Interview with Judge Yunkyung Bae

Judge Bae was a visiting research scholar at Melbourne Law School’s Asian Law Centre from August 2017 to 12 August 2018.  She is the 12th South Korean judge to visit the ALC as part of the Overseas Research and Study Program of the Supreme Court of Korea.

In this interview with Associate Professor Stacey Steele, Judge Bae talks about her visit. She also provides insights into South Korea’s judicial system and market for lawyers from her personal perspective.

Q: Judge Bae, thank you for your time. We have very much enjoyed your stay at Melbourne Law School. What made you decide to come to Melbourne Law School?

A: I really enjoyed my time at Melbourne Law School too. The Supreme Court of Korea sends judges who have served for more than seven years in South Korea to an overseas’ posting for a year to study international law. I was lucky that I was assigned to Melbourne Law School and had a great experience and support from Melbourne Law School.

Q: Please tell us about your path to becoming a judge.

A: I completed my bachelor’s degree in Economics at Seoul National University. During my degree, I took a law subject which sparked my interest in law and ultimately led me to decide to pursue a legal career. At the time, you did not need a law degree to enter the legal profession, but you did need to pass the National Korean Bar Examination. After passing, I was admitted to study in the Judicial Research and Training Institute for a period of two years. Becoming a judge was greatly appealing to me, because judges can resolve disputes impartially and independently according to law and conscience. I was appointed as a Judge in the Seoul Central District Court upon graduation in 2007.

Q: Have you worked in any other Courts?

A: Yes, in Korea, judges are transferred every two to three years. I’ve also worked at the Seoul Eastern, Ulsan and Suwon District Courts for a few years each. I am now a Judge in the Seoul Administrative Court.

Q: Thank you Judge. You’ve already had such an interesting and impressive career. It must be difficult to settle into a new judicial appointment. What are the positive aspects of being transferred to different courts from your perspective? What type of work do you enjoy the most?

A: Judges are transferred to different courts as part of their career, although there are many judges who want to work in the capital city, Seoul. In my opinion, this transfer system brings a positive effect, because it maximises impartiality by preventing judges from building too many regional ties when working in a small city for a long time. The system is also beneficial for judges to broaden their expertise by dealing with a variety of matters in different cities.

Q: Korea recently changed the process for judicial appointments. How does someone in Korea become a judge now?

A: Yes, judges like myself who were appointed before the reforms in 2009 did not need to have a law degree and legal experience. Everyone needed to pass the National Korean Bar Examination and to be trained in JRTI for two years. The National Bar Examination was very difficult and only about three percent of candidates passed at that time. We are expected to build our judicial careers whilst working in the courts after graduating from the Judicial Research and Training Institute.

Since 2009, however, only graduates who have completed a three-year postgraduate law degree are eligible to sit the National Korean Bar Examination. According to recent press, the pass rate of the Examination is now around 50 percent. Also the Supreme Court now requires judicial applicants to have at least five years of experience working as an attorney before being eligible for a judicial appointment. The length of this practical experience requirement will gradually increase to ten years before a person will become eligible for judicial appointment.

Q: Judge, you mentioned lawyers must pass the National Korean Bar Examination… Are there any opportunities for Australian lawyers to work in Korea?

A: Yes. I believe that the opportunities for Australian-qualified lawyers are increasing. The Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement became effective in 2014, and Australian-qualified lawyers may now work in Korea subject to certain restrictions. Currently, business partnerships with domestic law firms are allowed. From 2019, joint venture firms can be made between Korean and Australian law firms.

The number of foreign legal advisors in Korea was only 34 people in 2012, but the number was reported to be 147 people in 2017. Further, these numbers only reflect the foreign lawyers who register as foreign legal advisors, so the actual number of foreign-qualified lawyers currently working in Korea must be more. Among the 147 registered foreign legal advisors, there are eight Australian-qualified legal advisors. There are also 27 foreign law firms in operation in Korea. Foreign legal advisors generally work for foreign law firms in Korea, but some people also work for large Korean law firms. Since Korean companies are steadily expanding their businesses overseas, the role of foreign lawyers and law firms in Korea is likely to expand in the next few years.

Q: Thank you Judge. The Korean system for appointing judges and lawyers is quite different to Australia’s... Another key difference between the Korean judicial system and Australia’s system is Korea’s Constitutional Court. What is the purpose of the Constitutional Court?

A: The Korean Constitutional Court was established under section 111 of the 1987 Constitution in 1988. Unlike Australia, South Korea has the Constitutional Court which is separate from other Courts. The jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court is reviewing matters such as the constitutionality of a law, impeachment, and dissolution of a political party.

The Constitutional Court has nine Justices and they are appointed by the President. Among nine justices, three shall be appointed from people nominated by the National Assembly, and another three shall be appointed from people nominated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court is appointed by the President from among the Justices with the consent of the National Assembly.

Q: Thank you, Judge Bae for your interesting insights. We really enjoyed hosting you at the Asian Law Centre and valued your contributions to Melbourne Law School!

A: Thanks to Melbourne Law School for hosting me. I really enjoyed my time in Melbourne and thank you for your support.