Powerful Community Group Calls for ‘Democratization’ : Southland Koreans Ask Reform in Seoul
In what some described as a turning point in longstanding local public support for the South Korea government, the largest Korean community organization in Southern California, along with leaders of 30 local groups, called for the “democratization of Korea.”
Ki-myung Rhee, president of the Korean Federation of Los Angeles, the most powerful local community service group, released a “declaration of conscience” Monday that called on the military-backed South Korean government to amend its constitution to allow for direct election of its president.
“The current constitution of Korea lacks in its entirety legitimate democratic process,” the statement read, “and ignores fundamental principles of democracy.” It also called for establishment of “fundamental freedom and human rights,” such as freedom of speech, press and assembly.
Rhee described the statement as a “big change” for the local Korean community, which numbers 200,000 to 250,000 in Southern California and is considered the largest population of Koreans outside the Orient.
In the past, anti-government policies have been advocated in Los Angeles by activists described by one local leader, who asked not to be named, as “fringe groups, not mainstream. What is significant here is the federation is a mainstream group.”
Federations such as the one in Los Angeles exist in the major U.S. cities that have large concentrations of Korean immigrants, such as New York, Houston and Chicago, and even in smaller cities such as Las Vegas. They function as umbrella organizations for groups providing educational, social, legal or cultural services to the estimated 500,000 to 1 million Koreans living in the United States.
The Los Angeles federation, which is the largest in the United States, is also the first to make a public declaration regarding the South Korean government.
Although Rhee was careful to say in an interview, “We do support the Korean government. . . . We are not supporting minority leaders, opposition leaders, just human rights,” the effect of the group’s call for constitutional amendments was perceived as opposition.
Eui-Young Yu, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Korean-American Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, noted: “The Korean Federation is known as a pro-South Korean organization. This is the first time they have made a statement against the wishes of the government in power.”
Dictatorship the Issue
“We call it revising the constitution, but we mean stop the dictatorship,” said Joseph Cho, president of the Southern California Korean Newspaper Publishers, a group supporting the declaration.
The statement by the Los Angeles federation follows increased activism for change within South Korea itself, Yu said, particularly since the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in February.
There have been petition drives to amend the constitution, rallies and demonstrations in South Korea, he said, adding that “various elements of the society who had been quiet are beginning to be heard. University professors, church leaders are beginning to express their views in the open.”
The participation with the federation by leaders of the 30 local groups, including the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, the Korea Town Development Assn., the Korean Council of Churches in Southern California and the Korean American Coalition, is also important, Yu said.
“They’re the people that represent the cross-section of the Korean community,” Yu added. “That statement, along with other groups, made it a concerted voice.”
‘To Speak Their Minds’
“Our primary purpose was to encourage many Koreans to speak their minds,” Rhee said, “and to appeal to the parties in power . . . for the democratization of Korean politics.”
Although a number of local Koreans have business ties to South Korea, it is unclear how much, if any, political influence they have in their homeland. But this public stance is timely, said Ho Young Chung, president of the Christian Businessmen’s Committee: “The international climate is changing. The Philippines have changed. President Chun may listen to us. It is time.”
Rhee made the decision to draft the statement by himself over the last two months, federation Executive Director Eugene Jay said. Having immigrated to the United States 11 years ago and started his own electronics and garment businesses, Rhee is considered a friend of local consular officials and was appointed by South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to an advisory council on unification of North and South Korea.
He was elected president of the federation in June and as recently as in November he led public denunciations of a local Korean language newspaper, the Korean Sunday Journal, which was known for its anti-government positions.
Rhee said Monday his criticism stemmed from disapproval of the paper’s “yellow journalism,” not its politics.
About two months ago, various community people began to ask Rhee to consider a statement, Jay said. “He considered the impact it would have. He considered many things.”
Top Secret Meeting
Last week, Jay added, Rhee gave him “a list of Korean organizations, (and said) I should send out a mailing for a special meeting, as a top secret. He was going to discuss the declaration. He didn’t want information to leak out to pro-Korean government people. I even had two security officers there during the meeting in case there was trouble.”
At that meeting, held April 16, the other leaders pledged support for Rhee’s declaration.
Commenting on the statement, Chan-Yong Lee, spokesman for the consulate for the Republic of Korea in Los Angeles, said, “I sincerely doubt that those who attended a dinner party hosted by the Korean Federation signed a statement to support opposition party policy in Korea.”
He also said many of the association names may have been “unfairly included” because the leaders could not have had time to consult their boards of directors before attending.
Backing From Boards
Federation spokesman Jay said, however, that leaders of all but six of the 30 groups have the approval of their organizations, and the remainder are planning to meet soon with their boards of directors.
The Korean government’s position has been that there should be a moratorium on constitutional debate until after the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Although the press is controlled and leading dissident political leaders have been under house arrest innumerable times in recent years, consul spokesman Lee said of the federation’s call for human rights: “We still enjoy freedom of speech, because, you see, everyone can criticize government policy.”