Koreans Find Aid on Hot Line : Social services: From help to helpers, a couple assists immigrants in coping with life in America.


Sung Lee feared that his wife would leave him for another man when she stepped out of his shadow and started taking co-ed classes to become a real estate agent, in defiance of the traditional role of Korean women.

The first thing the 47-year-old Korean-American restaurateur did was call his accountant in Van Nuys.

But it wasn't financial advice he sought.

Lee's accountant is Mahn Youn Jo. With the aid of his wife, Oak, Jo operates a free hot line counseling and information service to help many of the estimated 50,000 members of the Korean community in the San Fernando Valley adjust to life in their adopted homeland.

The couple have answered phone calls day and night since 1985 from more than 5,000 distraught Korean immigrants, helping them find jobs and solve marital and other problems.

Lee said his marriage has improved steadily since Jo repeatedly advised him in June that "this is not Korea."

"He said to me, 'Your wife has her own personality, her own career, and it doesn't mean she is going to have an affair,' " said Lee, a Santa Clarita resident who immigrated here in the early 1970s and owns a coffee shop in Sylmar.

At Jo's suggestion, Lee began taking his wife out more often, and the additional time together has strengthened their 22-year marriage, he said.

Lee even dyed his gray hair brown and wears suits most of the time because Jo told him it would increase his self-confidence and sex appeal.

"I look so good now, my wife is the jealous one," Lee said.

The Jos' hot line service--listed in a Korean telephone directory as the Korean Community Service Center--fills a gap in the services available to Korean immigrants, especially those who do not speak English, community leaders said.

The Korean Senior Citizens Center in San Fernando is the only other private, nonprofit agency in the Valley for Korean-speakers, although pastors at 45 Korean churches provide counseling for their congregations.

The 1980 U.S. Census reported that 60,000 people of Korean origin resided in Los Angeles.

But Los Angeles officials and Korean leaders say the census did not take into account the many Korean illegal aliens living in the city.

"There's no place for them to turn" in the Valley, said Bong Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency that serves Koreans throughout the city.

The hot line service appeals to Koreans not only because advice and referrals are offered in their native tongue but because callers may remain anonymous if they wish, Kim said.

Most Koreans have been taught to "keep problems to yourself and save face," he said.

But John Song, a Korean-speaking social worker for the county Department of Public Social Services, warned that taking advice from untrained people can be risky. He said he was not familiar with the Jos' background or telephone hot line.

Mahn Youn Jo, 50, and Oak Jo, 48, are members of Gloria Baptist Church in Montrose, where Oak Jo has taken classes in parenting and other subjects and her husband has completed a three-year seminary program.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Seong Soo Kim, praised their commitment to community involvement.

The Jos do not impose their religious beliefs on callers, Lee said.

The couple said their personal experiences as parents, longtime marriage partners and immigrants--not their religious beliefs--have contributed the most to preparing them to give advice to others.

"In Korea, grandparents and relatives always watch you to make sure you're OK," said Oak Jo, who is a lab technician at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda. "Here, people do not have as many relatives to take care of them, so we help them enjoy the benefits of living in the United States."

The Jos immigrated here in 1976 from Seoul, where Mahn Youn Jo was a business analyst for the Korean Development Bank.

They first settled near his sister in St. Louis and opened a gift shop, and later moved to Los Angeles.

The hot line began in 1985 as a service offered by the newly formed Valley Korean Chamber of Commerce, said Sung H. Kim, the organization's former treasurer and owner of an insurance company in Koreatown.

"The top priority of the founders was to help Korean citizens in the Valley, not to promote business," Kim said.

But the chamber was dissolved about a year later because owners of small businesses in the Valley did not want to pay annual dues of about $100, he said.

"I strongly believe we need services like the hot line," Kim said.

Jo, a short man with a cherubic face, said he has continued to operate the service from phone lines in his home and office largely because of his late mother's influence.

A gentle woman who virtually converted the family home into a soup kitchen, she was widowed when Communists fighting for control of Korea killed her husband.

Reared by his mother and grandmother, Jo said he was torn between wanting to help people and becoming a successful businessman.

In a recent interview in his office in Van Nuys, it appeared that he had managed to realize both dreams.

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