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Korean Americans Fear Ramifications of Nuclear Test

October 31, 2006 at 3:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, reaction of Korean-Americans to the North Korea nuclear crisis. NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has that story.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: Seattle is home to 50,000 Korean-Americans. And on Sundays, many gather to worship at churches like this one.

The nuclear showdown on the Korean Peninsula has made this a tortured time for some of America’s two million Korean-Americans, including Pastor Edward Park.

EDWARD PARK, Pastor (through translator): We are setting a foundation all over the world to set a conflict that cannot be solved by any nations.

LEE HOCHBERG: Many congregants at Hansarang Korean Church still have family in Korea. The pastor’s four sisters and two brothers live in South Korea. He worries about their future, now that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said he conducted a nuclear test. Pastor Park says he begged his siblings last week to move away from Korea.

EDWARD PARK: What’s next? What’s next? And we’ve been so naive; we’ve been manipulated. We’ve got to confront them. There’s no other way.

Worries about Jong Il's actions

LEE HOCHBERG: Congregants were worried, too: 67-year-old Jim Kim was born and raised in Seoul.

JIM KIM: You may not think that he would actually use it? How do you know he's not going to use it? Does it not really hit you? It does hit me.

LEE HOCHBERG: Though the Bush administration has rejected American military action in North Korea, Edward Chong, who served eight years in the U.S. Army in South Korea, called for a U.S.-led regime change.

EDWARD CHONG: The United States, we have a superpower, the United States, in the world. We cannot just, you know, wait too long. Just finish it up; that's what I would do.

LEE HOCHBERG: And Pukil Larson, who's bringing up her two children in Seattle, worried about how Korea's next generation would be affected by radiation.

PUKIL LARSON: Everybody going to be disability and sick and hurt. And I'm more worried about the, you know, third generation, is that they're going to get hurt.

S. Korea should stop aid, some say

LEE HOCHBERG: The quest for news from Korea has been voracious in the Korean-American community since the nuclear test. Seattle's 24-hour Korean TV station broadcast frequent updates from Seoul, shown in restaurants and grocery stores.

The community's elders, first-generation immigrants with more than a half-century of Korea-watching, dismissed Kim Jong Il's recent apology for the nuclear test.

YULMO DONG: Angry plus horrible things he feels.

LEE HOCHBERG: Yulmo Dong lived two years under communist rule in North Korea.

YULMO DONG: There's no such a cruel dictatorship in the world, only Kim Jong Il.

LEE HOCHBERG: The men said the test should mean an end to South Korea's sunshine policy toward the North. Under that policy, the South has tried to build relations with the North, promoting reunions between families divided by the border and sending millions in financial and humanitarian aid to the North.

Eighty-seven-year-old Won Cho says he assumes now that money was misused.

WON CHO: They tested the nuclear weapon. I think they need a lot of money for that. Where come from the money? They do not enough money for eat. Where come from money?

DAVID CHUNG: We sending a lot of foods and everything, but that's not going to the bottom of the line. They're still dying; they're still starve to die.

LEE HOCHBERG: David Chung came from South Korea in 1971.

DAVID CHUNG: As long as we help them, cash or anything, foods or whatever, it goes to a special group over in North Korea. And also for the helping for the more weapons, more missiles, they're using their money only for that.

LEE HOCHBERG: The nuclear test also rallied Korean-Americans across the country. Dozens gathered outside South Korea's consulate in Los Angeles, demanding an end to North Korea's nuclear development.

And in the suburbs around the nation's capital, America's third-largest Korean-American community, the nuclear test dashed support for a unified Korea.

Jonathon Lee grew up 10 miles south of the 38th Parallel, the border with North Korea. He immigrated to the U.S. 32 years ago. Today, he owns the Korean Bakery in Annandale, Virginia. He says that, even though peaceful reunification has been an important part of Korean national identity, the concept is now dead.

JONATHON LEE: We think, the majority in the United States and Korea, if we have the -- if North Korea has a nuclear bomb, I don't think any nation want to be a united Korea.

Younger generation worries less

LEE HOCHBERG: But some younger Korean-Americans, born long after the Korean War and coming to the U.S. as teenagers in the 1970s -- those Koreans call Generation 1.5 -- seem less distressed by the nuclear developments. Yoonmee Chang teaches Asian-American studies at George Mason University.

YOONMEE CHANG, George Mason University: It's sort of an alarmist response that people have been having, and I think North Korea is a long ways away from actually having a viable bomb that they will use.

LEE HOCHBERG: Realtor Taupin Yun came from South Korea at age 18. He notes, for all of the worry in this country's Korean community, there's considerably less concern in his homeland.

TAUPIN YUN: Korean people living in South Korea, they see North Korea as a, you know, brother. So they never expect -- I don't think they really expect that North Korea really attack South Korea.

YOONMEE CHANG: I think the test is just symbolic, right, so that Kim Jong Il is doing this to, you know, to insult the international community and I think to insult the United States in particular. I mean, this is about national sovereignty in some way, right?

So it's always the question of, why does the United States say, "Oh, you can't have nuclear weapons, but these people can"? When India does it, it's not, you know, alarming, but when North Korea does it, it is. The effect of what they did seems to be aimed not at South Korea, at least in my perception.

LEE HOCHBERG: It was a hopeful view that left Young Kim, the president of Washington's Korean-American Association, unconvinced. He grew up in South Korea.

YOUNG KIM, President, Korean-American Association of Greater Washington: Most of the South Korean people is not realize how serious this testing is going to be or how serious it can be, changing their everyday life in the future.

LEE HOCHBERG: Unsure what to make of the news from their homeland, many Korean-Americans were left simply praying that the worst doesn't come to pass.