LOS ANGELES — THE world's largest Korean population outside Seoul (about 300,000) finds itself at the heart of this city's widening search for ways to best heal its riot-torn communities.
No single or collective Korean action led to the widespread violence that erupted here after the Rodney King verdict. But a dramatic surge in the number of Koreans here over 25 years has made them both de facto symbols and unwitting studies for much that is both right and troublesome in American urban race relations.
Embraced by some and vilified by others for the aggressive entrepreneurship that undergirds the economies of many poor areas here, Korean businesses are seen as a key to recovery.
"We Koreans have much to learn about the country we have adopted," says C. J. Lee, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Noting that differences in culture and language had attracted local anger well before recent riots destroyed more than 1,800 Korean businesses, Dr. Lee adds: "But we have much to offer and teach as well."
Two weeks after tensions flared here, Koreans and blacks alike say relations remain tense.
Even as the spirit of cleanup has embraced several communities, blacks have picketed Korean businesses with such signs as "Koreans are greedy," "Koreans are outsiders," "The American Dream is now an American Nightmare."
Korean leaders hasten to point out that whatever list of grievances other races have tallied against them, the Korean community is not among the major causes of recent strife: recession, government neglect of cities, flaws in justice and policing systems, poor education.
Reeling from estimates of $400 million in damage to Korean businesses, the same leaders say they are facing somewhat opposing pressures: to pull together for political and economic clout and to integrate with the larger society, forge coalitions and transcend their own generational rifts.
"There is no question we must turn our present isolation into voting power with our numbers," says Eui-Young Yu, chairman of the Koreatown Emergency Relief Society. "When we looked to high places for help [during the rioting] we saw none of our own kind."
"We must reach out as never before to Hispanics, Anglos, blacks, and others to build understanding," says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona.
More than at any time in city history, these sentiments have moved beyond wishful thinking, according to Craig Coleman, an Anglo specialist on Korea and executive director of the Korea Society, a California-based organization for US/Korea exchange.
"From grass-roots gatherings to serious examination at the university level, Koreans are trying to conciliate, explain, understand," says Dr. Coleman.
A major symposium on black/Korea relations tomorrow and Saturday has attracted top sociologists, businessmen, members of the clergy, and community activists. Several Korean relief organizations have set up tandem operations with blacks, Hispanics, and Anglos.
According to several observers, symposium attendants will address lists of grievances based on cultural and language differences. The history of Korea as a hermit kingdom under siege by oppressors from Japan to China will shed light on what several blacks have called an oppressive insularity.
"They come in here and build up great businesses but then they keep to themselves," says Denise Harlins, African-American director of the Latasha Harlins Foundation. "They don't seem to care about the community."
"Blacks misunderstand how Koreans pull together to make their businesses work," says Coleman. "They need to realize they come from a system where there is no welfare or social security to back them up - it's either work or starve."
Several historians have noted that inwardness among new immigrant communities is more the rule than exception - from Poles to Germans, to Mexicans to Irish. Only 7,000 Koreans lived in Los Angeles County as recently as 1970.
Though such insularity is reinforced by Korean-language television, newspapers and radio, second generation Koreans are showing far greater willingness to assimilate through local schools.
Other complaints - that Koreans don't understand American business etiquette or government hierarchy - are being addressed on more formal levels. The Korea Society, for instance, is seeking money to produce civics and socialization training for Koreans. Such training might involve television classes, history lessons on other races, and the political structure of American government.
Other historians point out that Korean/black friction is not unique to Los Angeles or to the aftermath of rioting.
In 1989, blacks boycotted Korean stores in New York after an incident between a Korean grocer and a black customer. The killing of black teenager Latasha Harlins in March 1991, by a Korean shopkeeper here had also been a factor before the Rodney King verdict.
"The black/Korean issue in Los Angeles today is simply an articulation of deeper unresolved societal problems that end up getting manifested through confrontation," says Louis Jenkins, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and a counselor who specializes in black/Korean relations.