November 14, 2022

By Catey Vera, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Co-Chair

I had the honor of sitting down last month with Yale Law’s Sterling Professor of International Law, Professor Harold Hongju Koh, to discuss his family, his journey to human rights advocacy, and his advice for the next generation of activists.

Finding Inspiration in Family History:
As with many in the field, Professor Harold Hongju Koh’s dedication to human rights is rooted in his own family history. His late father was the first Jeju-Island-native to study law in Seoul in what is now Seoul National University. At the time, the institution was run by Japanese colonial rulers, who banned students from speaking Korean or even using their Korean names. “My dad was a little bit like James Meredith at the University of Mississippi,” Professor Koh noted, referring to the African-American civil rights activist who was the first Black student to attend the then-segregated school.

In the face of blatant discrimination, Professor Koh’s father doubled down on his studies in order to be at the very top of his class—and thoroughly succeeded. His thinking was that if he could objectively succeed in academics as a Korean, the Japanese colonists could not look down on his nationality. As Professor Koh remarked, “It's interesting because since Japanese and Koreans are of the same ethnicity, my father didn't see this discrimination as a matter of color.” Rather, he says, his father “simply saw how pernicious discrimination could be.”

Professor’s Koh’s mother has a similarly gripping personal story: while vacationing in a summer home in the north of Korea, the country split and she found herself trapped in North Korea. Only through “tremendous luck,” as Professor Koh says, was she able to travel back to Seoul, and eventually to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to study at Dickinson College with a scholarship.

Safely in America and eager to fight for Korean democracy, Professor Koh’s father pursued his L.L.M. and S.J.D. at Harvard Law School. With that, Professor Koh’s father became an international lawyer. As the government of Syngman Rhee collapsed in the early 1960s, his father campaigned for the first democratic government of Korea, known as the “Second Republic.” The campaign was ultimately successful, and Professor Koh’s father was asked to serve as the Korean Ambassador to the United Nations.

The United Nations was particularly important for his father, Professor Koh notes, both because the UN saved the Republic of Korea from domination by the north, but also because “my father saw international law and a vibrant UN system as the main force for human rights and a preservation of the rule of law.”

Just a year later, however, the government he had worked to elect was overthrown by a military coup. In the process, Professor Koh’s father was exiled and was forced to remain in the United States, where he had been stationed as Charge D’affaires at the Korean embassy in Washington, D.C.

Fearing for his former Prime Minister’s life, Professor Koh’s father approached the Deputy National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, at the White House. With a confidence that shocked Koh’s father, Rostow informed him that the Prime Minister would be safe. “My father was just staggered by American power and that the Americans could say with confidence that this prisoner on the other side of the world who was under arrest, wouldn't be harmed.”

Rostow then called his brother, Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow, and almost immediately, Professor Koh’s father and mother had secured teaching positions in international law at Yale Law. Forty years later, Professor Harold Hongju Koh would become Dean of Yale Law, while his sister would become a chaired professor at the law school. “So ours is the American story, really,” Professor Koh said with a smile.

Throughout their professional lives as vocal advocates for the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, Professor Koh’s parents taught their children that human rights abuses should be tackled head on. Just as a medical student acquires a moral duty to heal others once they become a doctor, so too, Koh’s parents would explain, do lawyers have a moral duty to correct defects in the body politic to protect fundamental human rights.

Human Rights Career Highlights:
At Yale Law School, in the 1990s, Professor Harold Hongju Koh supervised a Human Rights Clinic representing several hundred Haitian refugees—including many unaccompanied minors—who were just being brought to Guantanamo. As described in Brandt Goldstein’s book called “Storming the Court,” a prior case went through the 11th Circuit but failed, which prompted Koh and his students to bring another suit in the New York courts. Professor Koh remembers this as a risky decision, given that he was one of only two licensed attorneys on the case (alongside the late Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights).

“I thought: I'm an immigrant, I'm from a refugee family, and I happen to have tenure at a law school: if I'm not going to fight for these people, who will?” 
And so it started, and Koh argued for the Haitians at the Supreme Court. After that case concluded, Professor Koh spent the next three years representing Cuban refugees against the Clinton Administration. In this process, he realized that while the Cubans were ethnically and politically different from the Haitians he had previously represented, “lawyers represent issues, not ethnic groups,” and issues of human rights must frequently traverse political and ethnic boundaries.

Ironically, it was precisely because of his work against the Clinton Administration that Professor Koh was hired to work with the Clinton Administration as the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “She said ‘we know you’re not a yes man,’” Professor Koh says with a chuckle, remembering the reason Albright wanted him on her team: “‘If you defend our practices, then it must be because you really believe it’.”

Secretary Albright in some ways mirrored Professor Koh’s experiences: both had fathers who were professors in exile. Near the end of her term, they traveled together to North Korea. The experience was moving: “I actually got to see where my mother had escaped from many years before.”

Professor Koh laughs while remembering a particular visit to China with Secretary Albright. Chinese leaders would tell Albright, “Asians don't have the same conception of human rights as Westerners.” Albright would smile and turn to Professor Koh, saying, “Well, this is my Human Rights Assistant Secretary here.” Professor Koh says he would simply point at his own face and smile. Likewise, Professor Koh counters a belief that “Koreans don't care about human rights” by pointing to the Republic of Korea’s election as President of Kim Dae-Jung, a human rights champion who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize. “Koreans love human rights and democracy, and that fosters Korean freedoms: culinary freedoms, artistic freedoms, musical freedoms, cinematic freedoms. It turns out that all people, especially the Korean people, love freedom, and it's just very tangible.”

 Under Obama’s presidency, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Professor Koh to be her Legal Adviser of the State Department, which proved to be “a human rights job in its own way,” Koh says. After he returned to Yale, Professor Koh also worked on several notable briefs opposing the Trump administration, and eventually found himself on President Biden's transition team, where he served as Senior Advisor (the senior Biden political appointee) in the Office of the Legal Adviser (his old office) until October 2021.

“To me, this is all a way of giving back to the country for what it's given to me and my family,” he said, reflecting on his decades of service.

On Accepting the UNA-NCA Louis B. Sohn Award:
Louis B. Sohn was the mentor to Professor Koh’s father, so this award is particularly resonant with him. Sohn was Koh’s father’s dissertation adviser at Harvard Law School, where he was affectionately known as “the brain who walks like a man.” Later, when Professor Koh went to Harvard Law School, he and his sister (also a Harvard Law Students two years behind) befriended the now-retired Professor Sohn. After Professor Koh’s father passed away, Louis B. Sohn treated him as a son. Professor Koh told me that he was very touched to receive the recognition: “to get an award in the name of Louis Sohn means a lot to me,” he said.

Professor Koh remembers first visiting the UN as a five-year-old with his dad, and thinking that the whole institution was quite idealistic. His father replied, “If you don't have the United Nations, you don't have anything that can unite us to make positive change in the world.” The organization is obviously imperfect, but the fact that it can't be perfect doesn't mean it isn't essential. 

Later on, across his government jobs, Professor Koh had many interactions with the UN Human Rights Commission, the UN Human Rights Council, the Secretary General, the UN Treaty bodies, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “I came away thinking that my dad had it right. Is this a perfect institution? No, of course, like any human institution, it's flawed. But is it an essential tool for making multilateral change? Yes.”

On the Next Generation of Human Rights Activists:
Professor Koh advises young professionals in the human rights space to use a “wholesale and retail” approach. Meaningful policy change can be hugely beneficial for many but is often an uphill battle. By contrast, “sometimes all you can do is help one person, but helping that person is still significant.” Recently a Ukrainian-American student of his, for example, was desperate to help save his grandmother from being bombed in Kyiv, and Professor Koh was able to ensure that the student and his grandmother could remain in a Berlin-based university until the grandmother’s refugee status was secured. “It's one family at a time, but it brings me back to my original story. Eugene Rostow's brother, Walt Rostow, could have just let my dad walk out the door as an exile. Instead, he just decided to help them, and me, and everyone I have had an opportunity to help. So the spillover effects of even one fight for human rights are huge for the next generation.”

Need to Know


More >

Upcoming Events

More >