Proportional Representative in Korea’s National Assembly
All Hae-Suk Suh, a.k.a. Hazel Lee, knew about the U.S. before she entered SCU School of Law in 1985 was what she had learned through her studies of English literature in a master’s degree program at Seoul National University. And considering that Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy didn’t write about the U.S., it was very little.
Hae-Suk Suh arrived in the U.S. when her husband, Jong Buhm Lee MBA ’89, was transferred from Seoul to Santa Clara. With two young children at home, Suh didn’t get out much. And, having left a job teaching freshman English at Seoul National University, she was restless.
“My husband brought me home an application for SCU’s law school,” she says. She was accepted. The first year at law school was a difficult time; however, after the first year, she did quite well, achieving in one semester a GPA of nearly 4.2.
Though she had no background in law, Suh found the study of law riveting—it provided her an understanding of American culture and way of life much better than could The Mill on the Floss or Tintern Abbey. “Through each case I could learn about American life and the way of thinking,” says Suh. “By the time I finished my first year, I was understanding the philosophy and logic behind each case.”
Suh’s initial thoughts were that she would use her law degree to help Koreans immigrating to the U.S., but as she progressed through law school, she became intrigued with the idea of contributing to her country’s economic growth in the increasingly global economy through international business.
Korea had come a long way since her birth in 1953, the year of the armistice ending the war between the communist People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the democratic Republic of Korea in the south. (This north/south division was made after Japan’s defeat in W.W.II ended its 35 year occupation of Korea. Intended to be temporary, it turned over the administration of Korea above the 38th parallel to the USSR, and south of the parallel to the U.S.)
In the intervening years, South Korea’s economy has grown from one comparable to that of the poorer countries of Africa and Asia to the 10th largest economy in the world—a pretty impressive accomplishment for a country not much bigger than the state of Indiana.
After graduating from law school, Suh began her practice as an international lawyer at Baker & McKenzie in San Francisco, where she was an associate in corporate and commercial law while her husband finished his MBA evenings at Santa Clara. (The couple’s work ethic rubbed off on their children: their daughter is a psychiatrist and their son is in medical school.)
When Jong Lee was transferred back to Seoul, Suh stayed in the Bay Area with their two children in order to maintain the opportunities she had at Baker & McKenzie. But after six months of family separation, she decided to take a leave of absence and return to Korea.
There, she joined the law firm Park & Partners as a foreign legal consultant (as she is not licensed in Korea) where she continued working in corporate and commercial law, eventually becoming the head of the international transactions department. In 2001 she left with her colleagues to form a new law firm, Wuhyun Law P.C., specializing in international law. It now employs 25 attorneys.
Lawyers enjoy more prestige in Korea than in the U.S., says Suh. Until recently only about 300 new law graduates passed the bar each year, so bar passage alone was quite an accomplishment. Recently, the pass rate has gone up to about 1,000 a year.
Bar pass rates for women have been gradually increasing, making up about a third of bar passers in 2005, but they are not well represented in senior positions. “The discrimination here is more overt than in the U.S.,” says Suh. “Some people still believe that the law is a job for men.”
Such beliefs have not held Suh back. In 2004, Suh was asked by Korea’s URI party, the current ruling party in the National Assembly (the Republic’s unicameral parliament), to be one of its 24 “proportional” representatives, meaning representatives who the party gets to appoint due to the amount of support it has from the electorate. She is one of 41 women in the 299-member assembly.
As a lawmaker, Suh can finally influence the laws that as a lawyer she simply had to accept. “As a lawyer, I had to advise my clients what the law was but had no ability to change it. Now I can really push to change laws and to pursue good policy.” Korea, says Suh, “has been obsessed with democracy and reform. Now is the time to develop law in other fields.” A member of the National Assembly’s Science, Technology, Information and Telecommunications Committee and the Special Committee on Climate Change, Suh is particularly interested in laws relating to regulation of digital content, the telecommunications industry, biomedical issues, privacy rights, and improving the quality of health care.
Suh stays in touch with Santa Clara Law by hiring at least one intern each summer from the school’s summer abroad program.