American Dream: Challenges and Opportunities
Sung Hee Suh
Deputy Assistant Attorney General
United States Department of Justice
August 13, 2016
I’m very happy to be here with my husband, Peter, and our son, Dylan, to accept this award
from the Institute for Corean-American Studies
For over 40 years, ICAS
has brought together people from diverse fields to engage in dialogue
on important issues. I would like to applaud, in particular, ICAS
’s commitment to investing in
the development of our youth. There is perhaps no better testament to the great value of this
investment than the essays of the three Winner Qualifiers for this year’s ICAS
Award. Each of those essays displayed keen intellect, thoughtful analysis and well-balanced
perspective, all of which are so important to cultivate in our young people and, indeed, in our
country as a whole.
I’ve been asked to speak to you this evening about "The American Dream: Challenges and
Opportunities." What a daunting topic! I’ll first give you an introduction to the Department of
Justice, the Criminal Division and what I do in my current job; then talk to you about my
personal background and how I got to be where I am now; and then end with a few
observations and suggestions about challenges and opportunities.
The Department of Justice
The mission of the Department of Justice is:
- to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the
- to ensure public safety against threats, foreign and domestic;
- to provide federal
leadership in preventing and controlling crime;
- to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and
to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.
The Department fulfills its mission in many different ways, including through its litigating
divisions. The Criminal Division is one of several litigating divisions in the Department’s
headquarters in Washington, DC ("Main Justice"): the others include the Antitrust Division, the
Civil Division, the Civil Rights Division, the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, the
National Security Division, and the Tax Division. Each of the divisions is headed by an Assistant
Attorney General for that division. The head of the Criminal Division is my boss, Assistant
Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. The head of the Justice Department as a whole, of course, is
the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch.
In addition to the divisions here in Main Justice, the Department includes 93 U.S. Attorney’s
Offices around the country that also investigate and pursue both criminal and civil cases. While
the U.S. Attorney’s Offices generally focus on investigating and prosecuting wrongdoing in their
respective districts, the Criminal Division – often in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices –
focuses on crimes that are national or international in scope.
The Criminal Division has approximately 600 lawyers and is divided into 15 sections. I am one
of five Deputy Assistant Attorneys General ("DAAG") in the Criminal Division. Each of us has a
"portfolio," with the 15 sections divided among us. My portfolio consists of the Appellate
Section, which oversees appeals in federal criminal cases throughout the country; the Capital
Case Section, which handles federal death penalty cases; and the Fraud Section, which is the
largest section (with approximately 150 prosecutors) and focuses on complex economic crimes,
including securities and financial fraud, health care fraud, and foreign bribery – again, most of
which are national or international in scope.
The Criminal Division does a great deal of work that involves cooperation with foreign
countries. We currently have people stationed in more than 45 countries. We work closely
with our foreign law enforcement counterparts and foreign regulators to learn from each other,
share investigative strategies, and coordinate resolutions where appropriate, thereby
strengthening our collective ability to bring global entities and transnational criminals to justice.
So, another of my roles is formulating federal enforcement policies on white-collar crime and
coordinating interagency, multi-district and, increasingly, international law enforcement efforts.
What I actually do on any given day varies greatly. I may be addressing particular challenges
that a section may be facing — whether it be a legal, budgetary or employee issue. Or, I may be
focused on resolving differences in some especially high-profile cases that cut across multiple
divisions in the Department. In short, I don’t manage cases so much as I manage people.
In addition to my inward facing role, I also have an outward facing role – and that is
representing the Criminal Division and the Department of Justice in meetings and conferences
around the country and around the world. For example, I frequently give speeches about the
Criminal Division’s enforcement priorities and initiatives on white-collar crime. I am proud to
be representing the United States in such international gatherings, whether they be in London,
Sao Palo, Shanghai, or Paris, but I am also mindful that this particular face of the U.S. Justice
Department is not what those audiences may have expected to see.
So, how did I get here? My personal story has to begin with the story of my mother, who was
my first role model and remains my most important one. My mother was born in 1936, in
Taegu, Korea. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise her and
her three siblings on her own. The family had no money, and especially being a girl during that
era, my mother was not able to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. So, she went to
nursing school and became a nurse. She was able to help my father – her childhood sweetheart
– pay for college; they married and had my older brother and me.
When I was six years old, my mother convinced my father to move the family to U.S. and got a
job here as a nurse, often working 16-hour double shifts to support us. She never took a class
in English, but somehow picked up enough along the way and, using her broken English,
became a nursing supervisor. She later went to night school to get a master’s degree in public
health and became Assistant Director of Nursing at a prestigious hospital in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, I attended college largely on scholarships, and thought I would become a journalist,
as I wanted to combine my love of writing and my desire to expose injustices here and around
the world. But after actually writing for my college newspaper and then doing an internship at
a magazine here in DC the summer after my junior year in college, I realized that journalism was
not really the right fit for me.
Two professors of mine encouraged me to explore academia. I had some doubts that I had the
right personality and the intellectual discipline to be a professor. Fortunately, though, I had
enough credits to finish my undergraduate degree as a Government major in 3 years, which
allowed me to do a test run in academia by spending my senior year of college doing a master’s
program. Alas, that year convinced me that I wasn’t really cut out to be an academic either.
So, I was about to graduate from Harvard with not one, but two degrees, but no idea of what I
wanted to do with my life. By chance, a friend of my brother’s was on the board of the Asian
American Legal Defense & Education Fund, a civil rights legal organization in New York, and
through her, I learned about AALDEF’s summer internships. I was lucky to land one of those
internship spots. That experience at AALDEF – which lasted only about two months – changed
my life. I got to draft legislative proposals, work at free legal advice clinics helping people on
issues ranging from immigration to garment workers’ rights, and prepared educational
pamphlets informing low-income and recent immigrants about their rights under NY’s landlord-
So, that summer of 1986, I decided to become a civil rights lawyer, and the following fall, I
started law school. I focused on courses in civil rights law, was mentored by the late, great
Derrick Bell (who has a veteran civil rights lawyer and the first tenured African-American
professor at Harvard Law), and upon graduation, worked for a year as a judicial clerk to another
giant of the civil rights movement, Robert Carter, who was a senior judge in the federal court in
Manhattan. That clerkship year was a real eye-opener, as I got to see trial lawyers in action in
the courtroom – both good and not so good. Some of the most impressive were the Assistant
U.S. Attorneys – the federal criminal prosecutors – who were handling many of the most
significant cases at a relatively young age.
Given my mother’s hardship and sacrifices, and my huge student loans upon graduating from
law school, I thought it best to join a law firm after my clerkship, to make some money and get
some experience. In 1993, when my mother was 57 years old, I sent my parents to Hawaii for
their first real vacation. Two months later, my mother was killed in a freak car accident.
I realized, painfully, that life is short. So, a few months after my mother’s passing, I became an
Assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, thinking that I’d work on federal civil rights cases and
combine my interest in civil rights law with my desire to be a federal prosecutor. As it
happened, though, when I started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, my first supervisor was a
seasoned Mafia prosecutor, and his office was right next to mine. I got to learn about an
undercover operation that he was overseeing and, with each passing month, became more and
more fascinated with the Mob. When my supervisor later became the chief of the Organized
Crime and Racketeering Section, I followed in his footsteps and became a mob prosecutor –
chasing traditional Italian organized crime families – also known as La Cosa Nostra. In the
courtroom, I was often mistaken for a Chinese translator, so I would frequently surprise the
defendants I was prosecuting, my opposing counsel, jurors and even judges when I would stand
at the podium and introduce myself as "Sung-Hee Suh, on behalf of the United States."
Five and a half wonderful years later, I decided to return to private practice and joined a law
firm doing primarily white-collar criminal defense work. In 2007, Peter and I were thrilled with
the arrival of our son Dylan, who remains our pride and joy.
Fast forward to 2014, Leslie Caldwell was nominated to head up the Criminal Division. She had
also been an AUSA in Brooklyn, but we had not known each other that well. Rather, we had a
good friend in common who suggested me to her, and she asked me to join her team here in
the Criminal Division. This was both a challenge and an opportunity. While the position
promised to be professionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating, it also meant leaving my
comfortable law firm partnership behind and spending 5 days of every week away from my
family. In the end, I took the plunge and, for the past two years, I have been commuting every
week from NY to DC to serve as a DAAG.
Observations and Suggestions
Everyone’s path in pursuing the American Dream is different and sometimes it’s not a straight
line. As you can tell, mine had several twists and turns.
Personal and professional growth often requires getting out of your comfort zone.
Also, even with the best education and the perfect resume, the greatest opportunities arise
because you happen to be at the right place at the right time. So, don’t turn down or delay
opportunities because you assume they will be there later.
I’m often asked for advice on how to break "the glass ceiling," or in the case of Korean and
other Asian Americans, the "bamboo ceiling." There are lots of books and articles by others
who have given a great deal more thought to this than I have. But another of my
responsibilities as a DAAG is interviewing applicants and making recommendations for senior
executive service positions in the Justice Department. In addition to the subject matter
qualifications you’d typically expect (e.g., experience in federal criminal investigations and
prosecutions), we evaluate candidates on what are called "Executive Core Qualifications"
I’d like to end my remarks tonight by sharing these ECQs with you (which I’ve simplified a bit in
the interest of time) as food for thought. They represent critical leadership skills that are
required to succeed in federal government, but some may also be helpful guideposts for those
of you working in the private sector, as well as those still in school.
- Leading Change -- the ability to bring about strategic change to meet organizational
goals; to establish an organizational vision and to implement it in a continuously
- Leading People -- the ability to lead people toward meeting the organization’s vision,
mission, and goals; to provide an inclusive setting that fosters the development of
others, facilitates cooperation and teamwork, and supports constructive resolution of
- Results Driven -- the ability to meet organizational goals and expectations; to make
decisions that produce high-quality results by applying technical knowledge, analyzing
problems, and calculating risks.
- Business Acumen -- the ability to manage human, financial, and information
- And, finally: Building Coalitions -- the ability to build coalitions internally and
externally, to achieve common goals.
Thank you again for this award.
This page last updated August 18, 2016 jdb