Senior Deputy Prosecutor Steven Kim, who has argued dozens of cases before King County juries, speaks fluent Korean. His language skills and time in the courtroom made him an ideal candidate to help South Korea in its effort to establish an American-style jury system. Kim, 36, flew from Seattle to Seoul on Saturday to begin...

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When an official with South Korea’s Ministry of Justice first suggested King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Steven Kim pack up his life in Seattle and fly 5,000 miles to help his parents’ homeland move toward an American-style jury system, Kim dismissed the idea without giving it much thought.

But when the government made Kim an official offer, Kim’s wife, Lina, pushed him to take it.

“She said it was an opportunity that comes by maybe once in the nation’s history and I would regret not taking advantage of an opportunity that doesn’t come to many people at all,” Kim recalled last week in the office he was preparing to vacate on the fifth floor of the King County Courthouse.

Kim, his mother, and his 3-year-old son boarded a plane for Seoul on Saturday afternoon. From the South Korean capital, the family planned to travel 1 ½ hours south to Yongin City, home of the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Research and Training Institute. There, Kim will lecture government officials and legal professionals who are proceeding with broad changes to the country’s judicial system that began in 2007.

“How do I feel, lecturing the Korean government on these topics? Overwhelmed, to say the least. Underqualified, but excited,” said Kim, 36.

Kim, born in Marysville soon after his mother and older brother joined his father there in 1974, speaks fluent Korean. He also is an experienced trial attorney who has argued 80 to 100 cases before King County juries since being hired full time by the prosecutor’s office in 2001.

It turns out the South Korean government combed through lists of Korean-American attorneys, looking for someone who was both trial-tested and spoke the language, Kim said. He was one of the few who met both criteria.

Kim initially was asked to address a single topic — why South Korea should move to a jury system. He then was asked to tackle the question of how to create a jury system free of corruption and witness tampering.

“Just last week, they called and added another topic,” Kim said. The subject: whether prosecutors should be elected or appointed.

“The public is demanding election,” he said. “I don’t know why, but if I had to guess, it’s because of scandals and corruption.”

South Korea, a former Japanese colony with a population of 50 million, introduced a “participatory trial system” in 2008, in which juries of five, seven or nine members advise a three-judge panel on verdicts and sentencings, but only for certain felonies — murder and rape, for instance — and only if a defendant requested and was granted a trial before a jury, said Jonathan Kang, a Korean-born assistant law professor at the University of Washington.

Judges, however, are not bound to follow a jury’s recommendations, and three-judge bench trials to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence are still the norm, he said.

In the United States, criminal defendants choose whether to have their cases decided by jury, usually of 12 people, or a trial judge.

While the American justice system is adversarial, with prosecutors and defense attorneys squaring off before a judge who rules on the validity of their arguments, South Korea has a judge-focused system in which judges direct “much of the action,” Kang said. “In our system, the lawyers are the engine for a lot of the work that in Asia, judges do.”

South Korea’s early experiments with juries is really an amalgam of German and American practices, Kang said. A provisional, five-year plan to study the effectiveness of jury trials is now ending — and Kim’s overseas assignment is “the kind of initiative that makes a lot of sense and could be very helpful” as South Korea proceeds with judicial reforms, including overhauling a profession long dominated by “a very small segment of elites,” Kang said.

Though South Korea is in the midst of shaping its jury system, the country appears to be transitioning to a system that more closely resembles the American version.

The continuation of changes coincides with the implementation of new free-trade agreements with Asia’s fourth-largest economy: In October, President Obama signed into law a free-trade agreement originally brokered in 2007 by President George W. Bush. The United States’ largest trade deal since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the agreement with South Korea will eliminate 95 percent of each country’s tariffs within five years. South Korea in 2009 also signed with the European Union a free-trade agreement that was provisionally implemented last year.

Part of those agreements “is opening up markets for services — accounting firms, law firms — and the Korean legal market is being opened up, largely for the first time,” Kang said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said Kim’s job will be waiting for him when he returns in six months or a year.

“It’s especially gratifying to know one of our deputy prosecutors will be involved in the export of the fundamental right of trial by jury,” Satterberg said. “It is still an authoritarian government compared to the U.S., but there’s a lot of exciting modernization going on. The fact South Korea reached across the ocean to ask an American prosecutor how to implement this reform is huge.”

While South Korea is moving to a more democratic society, Kim said he knows he’s in for some culture shock. For instance, attitudes about domestic violence and sexual assault are similar to what they were in the United States in the 1950s.

“They really are a young country, and they’ve taken off so fast that a lot of issues are so archaic,” Kim said. “Domestic violence is shameful to the family, and the woman will often end up recanting. It’s even more shameful if a couple ends up divorcing. You’re damaged goods forever, if you’re a woman.”

While Kim said he was looking forward to the professional challenge, the trip also is a personal one. Kim, who has visited South Korea three times previously, is taking his son, Hugo, with him “to do what my mother did for me — teach him Korean,” Kim said. “He’s right at that age when it’s the best time to learn the language.” Kim’s wife, a dentist, and their 5-year-old daughter, Hailey, will remain in Seattle but will visit South Korea during spring and summer school breaks.

But Kim is most excited for his mother, Yong, to return to her homeland. Both she and Kim’s father, Chung, who isn’t going on the trip, were college-educated but because they weren’t members of the elite class, their opportunities there were limited. When they emigrated to the United States, “South Korea was still a third-world country,” he said.

“If nobody listens to me, at least I get to replace my mother’s last memory of Korea in the 1970s with this trip,” Kim said. “If I don’t influence one human being there, I will still have accomplished something pretty big in my mind.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654

or sgreen@seattletimes.com