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[Herald Interview] Legislation Minister makes reducing discrimination her mission

Minister Kim Oe-sook believes in law to promote a fair society.

Law sets out the standards and principles of society. It tells people what is right and wrong, and gives clear-cut answers to conflicting situations. But revision is necessary for the law to properly represent society because it is a set of man-made conventions.

The Ministry of Government Legislation takes that role, from breaking down difficult legal terms to finding and fixing major flaws in existing laws.

“It is a legal adviser that manages the legislative actions of all administrative bodies in the country. We are not the protagonist in the spotlight, but we are the staff that the team must have,” Minister of Government Legislation Kim Oe-sook told The Korea Herald during an interview at her office on July 26.

Minister Kim Oe-sook of Government Legislation (Ministry of Government Legislation)
Minister Kim Oe-sook of Government Legislation (Ministry of Government Legislation)

From past events that occurred, Kim said she has witnessed people’s strong desire for a just and fair society where no one is discriminated. Therefore, upon her inauguration in June last year, the former human rights lawyer was determined to reduce discrimination.

“Introducing a new law is difficult in itself, but it is also not easy to find what is wrong and change the law once it is made. Still it is important that principles change quickly enough to reflect society in order to reduce conflicts,” Kim said.

Fighting discrimination

One of the first tasks she set for herself was to review all the statutes to find out if there were biased factors that could lead to unfair rulings.

For instance, the Single-Parent Family Support Act had different rules for mother-child and father-child families.

While the law required shelters for father-child families to have a kitchen, dining area and cooks, there was no such regulation to mandate the same support for mother-child family facilities, Kim said.

“The difference appears to stem from the bias that mothers stay at home and provide meals, while fathers go out to work. But it should not be about who can or who cannot cook. The same support should be given to single-parent households regardless of the gender of the parent,” she said. The ministry is in the process of revising the law.

Kim’s past experience as a human rights lawyer equipped her with field knowledge to carry out her ministerial project -- changing the injury evaluation systems that were applied differently for men and women.

“I once defended for a case of a taxi driver who had repeatedly been stabbed in the face by a robber inside the taxi. Even after several surgeries, the scars remained and it became a hindrance for him to maintain his social life and work,” Kim said.

But he was not fairly graded for the injuries that affected his appearance. He received a disability grade of the lowest 12, while it would have been grade 7 if a woman had sustained the same injuries, meaning less compensation for the plaintiff, she said

From her case, the Enforcement Decree of the Industrial Accident was revised in 2003 to have the same grading standards for injuries that affect appearance, regardless of gender.

“Just because it was about appearance, it just did not make sense to consider a man’s scars as less serious than a woman’s, and to provide less compensation for men. It was not fair,” she said.

However, the revision only applied to industrial accidents, and the old evaluation system has been in effect for other categories of accidents.

“I was looking at the fire loss act, and found that the discriminatory system was still in place, for the past 14 years. I was shocked, as I had understood the (new) evaluation system would be included in all acts, and ran a comprehensive inspection to change all of them,” she said.

In June, the ministry reported 64 of such unfair acts to the president for revision.

Law to contribute to society

Kim is the second female legislation minister since the ministry was established in 1948. She passed the bar exam in 1990 and became a lawyer in 1992. Although it was rare to have women in the legal circle in 1990s, Kim chose law as her way to contribute to society, she said.

“When I first became a lawyer, there were only 21 of us, female lawyers, including me. Not only was it rare for women to have a legal career back then, but it was also rare for them to take the attorney job. Many preferred to work in the court,” Kim said.

Now there are over 7,000 female attorneys registered with the Korean Women Lawyers Association.

Her choices -- becoming a lawyer in the field of labor and human rights -- were mostly influenced by her childhood in the industrial city of Pohang in North Gyeongsang Province. Born in 1967, Kim was brought up around many factory workers.

“I saw the difficulties that laborers faced, and it was how my household was too. At a young age, it vaguely came to me that I might one day work to help these people whose rights are less represented in society,” Kim said.

Her dream began to take shape when she entered Seoul National University to major in law in 1985. As a timid college student, she did not actively participate in the democratic uprising movement led by university students at the time, she said. But she felt indebted to her colleagues, and she was determined to also contribute to society in her own way.

Among the 21 female attorneys at the time, 19 worked in Seoul. As a rookie lawyer, Kim eagerly moved to Busan to work at Law Firm Busan, which was well-known for covering labor cases. The firm was established by incumbent President Moon Jae-in and late former President Roh Moo-hyun.

“I did not have any connections or living experience in Busan, but I chose to go (to work at the law firm) because I wanted to become a labor rights lawyer,” Kim said.

Law for everyone

Although the ministry’s work is mainly done “backstage,” its role is crucial as it is responsible for providing statute interpretations for important social issues, Kim said.

The proposal of parliamentary ratification of the Panmunjom Declaration from the April 27 inter-Korean summit has been disputed by parties across the aisle.

The presidential office and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea seek to ratify the declaration to give it a legal framework to be enforced regardless of changes in the government. However, the opposition Liberty Korea Party claims it lacks details and legal grounds.

The Legislation Ministry is currently reviewing whether the joint declaration is legally eligible for parliamentary ratification, upon a request for authoritative interpretation from the Unification Ministry.

“We will make our conclusion based on whether the plan will seriously burden the nation and the people financially, and whether it is subject matter for legislation,” Kim said.

The ministry had expected to deliver the result in June, but the date has been pushed back, and its work is now at the finishing stage, Kim said.

The ministry is also expanding its connections with other countries to share expertise in the legal field.

South Korea’s National Law Information Center offers a legal database system that allows everyone access to the country’s legal information via computer and mobile applications.

The system has transferred all legal information stipulated on paper into an electronic format, allowing people to easily search over 3,869,400 pieces of legal data, including those related to the country’s Constitution, regulations, judicial precedents, past treaties and municipal ordinances.

The ministry has also signed a memorandum of understanding with 24 legal entities in 14 countries to export its information center program and share expertise in the field.

It has held the Asian Legislative Experts Symposium annually since 2013 to discuss the direction of the legal systems of countries. This year, it will host the sixth symposium on Oct. 31.

“During my term, I will make efforts for the ministry to gain more trust from the people, and to make the law more approachable for all,” Kim said.

By Jo He-rim (