The Fathers

Mona Gable has been published in Salon, Health and West.

On April 2, as the late afternoon light glinted off the high-rises of downtown and the shopkeepers of Santee Alley began to close for the night, Dae Kwon Yun, 54, drove through the garment district. Sitting in the back seat of his white Toyota Sequoia were Yun's children, Ashley, 11, and Alexander, 10. Earlier that day, their father had picked them up on Hobart Street in Koreatown, where they lived in a small apartment with their mother, Sun Ma. They did not want to go with him. But they were obedient children. And their father had promised to buy Ashley an iPod, Alexander a book.

At about 4:40 p.m., Yun parked in an alley behind Stanford Street, a few blocks from Arco Apparel, the manufacturing business he'd been forced to close two weeks before. At some point, police believe, he doused the inside of the SUV with fuel. Later, witnesses would describe Yun arguing with Ashley in Korean outside the car. Later, witnesses would describe Yun grabbing the sixth grader by her ponytail and one arm and shoving her into the back seat next to her brother, and then climbing into the front passenger seat.

The Sequoia burst into flames.

A moment later, Yun opened the door and rolled out.

By the time firefighters arrived, at 4:45 p.m., the Sequoia was reduced to its metal shell. At first they didn't realize anyone else had been inside, the children's bodies were so badly burned.

That same week, on April 8, Bong Joo Lee, a 40-year-old resident of Fontana, called his ex-wife, Gina. It was a Saturday, and Lee wanted to take their 5-year-old daughter, Iris, out to eat. When he didn't bring Iris home by evening, Gina drove from her house in Upland to his house on American Way. The front door was locked, but Gina still had a key.

She found them in the master bedroom upstairs. Lee had shot and killed Iris with a 9-millimeter handgun and then killed himself.

The next day, Palm Sunday, the Kim family never arrived for the early service at Praise Church of the Nazarene. At 10 a.m., friends went to their apartment in Echo Park to look for them.

Sang Kim, 55, had shot his wife and two children before turning the gun on himself. He lay across the body of Young Ok, 50, in their bed. Matthew, 8, was dead too. Daughter Bin Na, 16, was alive but critically wounded.

All across Los Angeles during that cold week in early spring, the questions were asked again and again. Why had these fathers killed their children? Had they gone mad? Were the crimes simply a terrible coincidence? Or were they evidence of some deeper malaise afflicting the city's Korean American immigrants?

The Korean community was devastated by the murders and struggled to deal with their aftermath. Korean-speaking counselors were rushed to Wonderland Avenue Elementary in Laurel Canyon, where Matthew Kim had been a second grader, and to 3rd Street Elementary in Hancock Park, where Alexander Yun had been a fourth grader. At St. James' School in Hancock Park, the close-knit Episcopal school where Ashley would have graduated with her classmates in June, Korean ministers consoled students, teachers and parents. Within hours of Ashley's death, the Rev. Paul J. Kowalewski, the rector of St. James' Church, was fielding calls from Korean parishioners. This is not typical of the Korean community, they wanted him to understand. We are not violent. We don't express ourselves this way.

On the front pages of the Korea Times, academics sifted possible cultural reasons for the tragedies. "Why Murder Suicides Take Place" read the headline on an April 5 editorial. Marital woes were mentioned, financial setbacks, the stress and isolation of immigrant life. The shame Korean men feel in seeking help with personal problems. Two of the husbands, one story noted, had histories of beating their wives. Korean churches were blamed for ignoring the unseemly problem of domestic violence, and for their failure to reach out to troubled families. A group of Asian organizations sent a letter to hundreds of Korean religious leaders asking them to sign a national declaration. "We proclaim with one voice," the declaration began, ". . . that violence against women exists in all communities, including our own, and is morally, spiritually and universally intolerable."

Yet for all the agonizing and debate, "they all know this can happen," says Charles Kim, referring to the Korean American community. "And it will happen again."

'To understand Koreans," Kim is saying, "you have to understand woori mentality."

Kim is president of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, a national organization whose goal is to promote the participation of Koreans in American political life. On a hot afternoon in September, he is leaning across his desk in his cramped office at 6th and Harvard in Koreatown, trying to convey the dynamics of the Korean family structure.

An affable man of 50 whose spiky black hair is flecked with gray, Kim is in a good position to do this. He belongs to the 1.5 generation--those born in Korea who immigrated to the United States, easy in both cultures. He also belongs to the first wave of South Koreans who fled the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee following the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965. In the 1970s, during the big boom in Korean immigration, more than 260,000 Koreans came to America. Today more than 200,000 live in L.A. County alone.

Kim's father died when he was 13, leaving his mother a single parent of four children. In Korea, such a family was considered "abnormal," so in 1975 his mother moved them to Los Angeles. Like many Korean women, she worked for years in a sewing factory in the garment district. She had the classic immigrant dream, to see her children graduate college. They did: Kim from USC in 1983, with a degree in political science.

As Americanized as he is, Kim was able to see the profound influence of Korean Confucianism in the April tragedies. Confucianism is rooted in filial piety, and in Korea it has come to govern everything: class position, moral values, family life. While men protect and support their families, they also have power over them. Wives are expected to obey husbands, and children their parents, without question. In this rigid hierarchy, Korean parents do not see themselves as separate from their children. Their joy is their children's joy. Their pain, their children's pain. When Korean fathers take their children's lives along with their own, are they acting on Confucian beliefs centuries old?

"There's a Korean word, woori," Kim begins. "It means 'we' or 'ours,' instead of na, which means 'I.' American culture is an 'I' culture. Korean culture is a 'we' culture. So when I fail, 'we' fail. So when I fail, my kids are going to fail too. And the men, they cannot take that pressure and pain."

He speaks now of Yun, Lee and Kim. Although he can't condone their crimes, he says, "I can understand. . . . They had to do that."

He puts himself in their position. "I'm a father of four. My business is not doing well. When my business is not doing well, my wife starts complaining. You get upset. You start fighting. This is a gradual process. Sometimes there's gambling. Then one day something happens--you explode. You divorce.

"As a man, I think she's going to get everything. At that point I've lost my business, I'm behind in my payments, I'm a total failure. I don't have any choice."

There is an old Korean saying for this way of thinking, Kim says, which can be traced to the country's long, brutal history of famine, foreign occupation and war: "I die, you die, we all die."

Peter Chang is reflecting on the method Dae Kwon Yun allegedly used. "I don't know why the fire," he says, looking down at his hands. "In many cases here they use a gun. It's very hard to imagine why he chose that way."

A slight, soft-spoken man, Chang, 38, is executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center, a nonprofit counseling organization. His large, airy office is in the same 1960s-era building as Kim's, along with the Thank You Driving School, the World Vision Full Gospel Church and the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.

The family service center runs a counseling program for Korean-speaking male batterers, one of the few in Los Angeles County. It was here that Yun showed up in the summer of 2004, a referral from the Alhambra Courthouse, after being convicted of beating Sun Ma. "I met him one or two times," Chang says. He learned that Yun's children had died in the fire when he opened the Korea Times. "It was a shock."

Chang, who emigrated from Seoul in 1983, is also a minister at the Korean Evangelical Church. Although the figure varies slightly from source to source, he estimates that about 70% of Korean Americans in Southern California attend church and that most are Christians. As a minister trying to enlighten the community about domestic violence, Chang hasn't always liked the sermonizing of his fellow Korean pastors, which has often been more about collecting money than in helping troubled souls. In 2003, he was part of a Los Angeles-based group called Korean Churches for Community Development, which published a hard-hitting study on Asian family violence and the need for Korean churches to confront it.

No one really knows how pervasive domestic violence is among Asian immigrant groups, but Korean Americans are repeatedly ranked at the top. There is another old saying in Korea: "A woman must be hit once every three days in order to preserve peace and harmony in the family." Until 1997, when South Korea passed its first domestic violence law, wife-beating was not considered a crime.

Chang says that the number of domestic violence cases referred to the center has decreased in the last five years, but they are more extreme. "Like Mr. Yun's," he says. Now, instead of using their hands or fists, men use guns or knives.

"The core problem is the relationship with the spouse," he says. "They do not have enough communication. At some point they explode with the stress. But they don't know how to deal with the stress. In Korea there is no education on how to deal with conflict."

The violence in families is part of a larger cultural pattern, Chang says. In Korea, men suffer corporal punishment from the time they are very young. They get hit by their parents, by their teachers, by their officers in the army. "When you look at a man's life history, their life is related to physical punishment," he says. "From birth until they're 27 years old, they learn that. Then they marry, they have a problem, they use the same behavior."

Two years ago the center put together a profile of the 277 Korean American men who'd participated in its batterer treatment program from January 2000 to December 2004. In the margin of the report were a few caveats: "incomplete data" and "not a complete picture of Korean American batterers." Still, the results were disturbing. Most batterers were Christian, college graduates, middle-class and Korean-born with a U.S. residency of 10 years--hardly the picture of poorly educated, underclass abusers Chang had expected.

Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, says there is a gender war going on among Korean immigrants. When they relocate to America, Korean women tend to adapt better than men. They find jobs more easily, learn the language more willingly, become more independent. "Usually Korean men were white-collar workers," Park explains, "but here they are not. That has been difficult for Korean men to deal with. Sometimes women can bring in more money than men. I think that's very much a tension."

When asked what he thinks about Yun, Chang suggests that the failed businessman could be mentally ill. "It's like hopelessness. 'I can't handle my financial problems, my family problems.'" But he also suggests he might have acted in revenge.

Sun Ma had filed for divorce on March 28, less than a week before Yun took her children from her forever.

In late July, nearly 200 teachers and administrators from across Southern California gathered at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard for a five-day seminar on Korea and the Korean American experience. One of those present was an energetic fourth-grade language arts teacher named Susan Smith. Smith teaches at Wonderland Avenue Elementary, a well-known magnet school whose population of Korean students has soared to more than 40%. Matthew Kim's death and the problems of other Korean American families were very much on Smith's mind that week. In a questionnaire asking why teachers had come to the seminar, she wrote: "My school community was devastated this year by a series of murder/suicides within the Korean community. We lost one of our second-grade students at the hands of his father this past April."

Although counselors had been sent to Wonderland to confront the tragedy, Smith clearly believed it was not enough. "I feel that our faculty and staff may not truly understand the struggles that our Korean community members are faced with."

The Yun tragedy exposed many of those struggles. Before the children's deaths, Yun complained about Ashley's private school tuition, $12,000 a year. But Sun Ma was determined to send their daughter to St. James'. No matter the cost.

"The most important reason why the Koreans came to the United States is education for their children," says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. Chang, who spoke at the July seminar, is a textbook example of this aspiration. Born in Inchon, he left Korea with his family in 1974. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1982 after a stint in the U.S. Army.

"Many Korean immigrants, their success is determined by whether they're able to send their children to Yale or Harvard or other Ivy Leagues," he says. "That's what they know. They really don't understand the educational system in the United States. Their frame of reference is the educational system in Korea, where the top schools determine your success or failure. In Korea, if you get into Seoul University, Yonsei University or Korea University, you have achieved a great deal. Because you become part of this elite group. Whether you graduate or not doesn't matter. They don't understand it doesn't work that way in the U.S."

Debra H. Suh, executive director of the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, remembers that shortly after O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife, a phrase became fashionable among batterers: "I'm going to Juice you." She also remembers its chilling effect. "It was harder for women to call, because women believed their batterers when they said threatening things. It had a different impact than we thought. They were more scared to leave."

Suh, a down-to-earth woman of 40, has been working in the domestic violence community for more than 10 years. She says there are only a few shelters in the country that serve Asian Pacific women, and that last year more than 2,000 calls came in to the center's 24-hour hotline. In the days following the April killings, she was hopeful that calls from Korean American women would go up. But they dropped, as they had after O.J.

About that time, Suh was watching a talk show on Korean television. A number of experts from the Korean American community were on, talking about the crimes. A Christian counselor suggested that if women were simply more understanding of their husbands' difficulties, their husbands might stop beating them. Suh was infuriated. "That was a turning point, when I felt I needed to speak out."

The center and two legal organizations serving Korean American women inundated the local Korean media with a press release. The headline read: "Recent violence in the Korean community is not uncommon or unpredictable." The first sentence went right to the slayings: "Two of the three homicide/suicide incidents that happened between April 2, 2006 to April 8, 2006 appear to stem from domestic violence." It was also noted that in one of the cases there was a divorce, in another a recent filing for divorce, "showing that domestic violence continues or even escalates during separation."

Like Charles Kim, Suh is a Korean American success story. The mother of two young children, she has a law degree from Loyola, an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley. But in one fundamental way at least, she and Kim are different. She does not buy the cultural violence theory to explain why these Korean fathers killed their children. When I repeat Kim's notion, her eyebrows rise. "Wow," she says.

"I think to just take the cultural explanation is the easy way," she says carefully. "I don't think it's a Korean thing to do."

Father Aidan Koh, an Episcopal priest, is chaplain of St. James' School. He knew Ashley Yun from the time she enrolled as a shy first grader. His eyes mist over when he talks about her. It was Father Koh to whom Sun Ma turned last December when life with her husband grew unbearable. "That's when we got to know about her family situation. So we strongly urged her to move out," he says. It was Father Koh, and Father John Kim, who stayed up all night comforting Ma when she could not stop sobbing after learning that her children were dead.

Along with three other clergy, Father Koh presided over the funeral on that cold evening in April in the gloriously high-ceilinged nave of St. James' Church, repeating the Episcopal burial rite in Korean after the Rev. Kowalewski said it in English: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul. Ashley and Alexander's ashes are here at St. James', collected in a small vessel in the church columbarium.

Today, on this bright late-August morning, Father Koh is sitting at a table in the church library, a serene place filled with Craftsman furniture and book-lined shelves. A small man with warm brown eyes, he is dressed in a sky-blue shirt with a gray clerical collar and dark pants. His hands are folded on the table, and every so often he smiles and makes a small joke.

When Father Koh arrived at St. James' School in 1992, the Korean student population was about 14%; it is now nearly double that, a result of white families fleeing Hancock Park after the riots and Koreans taking their place. In his early years there, most Korean parents were first-generation and didn't speak English. Language was a formidable barrier: Parents couldn't talk with teachers or participate in the life of the school. "They wanted to be involved, but they were afraid," he says. They didn't know the culture, didn't understand how things worked. What if they did something wrong?

To fold immigrant parents into the community, Father Koh helped them establish the Korean Parent Assn. Cultural events such as Korean Sunday were added to the school calendar. When parents had teacher conferences, Father Koh would translate.

But times change. St. James', like the rest of Los Angeles, has seen a transition in its Korean families. New immigrants keep arriving, but there is also a mix of 1.5-generation and second-generation parents who are younger, more Americanized. Because St. James' prides itself on being a culturally diverse school, some question whether the parent association contradicts its philosophy of inclusion. Others wonder if the group is relevant. One Korean American father, who has lived in Hancock Park for 20 years, has sent all three of his children to St. James'. "I don't get too involved with the Korean Parent Assn.," he says. "But a lot more newer immigrants . . . feel comfortable with separate groups."

Father Koh believes the need for the association still exists. Parents continue to ask for his help to speak with teachers, translate the curriculum and approach the school for financial aid. Yet few confide in him about their marital troubles. "They try to solve the problem by themselves."

One immigrant parent Father Koh never encountered at school was Dae Kwon Yun.

"I did not see the father," he says, "until I see him in the newspaper."

On a mid-September morning thick with haze, a week after the start of the school year, Sun Ma sits at a desk deep in the back of her shop on Maple Street downtown. She is nearly invisible beneath the rows of black stocking caps and black T-shirts scrawled with the names of heavy metal bands.

A pretty woman with dark brown eyes, she wears a white sequined sweater over a black tank top, black slacks and simple silver jewelry. She has applied eye shadow and lip gloss, and her nails are painted a sheer pink. She does not look 48. She also does not look like a woman who struggles to get up every morning.

On that Sunday in April, Ma waited here for Ashley and Alexander. Their father was supposed to return them by 5:30. Ma closed for the day, but left the door partly open so they could slip in. When two LAPD officers walked in instead, she was puzzled. They began asking her questions. Where were her children? What were their ages? Could she describe them? Ma became alarmed. Had Ashley and Alex been hurt? The officers were vague. They asked her to go with them, and then drove her to a police station near City Hall.

By then the children were gone.

At the police station, Ma was provided an interpreter. For the next several hours she waited to hear why she was there. She was not told that her children had died until 11 p.m., even as the story was breaking on the evening news.

In the days that followed, reporters came to the shop looking for her. By then she was staying at a friend's house in Baldwin Park, crying constantly. She did not talk to the media, did not read the newspapers. "It didn't matter what people say, because I lost my two children."

She is ready to talk now to a writer who has arrived unannounced. Over the next five hours the story of her marriage to Yun pours out of her. She is one of those who reject cultural theories. "I understand he can do anything to me--I was thinking he might kill me," she says. "I never expect he going to harm his own children."

Ma arrived in America in 1980, 22 years old. At first she lived in Alexandria, Va., with her parents. But the cold winters reminded her too much of Seoul, so she moved to Los Angeles. Her first job was as a word processor with a title company in North Hollywood. On Thanksgiving Day in 1985 she married an American. Five years later, shortly before Christmas, she filed for divorce. "I don't know," she says, when asked why the marriage ended.

By then she had found her calling, selling real estate for Jon Douglas in Larchmont. Her territory was Hancock Park. "There weren't so many Koreans and Asians there then. The market was hot. I was lucky to start at that time."

In 1993, she showed a townhouse to a potential buyer. He did not purchase the property, but he called soon after to ask her out. His name was Dae Kwon Yun. They were married about three months later, in August. When asked why she married him, Ma leans her head on her hand wearily and can't seem to recall. "All of a sudden I just decide to marry, to change," she says finally.

It turned bad fairly quickly, she says. He was asocial, didn't have friends. He was impatient and angered easily. At first he hit her only occasionally. "He had very strong arms," Ma says. Sometimes he punched her. Sometimes he slapped her. When she would ask, "Why are you hitting me?" he would say he wasn't hitting her, that "if he really hit me, he broke my bone."

When she became pregnant, Yun asked her to quit working. Women should stay home, he said. If she refused, they could just get a divorce. Ma thought, "Why give trouble for nothing?"

Ashley was born on April 24, 1994. By the time she was three months old, Ma was working again--at her husband's factory, ironing and trimming fabric, while Ashley sat in a stroller nearby. Ma hated it and thought of leaving the marriage. But like most Korean women, she did not want to break up the family. Alex was born two months premature on Nov. 21, 1995, and spent weeks in an incubator.

Contrary to some news stories, Ma says that she and her husband were never rich. They were able to live in a duplex on Orange Drive in Hancock Park because it was owned by Yun's parents, who lived downstairs. She laughs when asked if they had a Mercedes. She says yes, then adds, "That's the Korean mentality. If you dress up, drive a certain kind of car, you're very successful. But nobody knows the inside story."

The way she tells it, the inside story was this: Yun rarely let her out of his sight. "I was with him almost 24 hours a day."

By the time Alex was 3, Yun was constantly tearing Ma down and taunting her, she says. He would tell her she was a bad person, a bad mother. He would say he wanted a divorce. When she agreed, he would tell her he'd never give her one. "He think man is the king, woman is the servant," she says, her voice trembling. "He says it's not important what I like, what I'm thinking."

As time went on there was a series of crises: The factory was robbed, and their financial situation became increasingly precarious. In July 1999, the couple owed more than $60,000 in state taxes. In July 2000, Ma was sued for failing to pay four months' back rent on Yun's factory, which they had put in her name. In June 2001, Yun's parents sold the duplex, and the family moved to a townhouse in Monterey Park.

Despite the distance to Hancock Park, Ma was determined to send Ashley to St. James'. She had heard about the school's reputation during her real estate days. Yun balked at the expense, but Ma persisted. It is a battle she won.

One night in May 2004, Yun began beating her while she was taking a bath. The violence had started several hours earlier and continued to escalate. Now he hit her in the face, "boom boom." He began choking her neck with a pillow. "He beat me so bad," she says.

Ma had never called the police before. But she had never been more terrified. "This is not going to end," she thought. She dialed 911.

Two police cars came. The officers took photos of her face. Yun was led away, incredulous.

On July 22, 2004, Yun was convicted of spousal battery and ordered to attend a 52-week counseling program. The counseling did not appear to take, Ma says. "Even when he go to school, he hit me," she recalls. After the sessions he would rage about how she had ruined his life, ruined his name.

Yun's business began to collapse. Ma began getting calls from his workers. Where was Yun? He wasn't showing up. She began hearing from the factory's landlord. Where was the rent? "They don't want him in there at all," she says. "The owner say he all the time trouble." Besides the $60,000 in state taxes, she and Yun now owed thousands more in unpaid federal taxes.

In late 2004, Ma suddenly found herself running a T-shirt shop. As usual, it was her husband's idea. She didn't like helping him in the factory, he told her, so do this. The shop was just three blocks from Arco Apparel, and he continually checked up on her.

Yun began saying he was going to do "terrible things" to her, Ma recalls. She had almost no money, no car. Because she was afraid of people judging her, gossiping about her, she didn't confide in anyone. Besides, who would help her? No one, she thought. Like most women who suffer domestic abuse, she felt trapped. "People think that if you don't like him, just leave him," she says. "If the other person gives you nightmares, you can't just go."

In 2005, Ma began to find matchbooks and pens from casinos around the townhouse. Yun was gambling. One night he drove her and the children to the Bicycle Club in Commerce, then screamed at her to give him a $500 cash advance on her credit card. She refused.

By December, Yun's business was all but gone. Ma begged him to close the factory. Go away for a few months, she told him, clear your mind. Then get a job when you return. "He say, 'I'm not going to go nowhere. I got a plan.'"

He did not tell her what the plan was.

Shortly after Christmas, Ma finally saw a way out. She told Yun they should move to a smaller place, then arranged to sell some of their furniture. But when she didn't get the money right away, Yun became enraged. He told her he was through with her. Don't come home, he said.

She took a taxi to pick up the children at school. Later Yun called her at work. "He say, 'Close the shop, come to the house, I'm going to kill you,'" Ma recalls.

She never went back.

For a month, Ma and the children lived at a friend's house in Hancock Park. They had nothing. Their belongings were still at the townhouse. But Ashley and Alex were happy. In February, the three of them settled into a little apartment in Koreatown in a crowded neighborhood of fading bungalows with patchy front lawns and '60s apartment buildings with security doors.

On the wall near Ma's desk are photos of the children. Ashley was the adventurous child, the one who played volleyball and loved rock climbing and who, under her picture in her sixth-grade yearbook, wrote that she wanted to be a "fashion designer" when she grew up. Alex was the "gifted child," Ma says, the one who always left his backpack at the front door because he never had to study, the one who was disorganized and always losing things.

One day he stunned his mother with a suggestion: "Mommy, you should get a restraining order so daddy can't come." There had been a restraining order in place after the 2004 arrest. But Yun was standing next to her in the courtroom when the judge asked whether she wanted to lift it. Ma said yes.

She wishes she had been stronger.

She and her children had so many plans. In July they were going to stay with her parents in Virginia. In December they were going to buy a Christmas tree and string it with lights. The children had never had a tree, because their father was a Jehovah's Witness. Ashley loved to dance and wanted to learn hip-hop. In March her mother signed her up for a class. "She do only two Saturdays. She die the next day."

They had just three months together. "I feel very guilty," Ma says, wiping her eyes. "As a mother I should be protecting them. Every day I think about how they die. . . . I see them inside the car screaming."

Dae Kwon Yun, severely burned on his face, hands and legs, was hospitalized at County-USC Medical Center for several weeks after his arrest. On April 14 he was charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances, making him eligible for the death penalty. He has pleaded not guilty. As he awaits trial, he is being held without bail in Twin Towers Correctional Facility, in Tower One, on the seventh floor. The seventh floor is reserved for prisoners with special medical or mental health needs.

When asked how he plans to defend his client, Casey Lilienfeld, a 17-year veteran in the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office, says he is considering a cultural defense.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°