Assistant attorney general promoting equality for allWASHINGTON, D.C. ― Wan J. Kim, 37, born to a father with no education and a mother who only graduated high school, immigrated to the United States when he was four years old. The importance of diligence, which he said he learned from his parents, led him to rise to one of the highest positions held by a Korean-American, the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Mr. Kim was sworn in to the post toward the end of last year.
The Civil Rights Division is the second largest in the Justice Department. Mr. Kim is in charge of fighting discrimination based on race, sex, religion and disability, and has general responsibility for the enforcement of laws designed to prevent any restrictions on the voting rights of minorities. He has 350 employees and 350 attorneys under his supervision.
“There are many Korean-Americans who avoid lawsuits involving minor incidents like traffic rule violations due to a lack of English proficiency,” Mr. Kim said. “My mother was like that, too. Living in New York, she got up at 4 a.m. every day and worked in a grocery store. She knew nothing but work. She didn’t know how to stand up for her own rights. When I was young, I used to say to her, ‘Mom, you should go to court and claim legal rights as a citizen. Growing up with many thoughts like this allowed me to become a civil rights public servant.”
Mr. Kim said although Koreans are a minority, being in a position dealing with civil rights, a primary American value, he treats all Americans equally. Mr. Kim said he pays attention to ensuring the protection of Asian immigrants including Koreans who suffer from language and cultural barriers.
“My father left me as newborn with my grandmother and went to the United States. I lived in my grandmother’s house in Seoul for four years until my father settled down. Since then, I’ve never been back to Korea. But I like kimchi and jabchae. I always thought of myself as an American with Korean heritage,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim received his bachelors degree in economics from the Johns Hopkins University and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago Law School.
Mr. Kim was a trial attorney in the Terrorism and Violent Crimes Section of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, and then a special attorney to the attorney general in the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing case. After two years in private practice, he returned to the department as an assistant attorney for the District of Columbia. He joined the Civil Rights Division in August 2003.
Mr. Kim noted other Korean-Americans in high-ranking positions in the current administration include Kang Young-woo, assistant secretary at the U.S. National Council on Disability, and Chun Shin-ae, a director at the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau.
“The United States is a place where everyone can accomplish their dream through hard work,” Mr. Kim said. “I hope that young Koreans realize hard work always pays off.”
by Kang Chan-ho