Kim Joo Young

Executive Director, Center for Good Corporate Governance, South Korea

Kim Joo Young was the epitome of the Establishment when he took a step that Establishment South Koreans don't take. He left the white-shoe law firm where he had represented corporate clients to wage a fight against the dirty dealing of Korea Inc. Unlike many in his generation, Kim didn't tie on a headband and set out for the streets to wage his war against the controlling families of the nation's giant business groups, the chaebol. Instead, he has fought a remarkable battle in the law libraries and courtrooms where he is most at home.

The 38-year-old Kim is one of South Korea's best and brightest. He graduated from Seoul National University's law school, the most elite department in the nation's most elite university. The son of a Supreme Court justice, he worked at Kim & Chang, considered the nation's top law firm. Later, he won a coveted Fulbright Foundation scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, where he earned a second degree in law. But in late 1997, two years after his return from the U.S., Kim threw it all away to work as a solo practitioner and take part in the country's fledgling corporate-governance movement.

Kim says he didn't like the lifestyle at the big law firm. A devout Christian and an aficionado of Bach's choral music, he now finds it easier to make the weekly rehearsals of the Choi Hoon Cha Choir with his wife, who plays piano for the choir. But Kim didn't trade in the long hours at Kim & Chang for lifestyle alone. Long frustrated that there seemed to be no legal checks on Korea's big companies, Kim had an epiphany when he read about the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), an activist group that had corporate-governance issues at the heart of its agenda. He set up his own practice and began volunteering for PSPD, helping its attempts to bring Korea's chaebol to heel.

Drawing on his corporate law experience, Kim focused on uncovering corporate malfeasance. Over the last few years, in both his own practice and with volunteers at PSPD, he has helped uncover the evidence to prove what many Koreans have long suspected: that the chaebol's founding families secure their control through a variety of dubious dealings among private and public companies. These under-the-table deals benefit the families at the expense of minority shareholders. There's a bigger meaning here, too. In Korea, criticizing the chaebol is tantamount to attacking the power structure itself. In tackling governance, Kim has taken on one of the most politically charged issues in Korea.

Kim quickly realized that working for a volunteer nongovernmental organization wouldn't bring about sustained pressure for change. So, with his father and brother, he set up Hannuri Law Offices in 2001. Korea as yet has no law allowing class actions, which makes getting justice for aggrieved shareholders more difficult. But Hannuri has had dozens of successes in smaller lawsuits. In February, 2002, Kim won $1.8 million in damages on behalf of 342 investors against a bevy of high-profile companies, including Hanyang Securities, Kookmin Bank, and Samsung Investment Trust Management. In the Korean context, that's a big victory.

In an office adjacent to Hannuri, Kim set up the Center for Good Corporate Governance. The group acts as a watchdog for institutional shareholders such as Franklin Templeton and Oppenheimer. The center is finalizing a contract to provide consulting services for a new $300 million investment fund, backed by International Finance Corp. and Deutsche Bank, that will invest in Korean companies that meet tough governance standards. "I'm trying to present alternatives for putting in place better corporate governance," Kim says. In the U.S., such a sentiment is commonplace. In Korea, it's downright revolutionary.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.