[GLOBAL EYE]A symbol of the American dreamKorean-American Harold Hongju Koh was named the dean of Yale Law School, one of the most prestigious schools in the United States. The appointment reflects not only on him, but the entire Korean-American community. Many expats have attained material success in the United States, but Mr. Koh is a rare case of intellectual success. Mr. Koh’s achievement may be the biggest news that comes in time for the centennial celebration of the Korean diaspora in the United States.
Mr. Koh’s family background proves the saying “Like father, like son.” The 48-year-old dean is the third son of the late internationally respected law scholar Koh Kwang-lim. Born in Jeju Island, Mr. Koh Kwang-lim graduated from Gyeongseong Imperial University under the Japanese occupation and taught English and legal philosophy at Seoul National University until he moved to the United States in 1949. He received three advanced degrees in six years, from Rutgers University, Boston University and Harvard Law School. Mr. Koh also served as a diplomat and was named a charge d’affaires for Korean Embassy in Washington in 1960 under Prime Minister Chang Myon. When Park Chung-Hee came into power after a military coup, Mr. Koh sought political asylum in the United States.
Mr. Koh and his wife, Chun Hesung, a sociologist, were offered a job at Yale Law School to teach East Asian law and society. The couple established the Korean Institute, an original form of East Rock Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to promote scholarly interaction between Korea and the United States.
When Mr. Koh passed away in 1989, Yale Law School hosted the funeral at its auditorium, but Korean newspapers covered the scholar’s death with a few lines in obituary section. Seoul National University law professor Choi Jong-go, the most respected law scholar in the country, lamented the ignorance of the Korean media.
Born in Boston, Mr. Harold Koh graduated summa cum laude in government from Harvard University, received First Class Honors in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, and attended Harvard Law School, where he was the developments editor of the Harvard Law Review. He served as law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court before he taught at Yale Law School. Mr. Koh served as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 1998 to 2001. Indeed, Mr. Koh has walked the most elite course in American intellectual society.
His success wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for his father’s effort. While teaching at Yale and University of Connecticut, late Mr. Koh educated all of his six children through the most prestigious institutes in the United States, and they all became lawyers, doctors or professors. He said a great achievement, personal or national, cannot be made in one generation but should be endeavored for generations. Since the Koh family settled in New Haven in 1961, Mr. Harold Koh reached the height of the family tradition after four decades. Those fathers who sent their kids, and money, to the United States should reconsider their educational tactics.
Mr. Koh’s success proves the virtues of the American dream, that anyone can become the best regardless of ethnic background if equipped with competency and talent. The United States is a community where ethnic groups with different cultures and traditions coexist in a frame of law and system. The peaceful coexistence is the ideal all human races ultimately pursue.
At a recent lecture in London, Mr. Koh pointed out that the United States is an unprecedented superpower in history but has an Achilles’ heel, for its security is constantly threatened. He said global problems should be resolved with “a wider civilization,” not unilateralism. His theory is refreshing and gives us hope.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun