Views Vary on S. Korean Leader’s L.A. Visit

Times Staff Writer

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun makes his first trip to Los Angeles today, and his appeal highlights a generation gap in Koreatown.

He has few fans among older Korean Americans, who are suspicious of his left-leaning politics and attempts to cultivate diplomatic relations with Communist North Korea.

But he has emerged as a hero of sorts among some in the younger generation, who see him as an inspirational figure.

In addition to a traditional speech on Korea-U.S. relations to the World Affairs Council today, Roh is to meet Saturday with young Korean Americans in the entertainment industry.


“I am honored to be invited,” said actor John Cho, 32, who starred in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” “I think it’s so cool.”

Although Cho said he does not closely follow South Korean politics, he finds Roh a “fascinating” figure because of his human rights background and “revolutionary thinking.”

Roh, 58, grew up in poverty and graduated from a commercial high school, but passed the tough South Korean bar by studying law on his own. He was a labor lawyer, who defended labor and human rights activists, and has clashed with the Bush administration on dealings with North Korea.

In addition to his visit to Los Angeles, Roh will confer with the presidents of Argentina and Brazil before attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile on Nov. 20-21.

Konnie Kwak, an animation producer who frequently travels to South Korea on business, said she was so surprised when a caller invited her to meet Roh that she blurted: “I am not even a Korean citizen, so I can’t vote.”

Kwak considers Roh a “visionary” who is trying to instill democratic principals of egalitarianism into the highly hierarchal Confucian culture of Korea.

Although South Koreans say they want democracy, the older generation wants a leader who is an “authority figure” -- someone they believe is worthy of putting on a pedestal, she observed.

In Los Angeles’ Korean community, still a bastion of conservatives and anti-Communists, Roh’s detractors are plentiful.


“I have a real disagreement with his policies, especially in regards to North Korea,” said Bong-Keon Kim, a retired South Korean Army colonel and president of a Korean War veterans group.

He said Roh’s policy of “engagement” and “dialogue” with North Korea makes no sense, because “you cannot negotiate with Communists from a position of weakness.”

Young Tai Lee, president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, among the few who will greet Roh when he arrives at Los Angeles International Airport this morning, said he hopes to suggest to the South Korean leader that he foster a better relationship with the Bush administration.

Lee, a member of the so-called 1.5 generation (born in Korea and raised in America), said South Korea should be intelligent in its dealings with the United States.


Although South Korea has sent 3,000 troops to Iraq and made sacrifices as an ally, it hasn’t received the credit it deserves because it has done so while “complaining,” he said.

Lee said he plans to ask Roh to contribute financially toward the construction of a senior citizens center in Koreatown, extend voting rights to Korean citizens living outside of Korea and relax restrictions on bringing money out of South Korea.

Because Korean Americans cannot freely take out business profits or proceeds from the sale of a business, “it is hard for us to invest in Korea,” he said.

James Oh, a Cerritos real estate broker and president of a Southern California group backing Roh, said he supports what the president has done since he took office in February 2003.


“President Roh has put South Korea on a right course ... in its domestic and foreign policies,” he said.

Oh said South Korea has little choice but to engage North Korea. “If there is a war on the Korean peninsula, it’s the Korean people who will pay the price, not the Bush administration,” he said.

After the World Affairs Council talk, Roh is to meet with USC officials and attend a dinner being held by Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

On Saturday, in addition to his meeting with the entertainment industry group, Roh is to hold a reception for 350 Korean Americans, before leaving for Argentina in the evening.