In U.S., Koreans seek political clout

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In U.S., Koreans seek political clout

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The Korean community in California showcases hanbok attire and traditional dance and music at the four-day 40th annual Los Angeles Korean Festival last month. [NEWSIS]

It has been 110 years since the first Koreans, a group of 86 immigrants, settled in Hawaii in 1903. Now the 2.18 million Koreans in the United States have built a strong and influential network there.

On Aug. 1, the Council of Korean Americans held an inaugural meeting of the “Community and Congressional Leaders Event” at the White House in Washington. About 170 Korean-Americans participated.

The council is a nonprofit organization of Korean-American leaders founded in 2007. At the leaders’ meeting in August, the topics for discussion included Korea-U.S. relations, immigration reform, health care and North Korea. Sam Yoon, president of the council, said, “Through discussing the Korean community’s situation with U.S. congressman, we look forward to building the political influence of Koreans in America.”

“The CKA event was an important opportunity to convey the presence of the Korean community to U.S. politicians” said Kang Do-ho, Korea’s consul general in Washington.

But despite their numbers, Koreans’ advance into U.S. politics has not met the community’s expectations despite the success of some other Asian-American lobby groups. There are no Korean-Americans in the Senate or the House of Representatives; nor do any serve as state governors, federal cabinet secretaries or other senior leaders.

By comparison, there are Japanese-American senators and representatives and two Indian-American governors, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Daniel Inouye (1924-2012), the first Japanese-American to serve in House of Representatives and the Senate, represented Hawaii as a Democrat from 1963 until his death last year. He was also the highest ranking Asian-American in U.S. politics as president pro tempore of the Senate in 2010-12.

The drive for a Korean political voice stems from the April 1992 racial riots in Los Angeles. Arson, looting and 55 deaths erupted in the wake of the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of a black American motorist, Rodney King. Korean immigrants’ businesses, especially around the Los Angeles Koreatown district, were frequent targets. Of the roughly 10,000 businesses which were damaged, 2,800 were owned by Koreans, who accused the police of focusing on protecting white neighborhoods.

Steve Choi, president of the Korean-American Association of Washington Metropolitan Area and CEO of IL Creations, a food service company, said, “The first generation [of Korean-Americans] were too busy earning a living to be concerned about building political power, but following the LA riots, the Korean community felt to the core what was needed in order to survive in the United States.”

“Individual sweat and blood can make a small business, but to expand into a large business I realized through my 47 years living as an immigrant here that some political background is needed,” said Matthew Duk-sun Lee, founder and chairman emeritus of the communications services provider Allied Technology Group. “For the Korean community to advance one step further, we need to produce influential politicians.

After the Los Angeles riots, immigrant Koreans who grew up in the United States and ethnic Koreans born there became more active in politics; about 10 ethnic Koreans currently hold state or local offices.

Ward D of Jersey City, New Jersey, has about 20,000 eligible voters, of which only six were Korean. But a Korea-born business owner, Michael Yun, was elected to the city council from that ward in elections in June. Yun, 59, moved to the United States to study in 1979 and has lived in Jersey City for more than 30 years. He is noted for having founded Jersey City’s first special improvement district in 1992 and served as the district’s president and chairman of the board of trustees for more than 20 years.

Other Koreans in office include Korea-born Democrat Mark Keam, 47, representing the 35th District in the Virginia House of Delegates and Korea-born Assemblyman Ron Kim, who won a seat in the state assembly from the 40th District in New York in 2012. He was the first Korean-American elected to office in New York state.

Korea-born Michelle Park Steel, 58, is vice chair of the California Board of Equalization. She was elected to the board in 2006 and as vice chair in 2011. A Republican representative for the board’s Third District, which includes Orange County, San Diego and parts of Los Angeles, Steel represents 8.5 million people and is the highest ranking Korean-American officeholder in the United States and the highest ranking Republican woman in California.

Steel told the JoongAng Ilbo that she decided to run for the Board of Equalization, which is in charge of tax administration and fee collection, after her mother, a first-generation immigrant to the United States, had to pay a fine she considered unfair. “I didn’t want taxpayers to face unfair conditions as my family did,” Steel said.

She added, “My ultimate goal is to become the first Korean woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. I look forward to an opportunity in the 2017 elections.”

Steel has also kicked off a campaign for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors in June 2014. “You have to start training in politics from a young age. More important than grades is networking,” she advised aspiring young politicians.

Korea-born Jay Kim, a U.S. representative from California from 1993-99, was the first Korean-American to be elected to U.S. Congress. But he ran for re-election in 1998 despite having pleaded guilty a year earlier to massive campaign finance violations. After deciding to run for re-election (unsuccessfully), he was abandoned by the Republican Party, which officially backed no contender for his district’s seat.

The president of Korean American Civic Empowerment, Kim Dong-chan, 46, has been mobilizing Korean-American voters in New York and New Jersey ahead of the New York City mayoral elections in November and gubernatorial elections next year.

KACE, a nonprofit organization founded in New York City in 1996 to empower the Korean-American community, has since July pushed the “8080 campaign,” to boost registration among eligible Korean voters to 80 percent and their voter participation to 80 percent in the next decade.

Kim said, “Following the LA riots, anxiety among youths exploded, but most Koreans did not know that even if they had lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years and had U.S. citizenship, they could not cast a vote unless they had registered.”

“High voter registration and participation in elections will be the driving force to protect the rights and interests of the Korean community,” he said.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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