Harold Hongju Koh Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Transnational Legal Process and World Order: Conversation with Harold Hongju Koh, Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale, October 3, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Koh, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you for having me.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Boston. My parents both came as students from South Korea. My father was the first Korean, I think, to study law in America. My mother is a sociologist.

Looking back, how did your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Totally. My father came at the time when Korea was controlled by the Syngman Rhee dictatorship. When it was overthrown, he went back to campaign for the first democratic government of Korea. When that government was elected, he was appointed ambassador to the United Nations, and then minister to the United States. Then his government, the new democratic government, was overthrown by military coup, and my father refused to serve the dictatorship and spent the rest of his life in America. That's how I grew up here. So when I became Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy of the United States and went back to Korea, it was an important way of bringing my whole family's life full circle.

What about the influence of your mother?

My mother is a sociologist. She's an expert on comparative cultures, and she is one of the leaders of the women's rights movement in Korea. She is the person who most influenced me on how to understand human relations. That's become a critical part of what I do, both of as a lawyer and as a diplomat.

So was there a lot of talk about politics around the dinner table as you were growing up?

Yes. I have five siblings. My older brother was a commissioner of public health of Massachusetts.

Oh, I see.

He just recently became a professor at Harvard Public Health School. I have a number of siblings who are academics. One of my sisters, Jean Koh Peters, is my colleague at Yale Law School.

So it's fair to say that your upbringing was a transnational process in itself, actually?

What I was told quite early was, if you're going to be between two cultures, use your bicultural background as an asset. That immediately meant that I should be a diplomat, or a lawyer, or an academic.

But the final choice was law. Why is that? Just because of the influence of your father or the example he set?

Well, I started out as a physics major, and my disadvantage was that I was not good in physics. Quite literally, one day I was going to a physics lab and somebody else was going to a U.S. and East Asia course, and I turned around and went to that course, and I haven't looked back.

Did you have any mentors in law school, or even as an undergraduate at Harvard, who made an impression on you and further defined the direction that your life was going to take?

In college, two mentors: I had Paul Freund, who is a professor at Harvard Law School; and Edward Reischauer, who is U.S. Ambassador to Japan. In law school: Arthur Miller, who is a professor of civil procedure; and Abram Chayes, who wrote about international legal process. It's really his ideas of international legal process that I've tried to develop as a transnational business process. Interestingly, two people whom I didn't study with, Steiner and Vagts, are now people with whom I coauthored a book on transnational legal problems and transnational business problems, which are also part of my whole approach now.

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