Lawyer spends year in South Korea to help democratize its justice system

SEATTLE — When Steven Kim returned to his job with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office last month, he had to remember how to speak English.

The senior deputy prosecuting attorney had spent the past year in South Korea, helping westernize its jury system at the request of the country’s government.

“Whether people like me or dislike me in Korea for what I said about the judicial system, if, in any way, it moves them one step closer to a democratic system, I was willing to do it,” Kim said.

Kim, whose parents are from South Korea, spent his year lecturing students, prosecutors and government officials about the merits of juries and writing a book that has become part of the country’s standard law curriculum.

At the government’s request he exposed the problems of the old court system in an interview with the country’s most influential newspaper.

Judges had too much influence over the jury, he said, often controlling what jurors thought was true and important. Kim suggested creating rules regarding what could be used as evidence in a trial, including limiting hearsay.

South Korean trials were traditionally decided by a panel of judges. In 2008, the country began a five-year test of an advisory-trial system. A judge could grant a defendant trial by jury if he or she wanted, but the juries had power only to advise judges, and the jury’s opinions were not binding.

The Institute of Justice, South Korea’s justice department, was scheduled to reach a decision about the system’s future in December, just as Kim’s year in South Korea was ending. It granted all defendants the right to a jury, and stated their decisions would be binding.

“I want to say that I was the reason that happened,” Kim said. “But it was pure coincidence.”

But, equally important to Kim was being able to give his mother a chance to return to her homeland, and his son, Hugo, a chance to learn about his heritage. By the time the year was up, 3-year-old Hugo could speak with his grandfather in fluent Korean.

Kim first came to the attention of the South Korean government, which paid for his work, at a West Coast conference of Korean-American lawyers. Kim, 38, who has worked full time for the Prosecutor’s Office since 2001, was asked to help out in South Korea because he has extensive trial experience and speaks fluent Korean.

At first, he didn’t even consider the offer, but his wife convinced him it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Although Kim had to leave his wife to her two dental practices, and his daughter to her first year of kindergarten, the project presented Kim with an opportunity to combine his culture and his career.

He originally wanted to practice international business law so he could use his Korean background in his work. But, after a mind-numbing business-law class followed by a much more interesting internship at the Prosecutor’s Office, he decided to become a trial lawyer.

That trial experience eventually gave him the opportunity to work far more closely with his heritage than he imagined possible.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said Kim’s travels helped his office, and gave Kim a greater appreciation for the American trial system.

“The jury system is fundamental to our entire democracy here in the U.S.,” he said. “So I’m very proud to be able to help export that concept to South Korea, where they are just getting used to that notion.”

Kim will soon get another opportunity to put his background to work. On Feb. 21, he will take over as head of the Korean-American Bar Association of Washington.

“I think I have a duty to try to unite the Korean-American community,” he said.