Five Years After the Riots, Still a Community in Fragments


The spring of 1992 will remain one of the most devastating seasons in memory for Korean Americans across the country. We were unable to prevent the loss of thousands of small family-owned enterprises to racial bigotry, economic desperation, media panic and political ignorance. With the passage of time, things have changed, but without consolation or relief.

Korean Americans have paid the price all racial and ethnic minorities in the United States eventually must pay. “Sa-l-Gu” (4-29) commemorates those who sacrificed their lives so the message of our permanence in this society could be delivered. What impact did the 1992 implosion in Los Angeles have on Korean Americans?

Korean Americans in Los Angeles experienced a brief moment of unity. Some 40,000 people from all parts of Southern California gathered at Ardmore Park the week after order was restored during 1992, in the city of Los Angeles. A march which took its course through the area known as Koreatown was moving, unified, strong and defined. The message was clear: Korean Americans in Los Angeles (along with many others), from all walks of life, will come together to ensure the suffering inflicted upon thousands of innocent families will be eased. We have failed.


As one among many who could see the reasons why Korean families were hit especially hard in 1992, I was both saddened and enraged at the circumstances facing Los Angeles and newcomer Korean families, in particular. The reasons for the destruction among Korean-owned businesses were immediately apparent, and research since that time has confirmed the crisis was the result of an explosive situation created by a downturn in the economy, high unemployment, a lack of public trust in the police department, the general neglect of the infrastructure of Los Angeles, a lack of representation in the media, a lack of appreciation for the changing demographics of the city, and political leadership that failed to see the value in playing a facilitating role in resolving intense community conflicts in Los Angeles.

Korean Americans received the brunt of community resentment and destruction because of several additional factors: failure to be informed about events and circumstances beyond the Korean community (like the trial of Rodney G. King and the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du), failure to pay attention to developing business customs and practices that are culturally appropriate to the communities being served, ignoring race relations and the tremendous impact it has on people who live in diverse communities like Los Angeles, and forgetting that material wealth is little more than an illusion.

Korean Americans realize organizing is extremely difficult. But we also recognize that all communities experience similar difficulties because of political factionalism, inter-generational factionalism, apathy and petty jealousies. We know the Korean American community is no different from others, we just know more of the details and the personalities within our community.

Many of us in the second generation believe there are a new set of progressive principles which must be adopted in our efforts to go forward as Korean Americans with a new vision. Those principles emphasize concepts of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, compassion rather than criticism, and a constant push toward social change for justice--not just for Korean Americans but for all people.

[Much has been written and studied, but] the data will never capture the daily struggles encountered by families who were affected by the riots. For example, how can we ever document the unique problems which arise when language barriers, cultural barriers, community disunity and anti-immigrant hatred provide the backdrop for trying to rebuild a small family-owned business? Who will want to help the newcomers who arrived after April 1992 and unknowingly invested in businesses previously owned by other Koreans looking for a way out? Where will we find counselors and resources to deal with those families who have problems with their children because of the trauma?

Korean Americans in Los Angeles have been trying for five years to be heard so some of the problems which surfaced in the aftermath of losses suffered in 1992 might be resolved. We are still struggling as a community to articulate the values that will guide us.