South Koreans whistle-stop in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles attorney William Kil is a U.S. citizen, an active Republican and unable to vote in Wednesday’s South Korean presidential election.

But for weeks, Kil, a member of the LAPD’s Police Permit Review Panel, has been working hard to promote the leading candidate, Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party. Kil even got his brother to hang a campaign banner on a Wilshire Boulevard building he owns.

Supporters of Lee’s opponents, meanwhile, also have been campaigning, even though they too can’t vote for or contribute to candidates in Korea. Their campaigning is another example of how Los Angeles, home to the highest concentration of Koreans outside Asia, influences life in South Korea.

“Supporters in Los Angeles are not only noticed in Seoul but could influence the outcome of the election,” said Ky Chueon Kim, a professor emeritus of business management at Nambu University in South Korea. “That’s why you see their top advisors coming to Los Angeles to drum up support.”

This weekend, Kil joined other volunteers who promoted their candidates at crowded Korean markets and at Los Angeles International Airport.


It’s also why Kil belongs to a group -- the Hanminjok Network, chaired by Koreatown physician Yong Tai Lee -- that bought full-page ads in Korean-language newspapers, listing names of the candidate’s supporters in the community. These are the Los Angeles editions of two leading Seoul newspapers with sister papers in major U.S. cities. They are readily available on the Internet.

Korean Americans say the election will affect not only the welfare of their loved ones back in Asia, but also their own. “Friendly U.S.-Korea relations would help Koreans settling in the United States -- economically, socially, politically,” said Kil, 47, who immigrated with his family when he was 14.

One hot-button issue among older Koreans in the U.S. -- many of them originally from North Korea -- is Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang. Generally anti-Communist and grateful for U.S. help during the Korean War, older Koreans believe President Roh Myoo-hyun has made too many concessions to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and has been less than friendly to the United States.

On this issue especially, Korean Americans are viewed as a resource -- people whose knowledge and opinions can help Koreans understand the “American way of thinking,” said Kim, the business professor, who is also a member of the Los Angeles County Small Business Commission. “You can call it Korean-American power, know-how. Whatever you call it, they value our opinions and expertise.”

There are other considerations, too. Some see financial gain or a possible appointment in the new government. Others want to cultivate ties with the winning team that would position them as potential power brokers in Koreatown or at least guarantee invitations to receptions when South Korean dignitaries visit L.A.

So Korean politics -- L.A. style -- continues with vigor. Last week in Koreatown, more than 200 Lee Myung-bak supporters came to the Garden Suites Hotel to show their solidarity, one of several such events.

“It’s our responsibility to make that [phone] call to Korea” to get out the vote, Scarlett Eum, vice president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, told bejeweled women in designer attire and men in dark suits and silk ties. Over their finery, many wore a blue campaign shirt bearing a famous Lee quote: “My fellow Koreans in America, be successful!”

Inside the hotel, festooned with blue and white balloons and pictures of the candidate, supporters welcomed Yoon Tak Sang, a special advisor to Lee who had traveled from Seoul.

“I am overwhelmed by the fervor of the support,” Yoon said. When he saw the supporters, he said, “the fatigue from the long flight vanished.”

“This is wonderful -- everyone is here!” said attorney Andrew K. Kim, who once tried his hand at U.S. politics by running for the Assembly. “This shows there is unity within the community.”

Nine days earlier, a different and a younger set held a rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center for Chung Dong-young, the nominee of the ruling liberal United New Democratic Party. Numbering about 100, they were just as passionate in their political talk as Lee’s supporters, though their rally lacked similar affluent trappings. One speaker thanked attendees for picking up the $12 parking fee.

Donning orange campaign shirts, Chung’s supporters watched a video of his life story and heard speakers depict Chung as “clean and honest” while deriding Lee as corrupt and mired in scandals.

Even politicians not running for president seek Korean American support. National Assemblyman Yoo Jay Kun, who attributes his election 12 years ago to support from his friends and classmates in Los Angeles, flew in from Seoul for the Chung rally.

Yoo, a social worker-turned-lawyer, practiced law in Koreatown before returning to Seoul to work as a TV talk show host, later entering politics.

“Every single person in L.A. has more than 10 persons to contact,” said Yoo, an advisor of candidate Chung. “This is a very influential group. Twelve years ago, when I ran for the first time, so many friends of mine in L.A. contacted their friends. I owe them so much.” Now they can do the same for Chung, he said.

Walter Ik-Hyun Cho, another Koreatown businessman, is leading the support committee for the third major presidential candidate, Lee Hoi-chang.

“He is the most stable and qualified candidate,” Cho said, citing Lee Hoi-Chang’s long experience as a jurist, legislator and prime minister. Lee Hoi-chang supporters have not held public events, though they have given interviews to the local Korean-language news media.

But Kee-Whan Ha, a prominent Koreatown businessman who organized a fundraiser for then-mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, doesn’t think the attention to the homeland politics is healthy.

“They should forget about politics in Korea,” said Ha, a former president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles. “If they decide to live in America as permanent residents and citizens, they should be more concerned about politics here.”

Whatever their perspective, Seoul and Los Angeles are inextricably connected.

“We have our hearts in both places,” said Yong Tai Leewho as president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles organized a fundraiser for James K. Hahn in his unsuccessful bid for a second term as mayor.

No wonder South Korean politicians refer to Los Angeles as Nasung-gu -- meaning L.A. District of Seoul.