Koreatown Feels Loss of Slain Hostage

Times Staff Writer

On the weekend, many churches in Koreatown offered a special prayer for Kim Sun Il, the 33-year-old South Korean who was being held hostage by militants in Iraq.

So when the news spread Tuesday that his captors had beheaded him, many in Los Angeles’ large Korean community felt as if one of their own sons had been taken.

By lunchtime, the grief had spread to some local shopping centers as people spoke with deep emotion about the killing.


“How can they do that to an innocent man?” said a tearful Jung Ran Lee, 67, at the Galleria Shopping Center on the corner of Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard.

“Ever since we heard the news of his kidnapping over the weekend, members of our church have been praying for his release,” said Lee, who belongs to Los Angeles Good Shepherd Church. “What his family must be going through.”

The Korean American Federation, the largest Korean organization in Los Angeles, hastily organized a candlelight vigil to remember Kim and to condemn his killers.

“It’s an outrageous, cruel act against an innocent civilian,” said Kee Whan Ha, president of the federation. “Fighting soldier to soldier is one thing, but to kill an innocent man who was begging for his life is an outrage.”

The fate of Kim, who was working in Iraq as an Arabic interpreter when he was kidnapped, has been a topic of great interest in Koreatown.

His case has also intensified debate in the community about whether South Korea should keep its military personnel in Iraq to help U.S. forces. Seoul has 670 medics, engineers and others in Iraq and had pledged to send 3,000 more troops.


Supporters said South Korea must continue to back its ally and keep troops in Iraq. But critics said the country should never have gotten involved in the war and must try to get out of Iraq as soon as possible.

Most of the more than 100 callers to Radio Korea on Tuesday said they believed that Seoul should not give in to terrorists. Rather, many said the government should stand firm and send more troops, according to Yoon Jae Kim, a reporter who took some of the calls.

At the Korea Times too, most callers expressed outrage at the beheading and said they wanted to see South Korea dispatch more troops to Iraq, according to Kenneth Kim, a reporter who answered some of the calls.

“You cannot give in to terrorists, but we cannot afford to lose any more lives,” said Soon Ok Kim of Orange, who had stopped Tuesday in Koreatown to shop. “I hate war.”

Others asked why the South Korean government couldn’t negotiate a release, as the Japanese government had in bringing home five hostages from Iraq in April.

Koreatown dentist Jimmy Choi said he always believed that Seoul should have stayed out of the war. “Perhaps [Kim’s] life could have been saved had South Korea agreed to pull out its people from Iraq,” he said.


But Young Lee, a lay leader at Good Shepherd Church, said South Korea and the United States had a long relationship of mutual support that could not end over one incident, however cruel.

“The younger generation doesn’t know history,” said Lee, who lived through the Korean War. “We have no choice but to cooperate with our ally.”

Chae Jin Lee, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an expert on Korean foreign affairs, noted the similarity of the war debate in Koreatown and the rest of the United States.

“It is a moral dilemma,” Lee said, not only for South Korea but for all the nations that must deal with international terrorism. Lee predicted that the murder would spark more opposition in South Korea against deploying more troops.

In Koreatown, the mood remained somber throughout the day.

Yong Yi, a 76-year-old volunteer at the Korean American Federation office, could not stop crying.

“All I have are tears today. He could have been my son,” he said. “All the Koreans were praying for his life to be spared. God seems indifferent right now.”