By AUDREY FISCHER
Harold Hongju Koh's connection to the Library of Congress began long before he delivered the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month keynote address on May 17 in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building. Mr. Koh, who was appointed assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor by President Clinton on Nov. 13, 1998, recalled his earliest introduction to the Library.
"My father made it a point of taking each of his six children to the Library of Congress during the years he served as the first Korean ambassador to the United States," said Mr. Koh. "He reminded us that, for Asians, libraries are temples of the mind and most sacred places."
Mr. Koh's ties to the Library continued in his professional life. After graduation from Harvard Law School in 1980, Mr. Koh began his career in private practice in Washington and subsequently clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1997.
Mr. Koh revealed a little-known fact about Blackmun's confirmation hearings. "This Library is responsible for Justice Blackmun's confirmation." According to Mr. Koh, Blackmun, on a short lunch break during the confirmation hearings, sneaked across the street to the Library of Congress to look up an obscure ruling that he was subsequently asked to explain. The rest is history. In making the decision to donate his papers to the Library of Congress, Blackmun described the institution to Mr. Koh as "the repository of accumulated wisdom of more than 200 years of American experience with democracy."
"So I am now part of the Library of Congress and this Library has become a piece of me," said Mr. Koh, whose work with Justice Blackmun is preserved in the Library's written record.
Discussing his experiences as an Asian American, Mr. Koh began with his parents, who both immigrated to the U.S. during the late 1940s, before the Korean War.
"My parents met and married in the U.S., but shared the hope that someday they would return to Korea to help create a democratic and united homeland."
Mr. Koh's father, a Harvard-educated lawyer and professor of Law at Boston University, was soon called upon to serve as Korea's first ambassador to the U.S. From this diplomatic post, he hoped to restore democracy. But when a military coup overthrew the government, Mr. Koh's father was faced with the decision either to represent a nondemocratic country or live in exile in the United States. He chose the latter.
Years later, when Mr. Koh told his father he wanted to be a lawyer, his father advised him to "study physics and become a doctor."
His father's advice was based on four assumptions about Asians.
"The practice of law requires English, which is not our native language," said Mr. Koh. "The law is confrontational, which is not our way as 'pacific,' or 'peaceful,' people. The profession is an 'old-boys network' and we are 'new boys and girls' in this country. Finally, the law is not an exact science and we will suffer for its inexactness. My father paid the price by being exiled, and he did not want any of his children to pay too."
These assumptions were based on his father's experience. Life in America was different for his son.
"English is my native language," said Mr. Koh who won the English prize in school. "Fighting for rights is my way, and I was not good at exact sciences. So I took a different path than my father advised."
After several years in private practice, he joined the Justice Department and subsequently became a law professor at Yale University. "When I became a professor, my father believed I had finally entered the temple of the mind."
In the early 1990s, Mr. Koh was faced with a difficult decision: become a tenured professor or use his legal training to fight for the rights of Haitian refugees. While many of his colleagues did not understand his desire to enter the fray, Mr. Koh found himself arguing the case for Haitians, against the position of the Clinton White House. He understood that this meant he would never work in the Clinton administration, but felt it was a small price to pay compared to the price his father had paid for fighting for democracy.
In 1998 he received a call from an aide to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to discuss a position in the State Department. He reminded the caller that he had just spent the past few years suing the Clinton administration. "That's why we want you," the caller replied. "We want someone who isn't afraid to stand up against our government."
Mr. Koh soon realized that his family's experience was similar to that of his new boss, the first woman secretary of state. Ms. Albright was a refugee from what is today the Czech Republic. Her father was a diplomat, and like Mr. Koh's mother, Ms. Albright raised children while earning a doctoral degree. Like the Czech Republic, South Korea is democratic.
"My father was an ambassador to the U.S., and I am an ambassador from the U.S., all in one generation," observed Mr. Koh. His mother recently dedicated an Asian studies reading room at her alma mater, Dickinson College, in honor of the Koh family.
"Dreams can come true," said Mr. Koh. "But you must stand for something. To stand for nothing means you will fall for anything."
Mr. Koh, the nation's chief human rights officer, once wondered what one person can do in the face of massive injustice.
"When I travel to places like Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone, I think of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks, who refused to go to the back of the bus. You don't have to be a Nobel Prize winner to make a difference. You can make a difference if you just stand up for truth, justice and the American way."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.