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Civil Unrest of 1992 Sparked New Generation of Korean American Leaders in Los Angeles

Sociologist Edward J. Park stands in front of a fenced-off vacant lot that – before the 1992 civil unrest – was the site of a Korean-owned liquor store and a swap meet. Newly formed political camps have divided over the wisdom of rebuilding such liquor stores.

Photo by Irene Fertik

Los Angeles’ Korean American community sustained nearly half of all property damage during the civil unrest in 1992, but the cloud definitely had a silver lining, according to sociologist Edward J.W. Park.

“The inordinate economic losses and the government’s slow responses to the community’s rebuilding efforts spawned a new generation of political leaders who earned support through strong ties in the American political mainstream,” said Park, an assistant professor of sociology with a joint appointment in the Asian American Studies Program.

Initially overlooked by mainstream politicians, the community in five short years has gained such prominence that it now counts a U.S. congressman and presidential appointee among its ranks, Park notes in a new study.

“As the massive entry of African Americans into the mainstream political system transformed the American political system in the post-World War II era, we are standing on the verge of another transfor-

mation as a new group of Americans makes its way into the American political system,” Park writes in “Political Formation of Korean Americans in Los Angeles: Visions of Political Power, 1992-1996.”

The study, recently published by USC’s Southern California Study Center, was developed with support from the Center for Transnational and Multiethnic Studies. Park is a member of the center’s executive steering committee.

Park conducted 45 in-depth interviews with business operators, activists, politicians and other leaders in the community, which lost 2,300 businesses and sustained $350 million of the $785 million in property damage after the verdict in the Rodney King criminal case.

“Many Korean Americans felt ‘revictimized’ by discourse that blamed them for the civil unrest and seemingly offered a justification for the ethnic pattern of looting,” Park said.

Particularly painful were media reports that implied a communitywide pattern in the case of Latasha Harlins, a 13-year-old African American girl who was shot to death a year earlier by Korean American store owner Soon Ja Du in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. To the dismay of the African American community, Du was fined $500 and sentenced to probation and 400 hours of community service.

The Korean Federation, the political establishment that took its legitimacy from close ties to the South Korean government, lost credibility when it failed to bring the Korean American perspective on the civil unrest to the non-Korean press, community leaders told Park.

The federation suffered another blow when Korean Americans were conspicuously absent from entourages that met with President George Bush and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton during post-riot tours of the city. The situation reached a crisis point when Rebuild Los Angeles, the sole official response to the civil unrest from City Hall, was established without leadership from the Korean American community, Park found.

“We didn’t have anyone who had the ability to work effectively with people outside the Korean American community,” a first-generation organizer of a community non-profit agency told Park. “Even though I lived in the U.S. for 15 years, I can’t speak enough English, let alone speak English with lawyers and government bureaucrats. So people like me stood by and hoped for new leaders to come in.”

Such a leader emerged “literally overnight” when Angela Oh, a second-generation criminal defense lawyer who had been active in liberal circles but unknown within the Korean American community, appeared about a week after the unrest on a broadcast of “Nightline,” Park said.

“With enormous poise, she protested the media’s coverage of Korean Americans as dehumanized, gun-toting vigilantes and faulted the media for failing to discuss the decades of neglect of the inner cities that created the conditions for the civil unrest,” Park said.

Park argues that Oh’s emergence opened the door for the first time to a generation of leaders whose political base was not rooted in “homeland” politics. The sociologist’s study charts the rise of 10 such leaders, most of them second-generation Korean Americans. Among the most prominent are Congressman Jay Kim (R-Diamond Bar), who in 1992 became the first Korean American elected to federal office, and T. S. Chung, a longtime Democratic activist and a Clinton appointee to the Department of Commerce.

In addition to inspiring the overhaul of Korean American political leadership, the 1992 civil unrest resulted in a sharpening of ideological and class differences, Park found.

“For the first time, explicit partisan politics were introduced into the Korean American community,” said Park.

In addition to Oh, new leaders to emerge with perspectives traditionally associated with the Democratic Party include: Bong Hwan Kim, the director of Koreatown’s provider of social services; Roy Hong, a Korean labor organizer; and Cindy Choi, a community activist who had moved to Los Angeles only two years earlier.

“Liberals have argued that Korean Americans are an oppressed racial minority group and their rights and interests can be best protected by joining the civil rights coalition and the Democratic Party,” Park writes.

Liberals, who founded the Korean-American Democratic Committee in 1992, have tended to tackle problems in coalitions with other minority groups, Park writes. Examples include the staging of a 1992 peace rally attended by 30,000 people; labor actions that resolved conflicts between Latino workers and Korean American employers; and the founding of the Multicultural Collaborative (MCC), a organization that brought together social service agencies from all major racial groups for rebuilding efforts. With Choi as its founding co-director, MCC has been called “one of the most important and powerful progressive voices within Los Angeles politics.”

Liberals have sympathized with attempts to thwart the reopening of liquor stores destroyed during the unrest. African American activists have complained that the liquor stores, 175 of which were owned by Korean Americans, were magnets for crime.

Victories by the Korean American liberals include Chung’s appointment to the Department of Commerce and the hiring by the Los Angeles Times of a full-time reporter to cover the Korean American community. Liberals also succeeded in persuading the majority of Los Angeles’ Korean American community to vote against California’s Proposition 209, which would preempt affirmative action policies in state government agencies, and Proposition 187, which sought to deny government benefits to undocumented immigrants.

In contrast, such Korean American conservatives as Jay Kim, the U.S. congressman, and Michelle Park-Steel, a Republican activist, have argued that the root of the civil unrest can be found in the failure of the liberal welfare state and the civil rights coalition.

“Conservatives have insisted that Korean Americans have fundamental economic and political differences with key members of the civil rights coalition and that Korean Americans can better meet their interests through the Republican Party and its commitment to fiscal conservatism, law and order, and the dismantling of the welfare state,” Park writes.

Since its founding in 1992, the Korean American Republican Association (KARA) has become one of the community’s most visible political forces by championing the economic rights of Korean American liquor-store owners, about one-third of whom have not been able to rebuild their businesses. KARA won its credibility through a 1993 attempt to enact legislation overturning a new conditional variance process for rebuilding the liquor stores.

“While [the attempt was] ultimately unsuccessful, the politics surrounding the liquor stores became a major victory of the newly emergent Korean American conservative activists,” Park said.

KARA’s biggest political victory, Park said, has been Jay Kim’s election to the House of Representatives. Kim became co-sponsor of California’s politically charged Proposition 187. KARA leadership took a prominent stand on Proposition 209, with KARA President Mark Kim, a Korean American assistant deputy in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, acting as a strong advocate.

“It is clear that the 1992 civil unrest has resulted in the community’s commitment to engage the mainstream political process and to find political empowerment,” Park said. “And a necessary part of that engagement is the difficult, and sometimes painful, process of confronting political divisions within the community.”

Civil Unrest of 1992 Sparked New Generation of Korean American Leaders in Los Angeles

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