Nuclear crisis in homeland alarms Baltimore area Koreans

June 19, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

When the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula began to heat up recently, June Park Sunpun got worried. "When I see it on the TV, I get scared," she said. "I'm really afraid."

Then she called her sister in Seoul, the South Korean capital, who calmed her fears.

"She says everything fine back there," said Mrs. Park, 61, who runs a dry cleaner and tailoring shop on 31st Street near St. Paul in Baltimore.

If this reassurance wasn't enough for her, Mrs. Park then spoke to a friend in Owings Mills who had just phoned her sister in Seoul.

"She say it's OK, too," said Mrs. Park. "She tell me she's going to go there in September."

Mrs. Park has many relatives to worry about in Korea. "My sister, my cousin, my second cousin -- all my family is there," she said. And her son, a career officer in the U.S. Army based in Kansas, will be transferred to South Korea in August, another reason to worry. Or not to, depending on where you are.

Then there are her own experiences -- World War II, the Korean War and, from the latter, an appreciation of the violent capabilities of North Korea and its leader. "With the Communists, you never know. Kim Il-Sung, I think he's crazy," she said.

Mrs. Park is one among about 100,000 Korean people in the Baltimore-Washington area. The great majority are from South Korea. Since the possibility emerged that hostilities might break out, sparked by North Korea's suspected efforts to run a clandestine nuclear weapons program and the U.S. attempt to prevent that, many area Koreans have been calling home and making their views known to Korean language newspapers and radio stations here.

A faint pattern is evident: like Mrs. Park, Koreans in this area seem more disturbed by the events than those in South Korea do. This is not to suggest that the Korean community here is in a state of anxiety, nor that calm reigns in South Korea.

But there is a difference, and the Rev. Chang Ho Kim thinks he knows why. So do a few other local Koreans.

"The people in South Korea hope nothing will happen, but that's wishful thinking," said Mr. Kim of the Salt and Light Presbyterian Church in Timonium. "The people here are more alarmed because there is a free press in the U.S. so everybody knows what is going on."

"In South Korea, even though it is a democratic country," he said, "they still control information to prevent panic."

Mr. Kim's apprehensive view grows from his experiences. He is 59 and was born in North Korea. He fled with his family to the South when he was 12.

The family endured the rough occupation of Seoul by the North Koreans during the early stages of the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. His older brother hid for months in the ceiling of their house to escape conscription into the Communist army before it was driven back to the North.

Mr. Kim (he was ordained last year) came to the United States in 1967, but his memories of the North Koreans remain vivid. "You have to be very careful with them," he said. "Their past behavior shows they are unpredictable and irrational."

Jai P. Ryu, a sociologist at Loyola College, has another theory to explain the apparent difference in the level of concern displayed by Korean expatriates and those back home. It's simple denial, he said.

"They have had a hot war and a continuing cold war. So what has developed with living through this tension is a peculiar view that they can block this out. They like to believe nobody would start a war. That kind of catastrophe is unthinkable. So they have decided not to think about it. That's how Koreans have lived for half a century."

The level of anxiety prevalent among Koreans in the Baltimore-Washington area, of course, varies. It is determined by the number of relatives who remain in Korea, by how long they have been in this country and even by the demands of everyday life.

"I'm worried, but I don't know much about it," said Chin Nan, the owner of a supermarket at Maryland and North avenues, as he supervised the unloading of a truck. "Right now I'm too busy [earning] my bread and the bread of my family."

Mr. Nan, who immigrated to this country about a decade ago, expressed a sentiment heard from another respondent to a small telephone sample of Koreans: helplessness.

"I don't know much about it, so I can't tell you anything," he said. "And I can't worry about it. There is nothing I can do."

Joanne Pack, 25, a secretary at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, said she talks about it with her family and friends: "We know this is something totally uncomfortable and we are unhappy about this. But we feel we can't do anything about it."

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