Koreans in Baltimore feel for West Coast brethren

May 02, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

Byung Soh, the Korean owner of a Park Heights Avenue variety store, has watched the television images of Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles being looted and set ablaze over the past two days with anguish and apprehension.

"Korean people aren't the enemy of black people," Mr. Soh, 37, said yesterday. "We're another minority, right? We work 60, 70 hours a week."

Robin McFadden, the black owner of a Lafayette Market deli, watched the news video of Korean merchants firing pistols at a crowd of black looters in the midst of the Los Angeles riot with bitter anger.

"I'm sure that stuff was insured, so why are they shooting people? Why don't they shoot in the air?" said Ms. McFadden, 36, between lunch-hour customers. She said she considered the looting and arson "stupid. What are people going to say someday -- 'I used to live here until my father burned the neighborhood down?' "

Baltimore's approximately 4,000 Korean merchants and the poor black neighborhoods where many of their shops are located were nervously following the news from across the country yesterday as Korean and black community leaders worked to ease the tensions they acknowledge exist here.

Televised reports of the Los Angeles violence have dramatized clashes between black rioters and Korean merchants who, as in Baltimore and many other U.S. cities, are virtually the only non-black business people in some black areas. The South Korean government yesterday called on officials in Washington and Los Angeles to provide greater protection for Korean-Americans in the riot-torn city.

Andrew Lee, president of the Korean Society of Maryland, spoke on the city's small Korean-language radio station to urge merchants to avoid arguments with customers. "I said, 'Please TC treat the customers very kindly. Close the store a little early tonight and this weekend. Go home and stay home.' We should be very, very careful," said Mr. Lee, 47, owner of a North Avenue liquor store.

Mr. Lee said he and many other Korean-Americans see themselves as innocent outsiders caught in the cross-fire of an old American racial conflict. "This happened between blacks and whites, this Rodney King case. Why are Korean businesses being sacrificed?" he asked.

A window was smashed Thursday night above Mr. Soh's store, and when the alarm company awoke him at home, he said he immediately thought of the Los Angeles rioting. But two neighboring black-owned stores also had windows smashed, so the merchants concluded the vandalism was not racially motivated.

Jai Ryu, a Korean professor of sociology at Loyola College and an aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said the scenes from Los Angeles recall a Korean proverb: "When whales fight, shrimps get killed." He emphasized that Korean-Americans, like most of the country, were shocked and upset by the acquittal of the police officers videotaped beating Rodney King.

"The sympathy of Koreans is really with the victim. They consider themselves victims of racism and prejudice," Mr. Ryu said. "But this sharing of sympathy is not only not understood, it's met with anger and violence."

Mr. Ryu, who has worked for years to ease tensions between Koreans and blacks in Baltimore, said he believes the two groups are far less polarized here than in Los Angeles, New York and some other cities.

Interviews with black customers revealed considerable hostility to the Korean merchants, who are widely, but mistakenly, believed to have received special government assistance in establishing their businesses. In fact, Mr. Ryu said, Koreans generally launch their businesses with money pooled by friends and relatives in an informal, revolving loan fund.

He said tensions result largely from language problems and cultural misunderstandings, an observation confirmed by a day of watching transactions between the merchants and their customers. Both walked away from some exchanges in frustration over an inability to understand each other.

Mr. Soh stood expressionless in his store while John Stewart, 52, a real estate agent who had stopped in, denounced Korean merchants in a loud voice. "They think only of themselves. Blacks have been here for years, and they don't get any tax-free dollars," Mr. Stewart said.

Asked if he was surprised by the riots, he replied, "I knew it was going to happen. It should have happened long ago. I don't condone it, but I don't feel sorry about it, either."

Mijin Heo, a Korean art student at Towson State University who works part time in the shop, interjected: "So you want it to happen?"

"I want people to wake up and smell the coffee," Mr. Stewart said.

The visibility and scale of the Korean presence in many retail locations also has contributed to black resentment. In the city-run markets in 1981, there were 37 blacks and 17 Koreans among the 223 merchants. Last month, in the six remaining markets, of 159 merchants, 14 are black and 56 are Korean, said Dick Davis, director of the markets.

"Why blacks are moving out I can't say. We've certainly encouraged them," he said. "The Koreans just keep coming."

A few black customers in Korean shops said they get along well and appreciate the convenience of neighborhood shopping.

"If a Korean business was not in the community, it would be just a vacant lot," said Rodney Hamlett, 23, a home improvement salesman and actor who stopped in Mr. Soh's shop. "That's sad, but it's a fact."

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