Column: A new book traces the challenges and opportunities for a growing Korean American community

Korean American lawyer and activist Grace Yoo protests a gerrymandering of Los Angeles City Council districts that diluted Koreatown's political voice in 2012. Yoo later ran for a council seat and lost to incumbent Herb Wesson.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“For the Korean American community, in recent years things have started to become better,” Hyepin Im told me from her Wilshire Boulevard office in Koreatown. “But we still have a ways to go.”

Im, whose career in community service was inspired by the experience of living through the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is describing the long, complicated journey for the Korean American community from the outsidership of first-generation immigrants to acceptance.

Im is one of the scores of advocates, entrepreneurs and established business leaders who populate a new book about the history and challenges of one of Southern California’s most vibrant ethnic communities. “The Korean-American Dream,” published last month by the University of Nevada Press, is the latest work by James Flanigan, who was the Los Angeles Times’ business columnist for 20 years of his more than half-century career as a business journalist.


The Korean Americans who really make it in America don’t see America as a foreign land.

— Jihee Huh, Pacific American Fish Co.

Flanigan came to this topic naturally. As followers of his writings in The Times for 20 years will recognize, he always showed a deep interest in immigrants and entrepreneurs and their impact on Southern California’s society and economy. In the ethnic fabric of this region, South Koreans stood out on several counts, including the turbulent history of their country of origin.

Though less numerous than other Asian immigrant groups such as those from China or India, Flanigan writes, Koreans “have shown uncommon eagerness to secure what they call ‘a seat at the table’ in the American community.”

Flanigan traces the rise of the Korean American community through the achievements of some of its preeminent business leaders. There’s David Lee, a Korean immigrant with a medical degree from Northwestern University who joined with eight other Korean doctors and dentists to buy a Wilshire Boulevard office building for $6 million in 1995, during a real estate slump.

“Within a few years, with the recovery, it was worth $20 million,” Flanigan told me. Now Lee’s Jamison Services ranks among the largest property owners in Los Angeles, with more than $3 billion in holdings. The source of the original capital was quintessentially Asian — a financial pool known as a keh, which consists of the resources of a dozen or so members of a group.

And Yang Ho Cho, chairman of Korean Air, whose dream to build a landmark edifice as an “icon of the Korean community in Los Angeles” was fulfilled last year with the opening of the $1.35-billion Wilshire Grand Center, an office and hotel skyscraper that is the tallest building in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.

“The Korean Americans who really make it in America don’t see America as a foreign land,” says Jihee Huh, who came to the U.S. with her family at age 7 and now serves as president of new business development at Pacific American Fish Co., a Vernon seafood import-export firm that was founded by her father-in-law in 1977 as a one-person operation and now has 300 workers under the leadership of her husband, Peter, and his brother, Paul. “My mom raised us to think that this was our homeland. That’s the consensus of my friends, who feel very blessed to be here.”

As Flanigan reports, it has not always been clear to the Korean Americans that their devotion to the U.S. is fully reciprocated. The defining event for the community, even more than a quarter-century later, is the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

“With the riots, the Korean community woke up,” Flanigan says. “They saw the local government and the police, and realized they weren’t any part of that.”

The riots cost 63 lives, among them 18-year-old Edward Song Lee, who was attempting to protect shops in Koreatown when he was shot by fellow Korean Americans who mistook him for a looter. Of the estimated $1 billion in property damage sustained in the nearly weeklong riots, more than 45% was suffered by Koreans (more than 60%, by some Korean estimates), in part because Korean-owned shops were targeted by rioters and looters.

“The riots told us that greater self-reliance was needed,” says Koreatown attorney Grace Yoo, former executive director of the Korean American Coalition, which advocates for the civic and civil rights interests of the community. “The LAPD did not come to our rescue. I remember Radio Korea broadcasting where people were trapped in their buildings and needed help. Civilians would go in and try to rescue them.”

Among Koreans, the riots are known by the term “Saigu,” for “4-2-9,” signifying April 29, the day the riots began. “Even though we had incurred all that damage, instead of being treated as victims, we were — and still are — depicted as perpetrators,” says Hyepin Im, who was in her mid-20s at the time of the riots.

The friction between Korean store owners and their largely African American customer base reflected a phenomenon well known to sociologists and business analysts: the problem of “middleman minorities,” or groups that “serve members of a different ethnic group than their own, often members of another oppressed community,” as UC sociologists Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich put it in a 1991 study of Koreans in Los Angeles. The middleman minority structure, they wrote, “easily becomes a node of social conflict.”

Korean entrepreneurs came to occupy the small merchant sector in the black community largely because larger retailers shunned those neighborhoods. But as Light and Bonacich predicted, tensions between shop owners and their customers ran high — reaching a fever pitch after March 1991, when 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean shop owner who took her for a shoplifter. The store owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation and community service, but no jail time. A state appeals court upheld the sentence just days before the riots erupted — one of the “sparks that lit a long, consuming fire,” Flanigan writes.

The riots helped steer Im toward a career in community organizing, and to her founding in 2001 of Korean Churches for Community Development, now known as Faith and Community Empowerment, which brings together resources from Korean churches and other institutions for programs to address homelessness, build up homeownership and offer leadership training for young Korean Americans.

Im’s model was the FAME Renaissance Capital nonprofit founded by the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, where she worked part time while studying toward her MBA at USC business school. “They were not only able to leverage resources, but their partners now had a vested interest in their success.”

The riots were not all that awakened the Korean American community to the need for better political representation. More recently, President Trump’s attack on immigration, including legal immigration, has become a pressure point. Trump’s campaign includes his efforts to end or undermine the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA was launched by President Obama in 2012 to protect individuals brought into the U.S. illegally as children, by deferring deportations and opening their path to a work permit.

South Koreans make up the largest group of DACA recipients, or “Dreamers,” from Asia, ahead of immigrants from the Philippines and India; the more than 7,300 DACA recipients born in South Korea are the sixth-largest group by country of origin (though far behind Mexico’s roughly 550,000).

Trump’s policies represent a sharp reversal from the liberalized immigration system created by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which encouraged family unification and openness to those with skills. Flanigan labels the act “the law that made Asian America”: The law helped expand the Asian population of the U.S. to more than 20 million today from 980,000 in 1960. Largely as a result of the law, Flanigan reports, the Korean community in the U.S. has swelled to nearly 2 million (as of 2016) from 69,000 in 1970. Among other attacks on immigration policies that have become ingrained in American law and policy, Trump has expressed opposition to family unification, which he denigrates as “chain migration.”

Despite these incentives for activism, the Korean American political awakening is still a work in progress. A record six Korean Americans ran for Congress this year, but only one prevailed — Democrat Andy Kim of New Jersey, who became the first Korean American to serve in Congress since Republican Jay Kim represented a Southern California district in the 1990s. Of the other five, three lost in their party primaries and two in the general election this month. The latter included Young Kim, a Republican who lost her race to succeed the retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).

In Los Angeles, Korean Americans celebrated the election of David Ryu to the City Council in 2015 as the council’s first member of the community. His election was a triumph, but not entirely an unalloyed one.

As Flanigan observed, Ryu doesn’t represent a predominantly Korean American or even Asian American district. Koreatown itself still lacks a council member from its community, the consequence of a 2012 redistricting that diluted its political voice by situating it in two council districts. Grace Yoo, who ran to represent Council District 10, which includes part of Koreatown, lost lopsidedly in 2015 to incumbent Herb Wesson.

“We have physical differences, so we’re perpetual foreigners,” Huh says. “That’s sometimes quite evident and sometimes disheartening, but it won’t stop me from engaging with the mainstream and making sure that we don’t get marginalized.”

The Korean American experience resembles that of many other ethnic groups that have become part of the American fabric, including a devotion to education and to moving further up with each generation into professional career echelons.

But there are differences. Hostility to Asian immigration has a long history in the U.S. “Chinese people came to ‘Gold Mountain’ in the 1850s only to see immigration of Chinese laborers curtailed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” Flanigan writes. (It wasn’t repealed until 1943.) “Japanese-born immigrants could not be naturalized; even their U.S.-born children, who were citizens, were shamefully sent to internment camps during World War II. But Korean immigrants, for all their rude awakening in the 1992 riots, have been able to educate their children and attain recognition and welcome.”

The Korean community, he concludes, “is both a piece of the American fabric and a light shining toward America’s future.”

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