Specter of LA riots haunts Koreans in US

Korean American Association of Greater New York (KAAGNY) President Charles Yoon with blue tie, center, and Rev. Al Sharpton pose with Korean American community leaders and members of the National Action Network in New York on June 13. / Courtesy of KAAGNY

In 1992, angry mobs burned down Koreatown; this time, shops were looted by opportunists in guise of protesters

By Kang Hyun-kyung

A Korean American merchant surnamed Kim ― who operates a mid-sized shop selling skincare, haircare and other health and beauty-related products in America's northeast ― has been wary of the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests since May when the movement gained steam in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and spread to other cities.

She said she fully supports the protests and is on the same page with protesters regarding the social justice causes they are fighting for.

But, as a self-made immigrant having successfully built her own business through decades of hard work, Kim said she is worried that her shop could be targeted for looting and vandalism as over 110 Korean-owned shops in several cities had been damaged.

She said many of her suppliers had told her how looters had devastated several Korean American business owners in other U.S. cities.

"Most of our clients are blacks," said Kim, who agreed to a phone interview on two conditions ― that her full name and the location of her business are not disclosed because she fears a backlash. "I was told that some 20 beauty supply stores owned by Korean Americans in Philadelphia were looted and the damage inflicted on their business was so severe that it was almost impossible to rebuild them," she said.

Kim said she had a similar experience 28 years ago when Los Angeles' Koreatown was burned down following the acquittal of four police officers ― charged after the brutal beating of the unarmed black man Rodney King ― outraged the American public.

Watching rioters destroying and looting and assaulting Korean immigrant shop owners in South LA on TV in the days-long confrontation, Kim said she felt for the shopkeepers as businesses they had established through decades of hard work suddenly disappeared in the ashes.

She said she had similar worries recently ― what if the violent protests spread to her city and protesters' anger was directed at her shop?

Fortunately, she managed to avoid that worst-case scenario as the protests did not spread to her city.

Compared to the 1992 LA riots, Kim said she thought it was different now.

"Unlike 1992, this time I don't think Koreans were targeted," she said. "I've been in this business for nearly three decades since I immigrated to the United States and many of my customers are black people. Sometimes our customers complain about us but the source of their dissatisfaction is customer service, not something related to racial tensions."

Kim said she thought the looters who hit Korean American-owned shops in Philadelphia were not angry protesters fighting for social justice. "I don't think the looters were part of the protesters who harbor discontent about Koreans," she said.

Kim now heaves a sigh of relief as the worst seems to be over and the protests are showing signs of abating.

KAAGNY President Charles Yoon / Courtesy of Charles Yoon

But in New York ― home to the U.S.'s second-largest Koreatown ― Korean American shop owners still feel uneasy, according to Charles Yoon, president of the Korean American Association of Greater New York (KAAGNY). There, Korean business owners and shopkeepers were hit hard by looting and vandalism.

"On July 3, KAAGNY intervened, together with elected officials, in a racially tense situation involving a Korean American-owned store in South Queens, New York, which stemmed from a misunderstanding and we were successful in resolving the situation through dialogue," Yoon said.

He said many Korean Americans in the greater New York area still feel the tremor of the unrest. "I am not aware of any compilation or estimates, but based on the reports and complaints received by KAAGNY, I estimate that several dozen Korean American-owned businesses in the New York metropolitan area were subject to vandalism and looting during protests," Yoon said.

However, he said this action was separate from the social justice movement.

"Opportunists seized the moment for personal profit," Yoon, a partner in the New York-based law firm Yoon LLP, who has 25 years' experience in domestic and international litigation and arbitration, said. "Indeed, I visited one store that was looted and found equipment left behind suggesting that the looting was done by professional criminals."
People in the guise of protesters trying to profit from the social injustice protests are a glaring point that distinguishes the current Black Lives Matter protests from the 1992 LA riots. In 1992, the looters were angry black mobs outraged at the acquittal of four LAPD police officers who had beaten the unarmed Rodney King.

Back then, Koreatown in South LA was torn apart. The "protestors," predominantly identified as African Americans targeted shops owned by Korean immigrants, set them on fire, looted and attacked. Latinos also participated in the riots but their role was lesser reflected as the mainstream U.S. media focused on black protestors.

The average financial loss for Korean storekeepers was $179,045, with individual losses ranging from $2,000 to $1,750,000, according to Kyeyoung Park, author of "LA Rising: Korean Relations with Blacks and Latinos after Civil Unrest."

"Only 35 percent of Korean American owners had been insured and of those, many policies offered limited to no riot coverage," it reads. Of the affected businesses, only 27.8 percent reopened within a year.

Between April 29 and May 4, 1992, 4,500 stores in LA were destroyed and more than half of damaged stores were Korean owned. The damage inflicted on Korean Americans was alarming, considering Korean immigrants accounted for only 1.6 percent of the LA population then.

Fifty-four people were killed, 2,383 injured and 13,212 arrested. Many of the Korean victims were unable to rebuild their businesses because much of their stock was not insured.

Looting, vandalism and other violence reflected anger and rage stemming from simmering racial tensions between Korean immigrants and African Americans who lived in the South LA neighborhood.

Unlike the LA riots, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Korean immigrants were not the only ethnic groups affected. Shops owned by other ethnic groups were also looted.
Yoon said the protesters were not specifically targeting Koreans.

"In terms of damage to stores caused by opportunists and professional criminals, I do not believe that there was any targeting of specific ethnic groups," he said. "First, many mainstream shops and luxury goods stores were targeted. These include national chain stores like Best Buy and Target."

The LA riots and the Black Lives Matter protests have some similarities. In both cases, an unarmed black man was victimized by police brutality. In the latest case, George Floyd, 46, was killed during his arrest. Rodney King survived his assault in 1991. Both incidents were videotaped and the videos went viral, creating outrage in black and wider communities.

This photo taken during the 1992 LA Riots shows Koreatown in South Los Angeles on fire. Between April 29 and May 4, 1992, 4,500 stores in LA were destroyed and more than half of the damaged stores were owned by Korean Americans. / Korea Times file

Nadia Kim, author of the award-winning book "Imperial Citizens: Koreans And Race From Seoul to LA" and a professor of sociology at the LA-based Loyola Marymount University, said the LA riots and the Black Lives Matter protests are very different in terms of targets and scale.

"(This time) the target was not Koreans but police departments and Trump in general," she said. "BLM made sure to focus their protests in wealthier white areas. For example, in 1992, the police and National Guard blocked protesters from going to Beverly Hills and Westwood, but this time that's where BLM protested."

Compared to the LA riots, Kim said, the Black Lives Matter protests are a new level of social injustice movement in terms of scale. "(This time) there were large protests in every single state, also the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and the world also joined in huge, massive demonstrations," she said.

Kim, a Los Angeles native, was a high school senior when the LA riots took place. The unrest, which pitted Korean immigrants against African Americans, was a traumatic experience for her.

As a keen observer of the tragic ethnic event, Kim said she was infuriated by the way Koreans and the unrest were portrayed in the mainstream U.S. media.

"I was shocked that I saw my Korean people on TV but only as screaming, crying, hysterical foreigners and as men standing on top of their stores with guns. We were a stereotyped caricature," she said. "I felt terrible for Rodney King and I understood the black struggle and need to protest but I was really mad that the media chose to focus on this as blacks and Koreans being racist toward each other rather than focusing on … all four cops who beat King and how the criminal justice system let off all four."

Kim said language barriers and culture played a part in affecting relations between Korean Americans and African Americans.

The first-generation Korean immigrants operating businesses in South LA were not fluent English speakers and the way they dealt with customers, mostly African Americans, was very different to what their customers expected. This led to a misconception about those merchants and complaints that the shop owners were not kind to blacks.

Tensions between the racial groups escalated in 1991 when Korean immigrant Soon Ja Du shot black teenager Latasha Harlins dead at her liquor store and was tried and sentenced to five years of probation, with 400 hours of community service. Although the tensions were unaddressed, the case was widely cited as having facilitated the LA riots the next year.

In her 2008 book "Imperial Citizens," Kim argued that Korean immigrants were influenced by what she called U.S. "cultural imperialism" through TV and movies that implicitly portray black people negatively and Korean immigrants' negative perception of African Americans was shaped even before their migration.

Nadia Y. Kim, professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University in LA / Courtesy of Nadia Kim

Yoon said the traumatic 1992 unrest helped Korean immigrants and African Americans seek constructive relationships, praising the younger Korean Americans for their bridging role.

"Community relations have significantly improved since 1992," he said. "While there have been occasional flare-ups, especially involving retail stores doing business in African American neighborhoods, the general trend has been the development of greater understanding and cooperation between the two communities. In particular, the 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans have a greater appreciation of the fact that the Korean American community, as an integral part of the Asian American community, is a beneficiary of the civil rights movement which was led by the black community."

To improve ties with the black community and show their support for the social justice protests, KAAGNY led a Korean American community delegation to meet Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, in New York.
"KAAGNY continues to work with the black community to minimize any racial tensions, because a harmonious relationship between the two communities is in everyone's interest," Yoon said.

Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr

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