Kang Gum Sil

Justice Minister, South Korea

Don't let her diminutive stature and soft-spoken manner mislead you. Since Kang Gum Sil's appointment as Korea's first woman Justice Minister in February, the feisty 46-year-old has proven her determination to root out corruption and create a truly independent judicial system in a country where her predecessors did politicians' and dictators' bidding.

Reform is no small task, but Kang has a long history of fighting injustice. When she was a judge in the 1980s, under South Korea's military dictatorship, she defied the common practice of jailing student activists and released them on bail. In 1994, she was a leader of a group of judges calling for reforms of the outdated legal system.

In a society where male dominance still prevails, Kang has consistently broken the glass ceiling. She was the first woman appointed to judge criminal cases single-handedly, rather than as part of a panel, and the first woman elected as vice-chairman of the Minbyun Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a lawyers' association that campaigns for human rights. And she was the first woman to head one of South Korea's top 10 law firms. One of her early moves was to persuade her colleagues to volunteer at least 50 hours of free legal services a year. "The legal profession fundamentally requires the promotion of the public interest," she says.

Kang, a talented amateur singer and dancer, has already proved a formidable lieutenant in President Roh Moo Hyun's campaign to shake up the old order. Her appointment was met with angry opposition from conservative senior state prosecutors, but she has earned their respect since allowing them to go after a close associate of the newly elected President and several political elders suspected of receiving payoffs from businessmen.

Overhauling the legal system is only part of her crusade. Kang has vowed to put all her energy into a crackdown on the entire entrenched culture of corruption. "The whole society must become transparent," Kang says. "Slush money and connections must no longer play any role in decision-making."

Her determination has won her the support of thousands of young Koreans who have joined Internet-based Kang fan clubs. If her first few months in office are anything to go by, Kang's roster of followers will continue to grow.

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