As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Steven Kim was looking for direction. He wanted to make a good living, but knew he wasn’t built for medical school. The child of Korean immigrants, he’d been sent to Korean language schools on weekends and often served as an informal translator for his parents, so he thought: Why not put those summers spent translating the Lord’s Prayer in the backseat of the car to good use? He decided to become an international business lawyer.
Kim signed up for advanced Korean language classes, memorized Chinese characters and watched Korean dramas for practice. He was accepted and enrolled into law school at his alma mater when a small hiccup occurred. “Turns out I can’t stand international business law,” Kim said, with a laugh. Instead, he fell in love with being a trial lawyer. “When you go into a career with the motivation of making money, it never works out,” he said. “I realized maybe studying Chinese characters and upper level Korean had been a bad decision.”
Or so he thought. In January, Kim, a longtime prosecutor in King County, Wash., departed for Seoul, where he has been tapped to help the South Korean government remodel its judicial system. The goal is to cultivate a grand jury system much like the one in the U.S. and foster a greater sense of public trust in Korea’s criminal justice system.
Turns out all those Korean language lessons are coming in handy, after all.
Korea’s current criminal justice system uses three judges per trial, with majority rule determining the case. The government has been working toward implementing an advisory jury system since 2007. But its initial efforts were cause for some embarrassment, as judges felt free to ignore the jury’s suggestions, sometimes handing down an opposite ruling. The current system is also prone to cronyism. Judges tend to represent the views of the elite class they come from. The result is a justice system that the average Korean citizen doesn’t trust.
Now the Korean government is hoping to alter these attitudes. And for the next six months to a year, Kim, who has brought his mother, Yong Kim, and 3-year-old son, Hugo, along for the trip, will be teaching Korean prosecutors the trial lawyer skills he has honed during his career. His wife, Lina Kim, a dentist, and their 5-year-old daughter, Hailey, will stay in Seattle, making trips to South Korea for spring break and summer vacation.
Steven Kim was born in Marysville, Wash., in 1974, shortly after his parents had immigrated to the United States. His parents were frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their homeland. “In the ’70s, unless you were a part of the elite, you were not going to [attend the] top university and, therefore, have access to the top jobs,” Kim said. “You were not going to become someone.” His father, a college graduate working a blue-collar job, had learned this the hard way, and he wanted more for his children.
Like many immigrants, the Kims engaged in all manner of jobs to get by. His father, Chong Kim, who had served in the U.S. Army reserves, worked as cobbler, while Yong did alterations. Eventually, they saved their money, invested in commercial real estate and opened a restaurant. It was the American Dream, Kim said, but it was also hard work.
Through college and law school, he worked the register at the family’s restaurant. “I was studying torts and contracts while ordering ‘No. 1 spicy teriyaki,’” he said. “It was a tough road for me, but it was also a chance to be giving back [to my parents] a little of what they sacrificed for me.”
The irony of returning to help fight the government cronyism and corruption his parents left behind is not lost on Kim. “It’s amazing,” he said. “You leave a country full of people like you for a country with hardly any. And the son you raise here learns Korean and just happens to get called back to your home country to help.” It’s a compliment to his parents more than to him, he said.
The South Korean Ministry of Justice first approached Kim in 2011, after they had scoured district attorney’s offices across the country for Korean American prosecutors who were also fluent in Korean.
“They wanted a prosecutor to talk about why the system succeeds in America, to share their experiences and difficulties, to let them know what to avoid and what happens in the trenches,” Kim said.
And he certainly has run the gamut of cases in those trenches — a county that includes Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, the home of Microsoft. During his decade with the King County prosecutor’s office, he has an impressive 100 felony cases under his belt, ranging from drug cases to triple homicides. He noted that it’s the more intricate cases that have stuck with him over the years — the ones where right and wrong aren’t so clear. There’s the father, who was so drunk that his 7-month child rolled into a fire pit and died. “It’s easy to hate the father,” Kim noted, “but he is a victim as well. It’s one of those cases where you feel sorry for everyone involved, yet you have to hold the father accountable.”
Last November, Korean officials offered Kim the position, and though he was hesitant to split up his family, his wife urged him to take the opportunity. It was a chance, Lina said, to influence the transition of a criminal justice system in their ancestral country. He will also have his prosecutor job waiting for him when he returns.
During his tenure, Kim will offer weekly lectures at the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Research and Training Institute, which has requested he focus on three topics: reasons Korea should move to a jury system; how to create a system free from corruption and witness tampering; and whether prosecutors should be elected or appointed.
When discussing his mission, one thing becomes clear: Kim is a man who not only believes in the jury system, but is also proud of it.
“Everyone here [in the U.S.] takes for granted the standard of being tried by peers,” he said. He hopes that his time in Korea will convince not only Koreans, but also others of the American system’s efficacy. “But in the end, if one person from my parents’ homeland says, ‘This is a good system, a better system,’” he said, “then that is all I need.”
This article first appeared in KoreAm Journal and is reprinted with permission.