Interview with Professor Jaemin Lee, Recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award

Professor Jaemin Lee (School of Law) is an internationally-recognized legal scholar specializing in the field of international law. He is an active member of international bodies such as the UNCITRAL Working Groups and the Panel of Experts under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. He is also Vice President and Executive Director of the Korean Society of International Law, Editor-in-Chief of the Seoul International Law Journal, and President of the Korean Society of International Economic Law. In recognition of his academic contributions, he was awarded the 2016 Academic Award by the Korean Society of International Economic Law and the 2019 Hyunmin International Law Award by the Korean Society of International Law.

Professor Jaemin Lee (School of Law), Recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award
Professor Jaemin Lee (School of Law), Recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award

Our biggest congratulations for winning the 2020 Excellence in Research Award. Could you share how you felt upon receiving it?

It is a great honor to be awarded the 2020 SNU Excellence in Research Award. I am humbled to have received this award over many other professors both in the School of Law and in other departments of the university with great research achievements. I will take it as encouragement to work harder in the future, and I hope that, with continued research, one day I will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great international scholars and researchers in my chosen field.

I understand that you have completed your bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees all in the field of law, and even went on to obtain a J.D. and an LL.M. What drew you into the study and why did you choose to specialize in international law in particular?

I believe that law is an incredibly important subject, as it underpins the core infrastructure of our society. The study of law is to examine the codified norms that regulate the order and structure of human society. Understanding the meaning and contents of these norms, how they are formed, why they are formed, and how they can be changed are crucial for societies to correct themselves and flourish.

I had always been interested in learning about other countries. During my time at university, I would go to the central library to read foreign newspapers and magazines such as TIME and Newsweek. Even though this may seem like standard practice now in the age of the internet, it was actually rather unconventional at that time. I began to notice that the law plays an equal if not more important role in the regulation of the international community, as it shapes and affects the relationship between countries. This is what drew me into specializing in international law.

You have previously worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Washington-based law firm. Was there a particular reason why you chose to come back to academia?

Funnily enough, when I first graduated from SNU College of Law in 1992 with my bachelor’s degree, I took the foreign service examination to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as I did not think I was interested in pursuing a legal career. But as a result of my legal background, I was assigned to the Treaties Division of the Ministry, where I focused on various issues of international law. In doing so, I began to notice the huge role that the law plays in international relations and Korea’s diplomacy, and by extension, I began to realize the importance of law in general. At this time, I thought it would be important for me to gain more knowledge and skills in the field of international law as a diplomat, which is why I further pursued my master’s and doctorate degrees in law. A similar motivation led me to obtain a J.D. in the U.S. – I believed that studying Anglo-American legal system, upon which many international law principles and precedents are based, would be important in navigating conflicts between countries with different legal systems and cultures.

After graduating with a J.D., I wanted to enrich myself with practical experience. I looked into international organizations and international courts, and ultimately decided to gain practical expertise by working at a Washington-based law firm specializing in international disputes. After that, I returned to academia because I wanted to be able to translate my practical experience into more in-depth and systematic research for public interest. Looking back, although my workplace has changed, I think I am still doing what I originally set out to do right after my graduation from SNU – combining international relations with law and resolving diplomatic problems in legal terms and vice versa.

Could you explain in more detail the research you are currently doing and its significance?

My research aims to understand the rather chaotic situations in our international society today through the lens of legal norms. Some examples include the U.S.-China conflict, the Korea-Japan dispute, the North Korean nuclear issue, the global spread of unilateralism, the advent of the digital economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. I share the frustrations of realist international relations scholars in their critique of the limitations of international law, but I also realize, as a legal scholar, the limitations of other academic fields in addressing various global challenges. My hope is to conduct research that can encapsulate these differences, to write about the importance of systematically disciplining the international community, and to contribute to answering the ultimate question of how we can create a system to ensure that countries comply with the rules for the prosperity of the global society.

With the continued legalization of international politics and the advent of the borderless digital era, I can only imagine that the importance of international law and international norms will increase in the future. What do you think is the most important problem that international law needs to address?

Many of us are not aware that international law actually has a significant impact on the way countries behave or make decisions. What is most visible is the few cases of violations that make newspaper headlines, which lead people to inaccurately believe that international law is something that is only abided by when it suits countries’ interests. The reality is that most countries abide by international law most of the time.

The dismantling of the multilateral international order and the rise of unilateralism we have seen in the past couple of years are, in large part, due to the absence of suitable, appropriate and reliable norms, rather than mere noncompliance by self-interested parties. International legal norms have been unable to keep up with and adapt to the fast changes that take place in all corners of the global community for the past couple of decades, with the most vivid example being digitalization and artificial intelligence. Closing this gap between the norms and reality is the main task that the field is faced with right now.

What are your future plans as a researcher and educator?

My goal is to contribute to the study of international law through academic exchanges and communications with fellow scholars and researchers in other countries. Through this, I also want to raise the recognition of SNU and Korean legal researchers in this field, and demonstrate that we too can actively participate in the formation of norms in the international community so as to contribute to the global common good.

As an educator, I always try to be a professor whom students can easily approach. I try my best to memorize the names of all my students in my classes. I pay the most attention to my undergraduate elective course, as I want all students in different fields of study at SNU to learn to look at issues around us from the perspective of the international community and international norms, and to think about establishing long-term standards as leaders in their respective fields.

Do you have any words of advice for our students?

At times like this, where the situation at home and abroad is constricted in many ways, I think it is more important than ever to overcome the current difficulties and look forward to the future. I am sure our students understand that there is a lot that is expected of them in our society, regardless of their majors. It is important for each of them to move forward with the mindset that they will faithfully play their part in leading our country in the right direction in their respective fields.

Source: Seoul National University

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