spent this much time in one school for my whole life. WCL is truly the best my alma mater among my many alma maters. After I got a J.D. in 1991, I was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. This membership also helped me to get a teaching position in Korea. 

Looking back at your time at American University, which memories stand out the most (classes, professors, friends, other experiences)

Oh, so many good and precious memories! Dean Grossman, who was my LL.M. supervisor at the time. Without his encouragement I would not have been interviewed for my position at Dong-A University. Professor Goldman’s inspiring human rights seminar, Professor Burton Wechsler, excellent constitutional defender and unforgettable mentor; I was very lucky to meet Professor James Boyle, and to be his research assistant. This experience helped my academic career substantially. Among many good friends, I owe much to Tina Pappas, who helped improve my English, and to overcome all the difficulties during the very first years in the United States.

What was your thesis for your SJD degree, and why did you choose this topic?

While teaching the Law and Society course, I became interested in cultural anthropology and comparative law. Cornell Law School had everything on my checklist, and also awarded me a full scholarship for a JSD (Doctor of the Science of Law). I used my sabbatical year to pursue this degree. The topic of the dissertation was Confucian Legal Discourse and Women in Korea. One of my reasons for choosing this topic was my strong interest in improving women’s lives in a Confucian society like Korea.