CALIFORNIA

Community center meant to unite L.A.'s Korean Americans has become a battleground

The four-story building at Western and Olympic was meant to pull Korean Americans together as a community.

But in recent years it has become a battleground. Lawsuits fly back and forth, and alternating waves of armed guards and locksmiths sneak in to lop off chains and drill through locks adversaries installed.

When things got really bad just over a year ago, angry men repeatedly squared off in hallway shouting matches.

"It was crazy," says LAPD Officer Harry Cho. "It was a big to-do."

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For a while, he says, he was rolling to the site almost daily to mediate as factions warred over who was really in charge of the foundation that owns and runs the Korean American Community Center.

The center opened in 1975. Leaders of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, which represents Korean American interests in the city, cobbled together $10, $20 and $100 donations and received financial help from the South Korean government.

They wanted a gathering place, a home for the fledgling Korean American community here.

With the purchase made, the group created the Korean American United Foundation to maintain the building and insulate community-oriented activities from the federation's frequent political skirmishes.

At the center's dedication, speakers got choked up announcing "a home of our own in the heart of L.A."

Now that source of pride spurs irritation as two warring factions claim to be the rightful caretaker of a property that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in rental income and advertising fees from the two large billboards on its roof and on a wall.

About the only thing both sides can agree on is that much of that income, which is supposed to fund grants to help the Korean American community, is going instead to lawyers on either side.

The skirmish began in 2014 when the foundation's board chairman, Seung Chun Lim, was killed in a car accident.

The vice chairman, Sung Woong Kim, argued at an ensuing board meeting that he should take over and serve the remainder of Lim's term.

Another board member, Sung Hoon Yoon, thought they should elect a new leader.

According to court papers filed in the case, when the discussion got heated, Kim declared the meeting adjourned and walked out, followed by supporters.

The remaining board members held their own election and declared Yoon the new chairman.

The fighting hasn't stopped, with each side accusing the other of being an impostor and of misappropriating foundation money.

Yoon has sued Kim, saying he falsely represented himself as the foundation's board chairman.

Another member has sued Yoon, accusing him of faking his signature to take power.

The version of the foundation that Kim took over has sued Yoon, alleging he defrauded the organization.

And James Ahn, president of the Korean American Federation and a foundation board member largely aligned with Kim, has obtained a restraining order against Yoon, preventing him from entering the building. He has alleged that his adversary had shown up with firearms and threatened violence.

Yoon, who owns a liquor store, says he was armed only because he had just left work at his store, where he is licensed as a private security guard.

Toward the end of 2014, Yoon obtained a preliminary injunction against Kim, preventing him from acting as board chairman, then went to the building at midnight. Under his supervision, two security guards and a locksmith cut through the bolt on the main gates and changed the locks for the foundation office.

Yoon stood guard through the night, but his occupation lasted less than 24 hours.

Yoon says he finally left after the squabbling parties and their lawyers agreed that they would work out their differences. Instead, he returned to find the locks changed once more, he says.

Yoon has since installed his own board of directors and changed the address of the foundation to a post office box, collecting checks from the billboard advertisements at the center.

The rent checks from the tenants have been going to Ahn's faction.

"I'm going to fight this till the end," Yoon said. "I can't let the buildings go to those" people.

For his part, Ahn, a real estate businessman who also runs a mortuary, has alleged in court that Yoon has drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation's accounts.

He said he is fighting to keep Yoon from controlling the community center.

"It's so upsetting," he said. "This building is symbolic for us Korean Americans."

Yoon, he alleged in court papers, will "stop at nothing to loot [the foundation's] property and assets for his personal benefit and gain."

At a hearing this month, a judge scheduled a status conference on the legal fight for April.

James Kropff, an attorney for Yoon, asked the judge to dismiss the restraining order preventing his client from entering the building, saying it would be "the first step in making sense of this mess."

"It's really a tragic situation for the Korean community," said Pyong Yong Min, a longtime Koreatown journalist who has written about the history of Korean immigrants in the U.S. "They're each saying, 'It's mine, no, it's mine. I'm the chairman, no, I'm the chairman.'"

The battle is particularly disturbing to some of the people who supported the original purchase.

See-myun Kymm, 80, who made his fortune by importing and selling wigs, says he donated $20,000 to the center.

"It's become a fight about the money, not the original meaning and spirit of why we established the place," he said. "I'm so sick of those people."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 29, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Community hub now a battleground - `A big to-do': Factions fight for control of a Korean American gathering place." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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