TWO years after the worst riots in United States history made them symbols of America's troubled race relations, the world's largest Korean population outside Seoul (about 300,000) is struggling with a sense of diminished prospects on several fronts.
More than a third of 2,500 Korean-owned businesses damaged or destroyed in the Los Angeles riots remain closed. The promise of lasting, cross-cultural understanding, heralded by local leaders in the riots' aftermath, has foundered. Korean entrepreneurs who have spent decades cultivating neighborhood groceries find themselves battling new regulations that threaten their stores.
``In America's quintessentially diverse city, our overall situation is worse than before the riots,'' says Jerry Yu, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, a political advocacy group.
``On the surface, there is a state of relative calm,'' adds C. J. Lee, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. ``But the fundamental, underlying problems of interracial tension have not been addressed.''
Businesses owned by Korean-Americans were socked with an estimated $400 million in damages during the riots - 40 percent of the riots' $1 billion damage total. A general consensus among police and other officials was that many Korean businesses were targeted as symbols of success by looters and arsonists that swarmed the area following not-guilty verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial.
Rising crime rates, general fears of unrest in the area, and the sluggish California economy have all contributed to the undermining of efforts to revitalize Koreatown. A 1993 study by Dun & Bradstreet indicated that 40 percent of businesses in the Korean enclave shut down permanently within six months.
Too many not insured
Major problems included scores of business owners who were underinsured or totally uninsured. The inability to qualify for or obtain loans to rebuild has also vexed Korean American business owners. Complaints that federal and state officials spoke supportively but have failed to follow through also abound.
According to one study, more damaged buildings have been rebuilt or repaired in Koreatown than in other damaged areas - 82 percent in Koreatown versus 50 percent citywide. But many of the refurbished buildings are empty because of reduced sales in California's poor business climate.
``In many cases, Koreans ran businesses in buildings owned by others,'' says Craig Coleman, executive director of the Korea Society, a California-based group for US/Korea exchange. ``When the owners decided not to rebuild, Koreans got left out to dry.''
``Koreans got the double whammy,'' notes Charles Byun, incoming president of the Korean-American Grocers Association. The combination of recent disasters here has contributed to increases in Korean crime rates, suicide, and domestic violence, Mr. Byun says.
The Los Angeles Planning Commission's attempts to crack down on the number of liquor stores in South Central have added more economic problems in recent months. Bowing to public pressure over safety and social concerns, the commission has been calling store owners before city council hearings to demand that security quards be hired and hours limited.
The new crackdowns disproportionately impact Koreans because they own more small groceries that sell liquor than do others. Of 172 destroyed liquor stores that were Korean-owned, only six have reopened, according to Mehee Kim of the Korean-American Grocers Victim's Association.
Such social, legal, and economic battles have turned the past two years into a political wake-up call for Korean Americans to participate more fully in local politics. According to Professor Lee and others, major drives to register Koreans have followed the rioting. ``We have realized we must make the effort to consolidate and demonstrate our political power,'' he says.
Hurting the prospects of local candidates, however, has been the negative image of Koreans portrayed in local media, say several observers. ``Friction is inevitable in this city with over 100 nationalities trying to live in harmony,'' says Jerry Yu of the Korean American Coalition. ``But there still seems to be this tendency of making any conflict, including a Korean one, into a racially motivated episode.''
The latest example is the shooting last month of an Hispanic youth by a Korean grocer. It was compared with the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African American by a Korean grocer in 1991. ``The newspapers and several politicians seem to make hay out of this at our expense,'' says Yu. He notes that 46 Korean Americans were shot in Los Angeles in 1993, 19 of them fatally.
Despite the rough times for Koreans here, says Professor Lee, the riots have accelerated an understanding in the Korean community that much has to be done on many fronts to adapt to their host country.