Michael Hay (haykalb.com)

The Death of the Man who Wanted to be ‘Lawrence of Korea’

Al-Ayam, Bahrain, April 28

A few weeks ago, Michael Hay, the man who loved North Korea and founded the first and only international law firm in Pyongyang, passed away. He was 58 years old. Hay, who had a Scottish father and a French mother, was known for his sense of adventurism, his fascination with North Korea, and his brilliance in the field of law. He got his master’s degree from the University of Chicago Law School and then a doctorate in law from the University of Edinburgh, and later proceeded to hold distinguished positions in the New York City bar. In the early 1990s, Hay left the United States and moved to South Korea, where he opened an arbitration office. He quickly became known as a shrewd, compassionate and intelligent lawyer, and was voted one of the most prominent lawyers in Asia in 1999, 2000 and 2001. The move to Seoul paved the way for what would soon turn into Hay’s life-calling: a deep fascination with, and affection for, North Korea and its political establishment, people, culture and traditions. This happened during the period when Seoul was preparing to launch the “Rising Sun” policy that sought to promote reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and the normalization of ties with Pyongyang. Back then, in 1998, Hay made his first visit to North Korea. Close friends and acquaintances claimed that Hay imagined himself as a hero sent by divine providence to play a historical role on the peninsula, similar to the role others played in colonial times, such as T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and James Brooke in Malaysia. Quickly enough, Hay succeeded in establishing himself in the closed-off country by making numerous friendships with government officials and obtaining a repertoire of information that helped him pave his path up. In the wake of the 2000 summit between South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-Il, Hay was granted an exceptional license to establish the first foreign legal advisory office in Pyongyang under the name Hay, Kalb & Associates. The move surprised many skeptical observers around the world, who refused to believe that law is actually practiced in North Korea. Hay, however, repeatedly described his North Korean colleagues and lawyer friends as wonderful and professional individuals. He continuously expressed his admiration for the beauty of the country and its inhabitants. However, it is now known that authorities in Pyongyang prohibited Hay from representing citizens before their courts, leaving him with a small clientele of European and Southeast Asian businessmen operating in North Korea. He also represented a handful of embassies and foreign organizations operating in Pyongyang. With the 2008 change in government in Seoul, the closing of the joint border industrial zone and Pyongyang’s expansion of its ballistic missile program, relations between North and South Korea quickly took a downturn. The United States imposed personal sanctions on North Korean individuals and businesses, including Hay’s practice. In late 2016, he relocated to France in an attempt to salvage and rearrange his business. Those who met him after his return to Seoul in 2018 were in unanimous agreement that Hay seemed defeated, had lost confidence in himself, and seemed to suffer from panic and fear. Hay continued to reside in South Korea but struggled to adapt to his new life after being barred from traveling and working in the estranged country he loved so much. This frustration grew deeper with the failure of the American-North Korean talks led by [US] President [Donald] Trump. Hay dreamed of returning to Pyongyang but died in Seoul at the age of 58. Unmarried and with no children, he is survived by six siblings. – Abdallah Al-Madani (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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