[This article was originally published in the Korea Times Bi-Lingual
Monthly in LA and was republished in IEKAS
I can't believe what I am seeing lately. It's
unreal -- the way LA Koreatown behaves oblivious to the outside world.
you know, I know, and every Korean born of the Korean womb knows why -- instinctively. It's in our blood. We can't
help it. It's in our cultural DNA since time immemorial. You can even see it with naked eyes. We Koreans, here in LA or
there in Korea, love to fight over this or that title and splinter into rival groups -- forever. It's that deja vu time again.
As the seismic shift is unfolding in LA's ethnic
and political landscape over the impending mayoral race, the Korean
immigrant community is merrily embroiled in feuding and splitting as if nothing else mattered. And the recurring squabbling
among major community organizations such as residents' associations, sports groups, and senior citizens, veterans, art and
culture, business women and church groups have driven the traditionally stoic Korean-language Hankook Ilbo daily
newspaper to diagnose this communal bickering as incurable. "This disease is not only incurable but it has
degenerated into a terminal case," lamented its March 23 editorial.
"It's not difficult to explain why the Korean community
has produced several hundred organizations." (Korean churches in
the Southland alone number more than1,000 and still counting.) As the editorial elaborated, "It's rooted in this chronic
disease of kamtoo-ssa-um."
To make sure, I looked up my favorite Korean dictionary
-- Dong-A's New Little English Dictionary -- which defines
"kamtoo" as "a horsehair cap formally worn by gentry or officials, a government post" and "kamtoo-ssa-um" as "a
struggle for an influential post." "Why Koreans form an organization?" the editorial posed the question with a touch
of sarcasm. "It's because Koreans love to fight so they can split and form another organization."
Little wonder. The LA Korean enclave boasts not only
hundreds of community organizations but thousands of presidents,
vice presidents, chairmen and chairwomen, commissioners and other titled officers.
No wonder. Most 1.5 and second genernation activists
on social action fronts have grown weary of getting entangled
with the Korean quicksands of kamtoo-ssa-um. Many of these future community leaders simply stay away from any
"Korean- type" activities -- with gusto.
the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission's post-riot study to observe that the Southland's Korean community remains
fragmented, unable to come up with a consensus or shared goals. Its somber conclusion: "This lack of a strong,
community-based mediating organization may be an important factor complicating relations between Koreans and the rest
of Los Angeles."
That was four years after LA Koreatown's 1992 fiery
siege wrecking the lives of 10,000 Korean victims. The situation has
hardly improved. Echoing the 1996 commission finding, the Hankook Ilbo bluntly summed up: "It's no exaggeration to
say the history of the LA Korean community is nothing but the history of feuding and splitting." It added a
despairing note, "We see there is no room for common sense or rational thinking."
A few days later, alarmed by a revival of feuding
among clergy groups over the impending Easter sunrise service, LA's
oldest Korean daily called on the Protestant clergy leadership to wake up and shape up.
"Again, a ministers' organization is causing a commotion,"
the editorial said more in exasperation than anger, pleading
with the leaders of the two bickering church federations to stop fighting over which group should stage the 30-year-old
annual communitywide Easter sunrise services -- warning against a repeat of last year's two separate sunrise worship
"This year's squabble, in essence, is nothing different
from the Korean community's persistent sickness of 'feuding over
title,'" said the Hankook Ilbo. "It started when one faction of disgruntled clergymen, unhappy with the election of a new
president, walked out and formed another rival group."
It's deja vu time. It goes back a century to the
Korean Diaspora in Hawaii. Amid all this perennial ritual of feuding,
I am haunted by what 84-year-old Ethan S. Kiehm, the first American-born Korean in Hawaii, told me a few years
before he passed away.
"Believe me, there was constant fighting among the
Koreans," recalled Kiehm, the lone American-born bilingual aide to
Syngman Rhee who would become the first President of the Republic of Korea. "That's something I can't get over. I
hated this fighting. Every time they had a meeting, somebody would stand up and start fighting.
"Whatever they wanted to do, they didn't agree. They
would argue. You are not right. I am right. Pretty soon there was
fighting going on. Sometimes fist fights, sometimes handguns. I would run out of those meetings. I would tell myself I
don't want to have any part of this. That was a sad sight. We young people (the second generation) couldn't figure out
why they were arguing and fighting. I think it's their temper. They couldn't control it. But that thing gradually died down
because everybody was getting too old to fight."
Ditto for his boss who would become the authoritarian
Father of the Country who wouldn't put up with any dissent.
"Rhee's stubbornness was in his blood. He didn't like anyone who didn't agree with him. Rhee had many enemies. He
was against the Dong-Rip-Tang, and Kook-Min-Hoi wouldn't go along with him. So he quit. He started his own
Kiehm, whose public life as a military officer and
later as a government official encompassed the full length of Korean
American history, said he quit working for Rhee two years later because of his autocratic rule
It's an eerie feeling when I hear similar despairing
refrains from American-born (second-generation) children of
our early Korean settlers in California at the dawn of this century. "This divisiveness is true not only among the new
immigrants but among the old ones," retired American Army Col. Young Oak Kim still active with the LA Korean
community told me in the early 1980s. "It's not so bad among the new as among my parents generation. It was bad.
So bad, for instance, former Olympic diving champion
Sammy Lee, who grew up with the colonel in LA, also told me
he quit going to the Korean church his parents had forced him to accompany them on Sundays, as soon as he grew old
enough to say no. "Those adults in church were fighting like dog and cat, sometimes with fists."
Colonel Kim fought with the all-Japanese American
442nd Regiment Combat Team against Germans in Italy and France,
rising to become the executive officer of the most-decorated military unit in World War II. As individuals, the colonel
observed, Koreans seem to be more intelligent and courageous and have more initiative than Germans, Italians and
Japanese. "But Koreans are often looking for a fight rather than looking for a common solution. It's almost as though
they seem to enjoy fighting for the fightings' sake. Sometimes what they are fighting over is so petty it's almost immaterial.
Whey are they so divisive? I have no answer."
After my half-century of observing and writing about
our fellow Koreans in a laboratory called America, an ancestral
voice inside of me says: "It's in our blood." Deep in my heart I sense our mortal foe lives in what our hero, Col. Young
Oak Kim, calls a "divisive heart."
And perhaps this ancient affliction will pass from
the Korean Americanscape as our first generation immigrants grow too
old to tear each other, reminiscent of what our first American- born Korean's prophetic warning.