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International Trade Law: Interview with Prof. Youngjeen Cho

On one Tuesday’s morning, we met Professor Youngjeen Cho at her office in the International Education Building for this interview. She greeted us with a warm smile, while mentioning the cold weather outside. Some snow was still on the street in this freezing winter. That was the first time that I met her in person after taking her class online in the Spring 2020 semester. I remembered that even if I could not see her face on the Cybercampus screen, she sometimes greeted students by briefly describing the view outside the classroom’s window, especially how beautiful the blooming flowers in the spring time was. I am really impressed by that small action.

In this interview, we talked about her experience as a law student and her career life, as well as her advice for the Ewha GSIS students. Professor Youngjeen Cho received her bachelor’s degree from College of Law, Seoul National University, and her master’s and doctorate degrees (LL.M., S.J.D.) from Harvard Law school. Before joining Ewha GSIS in 2008, as the professor whose interests are multilateral trading system, trade negotiations, and trade remedy measures, she had been a member of the New York bar and had worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for three years.

If you are considering taking international trade or international law related classes, or wondering about what lies ahead in the International Trade field, this warm conversation we had with Professor Cho might spark some inspiration in you.

Photo by: Khing Amatyakul
You studied law since your undergraduate years. How did you develop your specific interest in this subject into something related to the International Trade area?

When I went to study law as an undergrad student in Seoul, I thought law is a very domestic subject. Mostly I learned Korean law, such as Korean constitutional law, Korean contract, Korean torts, Korean commercial law, Korean administrative law, et cetera. I think International Law was one out of probably 20-30 law classes I have taken. So, my initial love was law, not really International Law or International Trade.

When I was an undergrad student, there were two International Law professors. They specialized in traditional international law, but not trade law. So, trade law courses were not offered. Just when I went to graduate school, the university hired a new professor who specializes in International Trade Law. And I took his class in the first semester. That was the first time that I was exposed to this new world. And I think I liked it. 

It was in the 1990s, a really long time ago. It was the time that WTO was just established, and Korea was a member of WTO from the beginning. The WTO has been in force since 1995. Then, Korea was under an enormous amount of pressure from the US. There were some trade issues that involved Korea a lot. Probably, I was influenced by the situation at the time. So, it was not like a magic thing. I just got absorbed in International Trade Law bit by bit. And then, when I went to the US for further studies, I had to choose my subject for a dissertation. For some reason, I chose International Trade Law. There is no specific or clear event that actually made me decide to choose this field, no dramatic story, but it just moved smoothly, gradually.

Photo by: Rachel Law
What was your role in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade before coming to Ewha?

When I was working for the government, the official title for that ministry is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For now, the official title was Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, the system has been changed. Now, trade issues or trade affairs are under the umbrella of the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. 

But when I was working for the government, the trade affair was under the wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And in particular, I was working for the Bureau of Multilateral Trade, Division of WTO (World Trade Organization).

It was the early 2000s. At that time, the DDA (Doha Development Agenda) negotiation was going on, and Korea was actually engaging in negotiating with the US for Korea-US FTA. So, I was in charge of rules negotiation at DDA. The negotiation covered a negotiation of anti-dumping, subsidy issues, and fisheries subsidy issues.

Photo by: Rachel Law

In addition to that, when some other ministries, such as the Ministry of Industry, et cetera, tried to enact laws or regulations, there’s a possibility that those laws or regulations’ requirements may conflict with the WTO law. So, while they were drafting the bills, they would ask for some legal advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, whether there would be any conflict with their draft and WTO law. So, I would take a look at those issues whether there might be some risk of conflict between the proposed regulations and the WTO laws.

Also, I happened to join the Korea-US FTA negotiation on government procurement. It was not really my work, but it was assigned to me. As I said I worked in the Bureau of Multilateral Trade, right? But Korea-US FTA is bilateral. So, I was not supposed to be part of this Korea-US FTA, but it turned out that way. I also participated in this negotiation, and it was a good experience. 

Those are what I did when I was working for the government for three years.

When you say negotiation, I imagine you must negotiate for the benefit of your country. What was it really like? Could you explain more about that?

Right. Every country wants to get something. But fortunately, or unfortunately, the government procurement negotiation, which I participated in, is not really the bread and butter part of the whole negotiation. It was not that controversial. Sometimes, in this negotiation for government procurement, there is something we want to gain, or we don’t want to lose. But this is not the whole story. This is a part of a bigger negotiation. So, you have to have a bigger perspective. Not really me, but my senior officer or the chief negotiator would have to take into account the various elements of every part of the negotiation. Because if you want to get something crucial in some parts, you have to give something that isn’t really important or imperative to you. I know that when some governments in some countries engage in negotiation, people may criticize that the governments gave too much or gained not much. But one thing that we have to remember is that negotiation is always giving and taking something. You cannot fully get it. It Is not a negotiation. That’s exploitation. 

“Negotiation is always giving and taking something. You cannot fully get it. It Is not a negotiation. That’s exploitation”

People may think studying law is all about remembering a lot of content from plenty of thick books. Is that so?

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. If you study law a lot, then probably you may feel really familiar with the legal text. And you can naturally memorize some of the articles if you deal with a lot. So, it would just get into you naturally. But lawyers are not trying to memorize the law. Of course, at a certain point, you would memorize that naturally, but the goal is not really to memorize the law, but more like analyzing the law. 

Photo by: Khing Amatyakul

I think the analytical skill is more important than your ability to memorize the law. When I went to law school in Korea, law school was a part of an undergrad course. But the system in Korea  has now changed, like in the US. Not many universities have a law school at the undergraduate level. So, now, most students would choose some majors in an undergraduate school other than law. And then, if they really want to study law further, they would go to law school as their graduate school. Some people asked me what majors would law school prefer as their students? 

And many people think, probably economics or business administration, or engineering. Because law schools prefer diversity. But not many would imagine that a student with a literature major would be a good candidate. But I think the opposite. Studying literature is not just reading and enjoying it, right? (smile). It’s analyzing it. I knew that some of my friends had majored in literature, such as English literature, French literature, or Korean literature, because they love books. And then they later found out that studying literature as a major in university is completely different from what they have imagined. They love reading, but what you do as a literature major is analyzing, digesting, dissecting. I think that’s really similar to the work as a lawyer, just changing from novel and poem to legal texts. If you have sharpened your analytical skill as a literature major, that can be a really big advantage in studying law. They know how to interpret the texts. They’re trained to do that for four years.

Since the legal career also requires interpersonal skills, such as negotiating skill, just like the work you did, how would law students acquire this skill?

It comes from practicing and through experience. I never thought that I’ll be working for the government. I went to graduate school just after graduating college. And after completing my Master’s in the US, I directly moved to S.J.D., which is equivalent to Ph.D. in law school in the US. At that time, I thought I would just move to academia once I graduate. Working for the government was never in my plan till then. 

But it changed when I did my three-month internship at WTO in Geneva in 2001. It may depend on what subject you’re studying. I was studying International Trade Law, and I found that people can learn a lot by working as well, not just studying at a desk. I realized that you can really learn a lot through this experience and looking at the real world. International Trade Law is rooted in reality. And I also found the pleasure of working with people, not just being isolated in my room. That was an eye opening experience for me. Although I haven’t changed my goal dramatically, I got to think that having some experience working in the real world can be fun. It is not a waste of time. At that time, my dissertation was just under review. So, I applied for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and got the job. I really learned a lot and met so many good people there.

Photo by: Rachel Law

I’m not trying to generalize it, but at least for me, if I hadn’t got the working experience, probably what I teach would be more abstract and vague, more just like a concept. So, I really appreciate the working experience because I knew how it works, how the WTO building looks like, how people work there, how people talk, and what they really want to get through the negotiation. That’s what I actually saw with my own eyes there. Those professional skills can come from actual experience. But I’m not saying that people cannot get it without practical experience. 

“If I hadn’t got the working experience, probably what I teach would be more abstract and vague, more just like a concept.”

Some people in academia would think if you are determined to work in academia, you should just stay there. When I was a student, some older-generation professors had the faith or image that once you’re out of academia, then don’t ever think of coming back, because you were contaminated (laugh). There’s an idea of the pure world of academia. But I never really agree with that. Especially when it comes to social science, I think the job experience can really help you.

And if you are a Ph.D. candidate, what is the goal of this PhD program?: to write a dissertation. This is something you really have to devote yourself to. You have to choose the topic. Everything interested me to a certain extent, but if you want to write a good dissertation, you have to be curious about something. I found that some people who have practical experience in the outside world are able to harvest their interest in some issue while they’re working. And they really want to explore it through their research. So I always encourage my students to take that experience if they want. 

I believe that many Ewha GSIS students would like to have an internship or work at WTO. From your experience working there, what kind of people would the organization prefer? 

Being positive, not pessimistic, eager to learn, easy to hang around. I think that would be good.

Photo by: Rachel Law
How do you feel about teaching at Ewha GSIS? Do you have any good and bad memories to share?

Well, I don’t think there’s much bad memories, to be honest. And I think the very best part of this is that I can always be with these young people, even if I got old. I definitely get older. But most students are always young and they’re full of curiosity. So, I really enjoy being with students who have such beautiful and curious minds. That’s the beauty of working in academia.

What courses are you offering at Ewha GSIS in this incoming 2021? What can be expected from the courses?

I am offering two very basic courses: International Trade Policy and International Trade Law. Basically they are not much different. The same subject will be discussed. But International Trade Policy has less legal flavor. And International Trade Law is clearly a law class. When it goes into the trade policy class, I’m not trained as an economist so I will not be able to provide a course as it could be offered by a professor with an economics background. That is my disclaimer here.

“Being positive, not pessimistic, eager to learn, easy to hang around.”

These days, WTO is facing a huge challenge in several aspects. DDA negotiation, which was launched in 2001, has suspended or failed, or…even evaporated. The goal of this negotiation is to improve the law and gain a new commitment from members, but it has failed. So the WTO law which exists now is just the same as the one made in 1995. So, it’s quite old, right? Trade environment has changed a lot but the law is still the same. And with the experience of failure of DDA negotiation, I think the members have realized that it wouldn’t be much realistic to expect that there could be another multilateral trade negotiation round. 

Photo by: Rachel Law

Then, how should we cope with this new trade environment? Digital trade, which was not foreseen in 1995, now becomes a really essential part of international trade. And sometimes we need to regulate them. Probably a bit better if we can have multilateral law or rule to regulate digital trade. But we cannot get it. Another issue is subsidy that distorts international trade and it is regulated by WTO law. But look at what’s happening now — the COVID-19 situation. Some governments would want to provide subsidies to cope with this COVID-19 and some of these subsidies would have some trade effect. Should that be regulated because it violates WTO law? Not sure. Now governments may want to provide some subsidies for environmental protection purposes or for clean energy. How should that subsidy be regulated under WTO? The rules are really too old to cope with those new issues. And we are now living in that part. That’s one of the big challenges WTO is facing. So I think those could be some of the interesting issues that we can do in International Trade Law class and the policy class as well. 

Do you have any updates about your new research or work?

My main research issues were technical, like anti-dumping and subsidy issues. But for now, I am working on a more general book project, looking back to 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, how GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) worked, how they coped with challenge, how it has evolved over time since the 1940s and how they answered the problem at that time. I think we can learn from that history as well. I would rather keep my eyes away from anti-dumping or subsidy issues for some time. I would try to look at what’s now happening at the WTO, taking a bit more macro perspective than I have done before.

Could you give some career advice for the students?
Photo by: Rachel Law

You don’t know what kind of person you are, until you meet other people. I think having a lot of experiences is really good for younger people. I think for young, beautiful minds, like you, I would really encourage you to have a lot of experience and meet people. Having a lot of experiences is the central part. Life expectancy is getting longer and longer. So, you can do a lot of things in your life. You don’t know till experience whether you would like it or not. 

The beauty of Ewha GSIS is that you studied various parts. As I said, you don’t know what you like until you experience it, right? In Ewha GSIS, you are exposed to various parts: IR, DC, ITI, and IB. And then you may find that you are an IB person. Or IT really interests you. Or DC is your  life goal. Then, you can go through that path.

“You don’t know what kind of person you are, until you meet other people. I think having a lot of experiences is really good for younger people.”

But if you find that law would be your career goal or that’s what you really want to commit yourself to, you have to be a bit more concrete. What you want to do? Probably you might want to go to law school in the US. It is too challenging to graduate here and work as a licensed lawyer. But if you want to work as a paralegal, it’s possible. Some companies would let you work in a legal team, even though you are not licensed as a lawyer. Being with the legal team, you can gain your professional knowledge and legal knowledge there by working. 

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Published by Khing Amatyakul

Thai, Working at SuperPlanet, IR grad from Ewha GSIS | @khingamat

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