Tag Archives: politics

Rexon Ryu-FP 2008

Rexon Ryu Named Defense Secretary Hagel’s New Chief of Staff

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has tapped Rexon Ryu to be his next chief of staff, replacing the outgoing Mark Lippert who was appointed U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Foreign Policy has reported.

Ryu formerly worked as a foreign policy adviser to Hagel when the latter served as a U.S. senator, and observers say it’s not surprising he was named to be the Defense Secretary’s right-hand man. He is said to mesh well with Hagel’s leadership style, according to John Lettieri, who was formerly Ryu’s Senate deputy, the FP article said. “He’s one of the few people who can hit the ground running in this position,” Lettieri told the publication.

In a statement to FP, Hagel said Ryu “is a proven talent when it comes to working with the interagency, Congress, and outside groups and he will be a tremendous asset to the Defense Department. [I] have long relied on [Ryu’s] counsel and wise perspective on national security matters.”

Ryu leaves his position as a deputy to the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and is reportedly already starting his transition to the new Pentagon post this week. Waiting for him will be a sizable list of pressing security issues, including ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), Ukraine and Syria, according to the Foreign Policy article.

The Korean American has had plenty of experience in foreign policy and national security issues. Ryu formerly served as a special assistant to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and the Washington Post called him a “confidant” to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a former assistant to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Ryu one one of a handful of directors who worked on nonproliferation issues at the National Security Council, with a specific focus on Iran and Syria.

When he was on Hagel’s Senate staff, the then-Nebraska lawmaker credited Ryu with having “a good global assessment of reality and policy … and can talk simply, straightly, directly.”

Top photo: Rexon Ryu (left), from a 2008 picture. Photo via Foreign Policy.

Roy Cho

Election Roundup: Korean American Candidates Roy Cho and Young Kim Score Victories


A dozen Korean Americans were on Tuesday’s primary ballots, but only a handful emerged victorious from their respective races. Among the big winners were Democrat and first-time congressional candidate Roy Cho of New Jersey, who won an impressive 90 percent of the vote and will move on to the general election for the state’s 5th Congressional District; and California’s Republican State Assembly candidate Young Kim who will also advance to the November election.

More than half of the Korean Americans candidates were running for seats in California.

Here’s the roundup of how the candidates performed at the June 2 primaries.


Republican State Assembly candidate Young Kim is now a step closer to “kicking butt” as she famously declared last year, after garnering 54.7 percent of the vote to incumbent Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva’s 45.3. The historically conservative 65th District went to Quirk-Silva in 2012, which allowed the Democrats to gain the supermajority in the State Assembly.

In the 24th District of the State Senate, Peter Choi is headed to the general elections with fellow Democrat Kevin De Leon, after collecting 20.3 percent of the vote and finishing in the top two. Sam Kang (6.4%) also lost in his bid (31.1%) for a seat in the 15th District in the California Assembly, as did Mary Chung Hayashi (21%) in her 10th State Senate District race.

Meanwhile, Michelle Park Steel (46.6%) advanced to the general elections for the 2nd District seat for the Orange County Board of Supervisors seat. Carol Kim (31.05%) came in at second in the 6th District seat for the San Diego City Council and will face Chris Cate in the general election in November.

James Na was on the ballot even though he withdrew from the race for the 4th District seat on the San Bernadino County Board of Supervisors last February and still received 9.34 percent of the votes.

Three Korean Americans ran for Los Angeles County Superior Court judgeships this year. Prosecutor Ann H. Park ran unopposed and won her race. Criminal prosecutor Helen Kim (43.3 percent) lost to Alison M. Estrada (56.7 percent), while Songhai “Sunny” Armstead (47.65 percent) ran a closer race, but still lost to Teresa P. Magno (52.35 percent).

New Jersey

In the 5th District for Congress, Democrat Roy Cho of Hackensack garnered 90.4 percent of the vote which will send him to the general election in November, when he’ll face Republican Scott Garrett, the incumbent.


Rep. Rick Allen will face Democrat John J. Barrow in the general elections in November after Eugene Yu garnered only 16.5 percent of the vote.

(This story reflects corrections to the total number of candidates in the June 2 primaries. An earlier version stated the total number in all 2014 primaries, including those after June 2–that figure is 20. It also corrects the results for Peter Choi’s race.)

The original version of this story erroneously stated that Carol Kim lost to Chris Cate. We regret the error.



5 Facts to Know About SKorea’s Prime Minister Nominee

South Korean President Park Geun-hye nominated a new prime minister to replace Chung Hong-won, who recently resigned amid backlash following the poor handling of the ferry disaster.

Ahn Dai-hee, 59, a former prosector and Supreme Court justice who has been touted as reform-minded, was named to replace Chung, who will remain in the job until the parliamentary confirmation hearing for Ahn.

“I have lived all my life to eradicate irregularities and corruption … since I was a junior prosecutor,” Ahn said, according to Yonhap News Agency. “I take the nomination as an order to stamp out evils accumulated over decades and push for reform.”

Ahn must first pass next month’s confirmation hearing—a prospect that got shakier in the last few days, as opposition leaders criticized him for making about $1.5 million over six months last year as an attorney. The news prompted suspicions that he benefited from his status as a former Supreme Court justice.

“I think the nomination for prime minister should be reconsidered,” Rep. Kim Han-gil, a co-leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, told Yonhap on May 25.

Here is a list of five facts you should know about Ahn Dae-hee:


1. In 2003, then-prosecutor Ahn led a high-profile investigation of political parties that collected illegal funds ahead of the 2002 presidential election. The probe revealed that Grand National Party, the predecessor of the currently ruling Saenuri Party, had taken bribes from businesses to fund the campaign. The investigation earned Ahn the nickname, “the people’s prosecutor” and drew heavy criticism of the Grand National Party, which later reformed as the Saenuri Party.

2. His status as “the people’s prosecutor” prompted a legion of South Koreans to create an “Ahn Dae-hee fan club.” The fan club chairman Jeong Seong-keun, a farmer in Yeoju, said he created the group because he felt it was important to show support for “someone who works for the people.”

3. Ahn joined the party he once scrutinized as a prosecutor. He became head of the Saenuri Party’s political reform committee while it was struggling to regain public trust ahead of the president election in 2008, helping it return to power with the election of Lee Myung-bak. His role in reforming Saenuri Party once again helped Park Geun-hye become president last year.

4. Despite his qualifications, Ahn’s role will be limited as prime minister unless the president expands his role. Power is concentrated heavily on the president in South Korea, which analysts say leaves the prime minister with a more ceremonial role. During her presidential campaign, Park pledged to give the prime minster greater power, but former prime minister Chung Hong-won’s role proved no different than his predecessors. Will it be different this time around?

5. Ahn’s nomination hints at a Cabinet reshuffle in South Korea. Park plans to reorganize the Cabinet after Ahn takes office, according to her spokesman. Ministers criticized in connection with the ferry disaster and others who have been accused of corruption are expected to be replaced. South Korean presidents have traditionally revamped  the Cabinet to regain public trust and show they’ve acknowledged their mistakes. Park also sacked the spy chief Nam Jae-joon and the national security adviser Kim Jang-soo.


Asian Americans Shifted Most Strongly Toward Democrats Since 2000


Above photo: President Obama meets with Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) in May 2013 to discuss immigration reform.

Asian Americans have shifted most strongly toward the Democratic Party out of all racial or ethnic groups since 2000, according to a new report from Gallup released last Friday. Part of the reason may come from many Asian Americans affinity to President Obama, a fellow minority, but Gallup also attributes the shift to Asian Americans’ opposition to core tenets of the Republican Party.

The numbers from the past two presidential elections are a clear indicator of the shift. In 2008, 62 percent of Asian American voters backed Obama, and in 2012, 73 percent backed him for reelection, according to Edison Research exit poll data.

The two major issues the report identified as reasons for this political leaning: religion and immigration. A majority of Asians in the United States are non-Christian or not particularly religious, while the GOP has a core constituency of evangelical Christians.

The Republican Party’s resistance to changing immigration laws also may not sit well with the fastest growing immigrant group. Asians make up only 5 percent of the country’s population, but they recently surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants to the U.S.

Despite the growing numbers, polls that allow for deeper analysis of Asian American views are hard to come by because of the still relatively small population and language barriers. Gallup’s report included about 4,000 Asian Americans, and it did not conduct surveys in Asian languages—a fact that the research group acknowledged as a drawback to its data. Other research centers that do conduct surveys in Asian languages, however, have produced very similar results. A 2012 Pew Research Center report, which conducted its survey in seven Asian languages, found that 50 percent of Asian Americans identified with the Democratic Party, compared with 28 percent who identified with the Republican Party.

Photo via National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC)


Peter Choi Makes His Bid for California’s 24th District State Senate Seat

The Non-Politician Candidate

Peter Choi, coming from a diverse background, makes his bid for California’s 24th District Senate seat.


Peter Choi is not a politician, and takes pride in that. A first-time candidate in the race for California’s 24th state Senate district, he believes that his lack of experience in politics is actually what makes him an ideal fit for a law-making body that seems to be making headlines these days for “all the wrong reasons,” as Choi says, referring to a spate of recent corruption scandals.

“We need to get someone up in Sacramento who understands what the will of the people is. That’s why I’m running,” said Choi, 53, currently the president and CEO of the Temple City Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve had a career in Hollywood. I’ve been a small business owner. I run a nonprofit. I will bring the totality of my life experiences to Sacramento. When I look at legislation, I don’t look at it through the eyes of my donors or special interest groups. I look at it through the eyes of someone who has lived a life.”

In the upcoming June primary, Choi faces fellow Democrat Kevin De Leon, the incumbent, in a bid to represent the 24th District, one of the most culturally diverse regions in the state and one that trends Democratic. It covers 9.5 percent of Los Angeles County, which includes Koreatown, East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and Westlake.

He has lived in Eagle Rock for about 20 years, but spent a good portion of his childhood in other countries, thanks to his father, a South Korean ambassador who helped establish the first Korean embassy in Washington, D.C. Choi attended elementary school in India, middle school in Egypt, high school in Morocco and later also lived briefly in Jamaica.

“It became very easy for me to meet new people because every three to five years, I had to reintroduce myself,” Choi said. “But I also understand that underneath our skin, accent and the food we eat, people are people. They want love, they want to connect. That’s what I bring to this district, the most diverse district. I get along with everybody.” Though he studied prelaw at Harvard, he joined the Directors Guild of America after graduating and worked on prominent film and TV projects, including The Karate Kid. After marrying, he and his wife Donna became small business owners, opening a boutique in the Silver Lake district of L.A. Choi also later worked for then-councilmember, now mayor, Eric Garcetti, in developing the Sunset Junction of Silver Lake into today’ s artsy and hipster neighborhood. He also served as the Silver Lake Chamber of Commerce’ s chairman and the founding governing board member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.

Choi believes his diverse back- ground has helped shape his progressive political ideology. An advocate of marriage equality and animal welfare, Choi is also a professed environmentalist and says that a major issue in the 24th District and L.A. is air quality and a clean environment. “One big issue that came up in this district is single-use plastic bags—those cheap, flimsy bags that end up in the river and trees, especially in low-income neighborhoods,” he said. “There was a statewide resolution to ban the plastic bags. That measure failed because of three votes, and one of those votes was by my opponent, Kevin De Leon. How can our senator vote against an issue that’s so important to us?”

De Leon said last November that he’s a supporter of banning plastic bags, but that abolishing them should be done “in a smarter way,” and that doing it suddenly, without a green alternative, would lead to loss of revenue and jobs.

Choi also said that one of his key motivations for running for state office is to restore a transparent government in Sacramento, at a time when recent corruption scandals involving three senators has damaged the legislature’ s reputation. Two state lawmakers, Ronald Calderon and Leland Yee, have been charged with corruption and bribery, while a third, Rod Wright, has been convicted of perjury and voter fraud. Though his opponent has not been charged with anything, Choi said that De Leon’s name appears “56 times in the FBI affidavit regarding the corruption investigation of Sen. Ron Calderon. This includes a lurid passage on page 92 indicating that De Leon allowed a legislative bill to die after ‘not receiving sufficient help’ in return for his backing.”

De Leon’s chief of staff, Dan Reeves called Choi’s accusation “character defamation,” saying that the senator was merely asked to testify in the investigation. “Just because his name gets mentioned with Ron Calderon, that doesn’t imply anything with regards to criminal behavior,” said Reeves. “[The FBI] sent Kevin a letter, saying that he’s simply a witness and that he wasn’t targeted in any way.”

De Leon already raised more than $257,000 in campaign funds, between January and March of this year, while Choi only raised $4,000 in that period. In other words, Choi’s bid is a longshot.

But Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, is backing the first-time candidate because she said “too often we find ourselves asking why people who would make great elected officials don’t run—you know, the folks that are smart, ethical and have common sense.

“Peter is that smart and ethical candidate,” she said. “[He’s] a policy wonk who knows issues and neighbor- hoods and individuals and is able to blend all of it together for the betterment of all.”



SKorean President Dismantles Coast Guard Over Ferry Disaster


South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced Monday that she will scrap the country’s coast guard as a “reform and a great transformation” after hundreds of teenagers died in a ferry disaster last month.

Speaking on national television, Park bowed and offered an apology for failing to prevent the ferry Sewol from capsizing on April 16 when hundred of students from South Korea’s Danwon High School died after getting trapped inside. Although 172 passengers were saved within hours after the ferry sank, 287 are confirmed dead and 17 are still missing in the waters.

Park, who shed tears towards the end of the nationally televised speech, said she will dismantle the coast guard for its inability to save more lives due to poor rescue operations, which led South Korea to suffer one of its worst peacetime disasters.

“The ultimate responsibility lies with me, the president,” Park said. “The coast guard failed to fulfill its duties. The number of casualties could have been greatly reduced had it been more assertive in responding.”

When the first coast guard boats arrived at the scene on April 16, the officers only saved the ferry’s captain and other crew members who had told the passengers to stay inside the tilted ship. Passengers who fled the ship on their own were also rescued. The officers were repeatedly told to reach the passengers trapped inside, but responded that the ferry was too heavily tilted for them to board it, according to the transcripts of coast guard radio communications released this past weekend.

Although Park promised to overhaul her government to help it improve its disaster prevention and management, critics are calling Park’s measure an attempt to blame the coast guard by diverting attention from her own regime. The opposing party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, demanded further investigations into the government’s alleged failures.

South Korea’s central government officials are accused of failing to monitor the Korea Shipping Association, a lobby group, which approved the safety of Sewol, even though the officials overloaded the ferry with cargo that was poorly secured and lied about it in its departure report.

Founded in 1953, the South Korean coast guard has also been responsible for preventing Chinese fishing vessels from intruding the South Korean part of the maritime boundary. Some are also concerned that disbanding the coast guard could potentially increase drug smuggling from China and Southeast Asian countries due to weakened coastal protection.

Prior to Park’s controversial speech, the police detained more than 200 people who had tried to march into her office in a protest that demanded her to step down.

Photo courtesy of AFP


Friday’s Link Attack: Shari Song Enters State Senate Race; Samsung Galaxy S5 Hits Shelves; In-bee Park Awarded Player of the Year

Shari Song to run for key state Senate seat Seattle Times

Democrats have finally recruited a candidate for the key state Senate race in South King County’s 30th district — Shari Song, a real-estate agent who last year unsuccessfully challenged Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn. Song, however, will have to combat carpetbagging charges as she is moving from Bellevue to Federal Way just in time for the race. In a Thursday news release, Song stressed her ties to the district, noting that she previously lived there for years, founded the Federal Way Mission Church Preschool and served on the Federal Way Diversity Commission. She said she was moving back to be closer to husband’s elderly parents.

Korean-Born Woman Back in French Cabinet Chosun Ilbo

Fleur Pellerin has been appointed to France’s top foreign trade post after the Korean-born woman stepped down as deputy minister for small business and digital economy. Pellerin (41) was named state secretary for foreign trade, tourism on Wednesday in the roster of new ministers after a cabinet reshuffle last week.


Assemblyman Ron Kim slams Tiger Mom author Amy Chua for sending the wrong message Daily News

Call him the Tiger Mom slayer. Assemblyman Ron Kim, the first Korean-American elected to the state Legislature, slammed “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” author Amy Chua on Thursday, saying her latest tome about cultural distinctions “sends the wrong message.” Just two days before the Flushing assemblyman is slated to speak at a conference for Asian-American students at SUNY Albany, Kim took a shot at the controversial author’s new book, “The Triple Package,” which hit bookshelves January.

Apple and Samsung trial judge orders court to turn phones off Irish Independent

US District Judge Lucy Koh has become increasingly frustrated during the first few days of the trial of Apple versus Samsung as the many personal Wi-Fi signals interfere with a network the judge relies on for a real-time transcript of the proceedings. The phones also ring, vibrate and can be used to take photos; a serious violation of court rules.

Park In-bee Collects Female Player of Year Award at Augusta Chosun Ilbo

World No. 1 Park In-bee was officially named Female Player of the Year at the annual Golf Writers Association of America awards at Augusta, Georgia on Wednesday. She collected the gong one day before the Masters, the first major of the U.S. PGA season, got under way at Augusta National Golf Club in the city. Park claimed six titles on the LPGA Tour last year, including a historic run that saw her win the first three majors of the season. This helped her garner an overwhelming majority of 91 percent when the association held its ballot in January to determine who should receive the award for 2013.


90% of Foreigners Would Date a Korean Chosun Ilbo

Some 90 percent of foreigners would be happy to date a Korean, a straw poll by a dating sitesuggests. Korea’s largest matchmaking company Duo and social media side Korspot in a survey asked 1,147 people in North America, Southeast Asia and Europe whether they would to date a Korean — 505 men and 642 women — and 90 percent said yes.

Can Samsung’s Galaxy S5 take on the next iPhone? CNBC

Galaxy S5 boasts a variety of new features, but does it have what it takes to prevent users from jumping back on the Apple bandwagon when the next generation iPhone with a potentially larger-screen is launched? The new flagship Android smartphone is being rolled out worldwide on Friday amid an increasingly tough environment for smartphone makers as the industry moves toward commoditization. The phone’s stand-out features are its ability to survive when submerged in water, or to act as a heart-rate monitor for personal-fitness tracking. There is also a fingerprint scanner for biometric screen locking – a feature introduced by Apple in its iPhone 5S last year.


Holt under inspection after adoptee’s death Korea Times

Holt Children’s Service being inspected for its practice of sending adoptees in and outside of Korea, after a 3-year-old sent to the U.S. through the agency was allegedly beaten to death by his adoptive father. The Ministry of Health and Welfare said Wednesday that it has been inspecting the adoption agency since Monday over its adoption procedures, and the commission fees it receives from foster parents for adoption. Holt authorities said that inspectors were looking into its financial statements.

Survey shows the effects of smartphone addiction Korea Joong Ang Daily

One out of every five students residing in Seoul is addicted to smartphones, the city government announced on Tuesday, a trend it claims has contributed to a rash of societal problems, such as cyberbullying. The figure is part of the results of a survey of 4,998 students in the fourth through 11th grades across 75 schools in Seoul who were evaluated over two weeks last November on a diagnostic scale developed by the National Information Society Agency.

Yuna Kim to perform to ‘Frozen’ soundtrack in farewell ice shows NBC Sports

Yuna Kim‘s program for her farewell ice shows next month will include music from the Disney animated film “Frozen,” according to Arirang News. The 2010 Olympic champion and 2014 silver medalist will open her shows May 4-6 in Seoul by performing to the song “Let it Go” from the film. She will skate to other song medleys from “Frozen,” too, according to the report. Kim’s closing performance will be to Francesco Sartori‘s “Time to Say Goodbye.”



April Issue: N. Virginia Korean Community Mobilizes Politically… Over Maps

Virginia House Delegate Mark Keam addresses the international media and members of the Korean American community, after the passage of Virginia House Bill 11 on Feb. 7. (Photo: Reuters)

Much Ado About Maps

Northern Virginia’s Korean community finally gets organized politically—about cartography.


LOBBYISTS HAVE wet dreams about this scenario.

You’ve mobilized an entire constituent group, 80,000 potential swing voters in a swing state. It’s a growing immigrant population with a profile coveted by politicians: well-educated, relatively prosperous, suburb-dwelling, beholden to no party. State legislators and gubernatorial candidates meet with you and come to any press events you organize. They are prepared to speechify about whatever issue you tell them is dear to your community, and pledge that your cause is their cause. Any issue at all.

What do you tell them?

If you are Peter Kim, president of the Virginia-based Voice of Korean Americans, you tell them what your community really wants—more than anything—is for any reference in any school textbook to the body of water that lies between the Korean peninsula and Japan, commonly called the Sea of Japan, to say that it’s also known as the East Sea.


With no prior political experience, the 54-year-old senior paralegal and Chantilly resident put together a lobby consisting of 49 Korean American organizations in the state. He met with legislators, got bills sponsored in both chambers, and got them out of committee. And when the Japanese government issued threats and the governor got cold feet, he locked down a veto-proof majority. Now equal time for the East Sea is on the way to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s desk. (Similar efforts are underway in statehouses in New York, New Jersey and Georgia, and there has been movement at the local level in Maryland, where county school boards, not the state, choose textbooks.)


It’s the first time the D.C. region’s Korean population—the third-largest in the country, after Los Angeles and New York—organized such an effort. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a community making its overdue debut as a political force, or an interest group hijacking the legislative process to settle scores that are decades old and thousands of miles away. Or both. What’s remarkable isn’t so much that Koreans are pushing an issue that’s of zero relevance to everyone else: That kind of rent-seeking is as proud an American political tradition as gerrymandering, and in this case, the cost is relatively low. (Many major textbook publishers, including McGraw Hill and Holt McDougal, already printboth names.) It’s that their inaugural issue is one that has such little impact on their own day-to-day lives. But the weight of history can skew priorities, and nationalism can trump local self-interest. Ultimately, the Virginia map saga shows both the emerging clout Korean immigrants can wield in the region—and the ways internal group dynamics influence how that political clout gets deployed once it’s stockpiled.

Despite his success, Kim has low hopes for the East Sea bills elsewhere (except Maryland, where five counties—Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore County—have already adopted similar standards). He says Korean community leaders haven’t consulted him. “I don’t think they’re serious,” he says. “They want to get on TV and in newspapers, and nothing gets done. The politicians declared their support first, and the Korean leaders followed them. I don’t think that’s going to work. We’ve been through this process, and a couple politicians can’t do it by themselves. We need to have control, not them.”

VOKA, AN AD HOC organization Kim and a friend who serves as chairman, Jung Ki-Un, threw together for the bill, doesn’t have an office or any paid staff. So I meet Kim at his day job, at the office of Maury B. Watts III, a personal injury lawyer. It’s located in a faux-colonial office complex in the heart of the D.C. area’s main Koreatown, Annandale, which locals sometimes call Annan-dong. Just down the street on the main drag, Little River Turnpike, are landmarks like Shilla Bakery, Honey Pig and the K-Mart parking lot, a longtime site of community events, where hundreds of people gathered to watch South Korea play in the 2002 World Cup live on a giant projection screen. When Korea beat Italy that summer, at around four o’clock one morning, all of them hopped in their cars and drove around Annandale honking their horns. Neighbors called the police, who told the organizers they had to hold any future viewings indoors. Games now screen at one of the dozens of local Korean churches. By far the most important institutions for Korean immigrants, churches serve not only as houses of worship but also community centers and weekend Korean schools, where kids are expected to master the Hangeulalphabet, meet their future spouses and learn the proper names for bodies of water.

While Koreans have been migrating to the U.S. for more than a century, most immigrants didn’t get further than Hawaii until after the Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated quotas designed to block entry for nonwhites. The D.C. region’s Korean population, currently 93,000 (and mostly concentrated in northern Virginia), is still relatively new and growing fast. As recently as 1990, central Annandale was 73 percent white; over 20 years, it went from 18 percent to 41 percent Asian. (The Census did not allow respondents to specify their ethnicity within the “Asian” category until 2010.) As the Korean population has grown, it’s shifted further from the District. Today more Koreans live in Centreville, to the west; in Annandale, Vietnamese now equal Koreans in number. But the heart of the Korean community, where the oldest and most visible businesses and organizations operate, remains here.


Kim introduces himself as a member of the “1.5 generation,” which within the Korean diaspora refers to those who were born in Korea and emigrated at a young age, typically before graduating high school. Distinct from both their first-generation parents, who emigrated as adults and remain cloistered within Koreatowns, seldom learning English, and their second-generation children, born in the U.S. and fully assimilated, ilchom ose, 1.5ers straddle both cultures nearly equally if not always comfortably. Which makes them the best go-between organizers.

Kim was born in Seoul, where he lived through junior high. His parents moved to Richmond in 1977, at the invitation of his mother’s sister, who was already there. He went to VMI, was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force for eight years, and left as a captain. Later, he worked for various defense contractors in northern Virginia before taking his current job at the law firm. Kim says he never had much interest in politics until a couple years ago. There had been chatter in the Korean community about how their children were being taught the wrong name for the East Sea in school. Kim took notice. His mother had been born under the Japanese occupation of Korea, and like others of her generation, had been prohibited from speaking Korean or using a Korean name, among other indignities. “So I asked my son Chris, he was a fifth-grader at the time in Fairfax County: ‘Do you know the name of the sea between Korea and Japan?’ And he said ‘Sea of Japan.’ I got really upset at him and he just said ‘Hey, that’s what I learned. It’s in the textbook’s maps.’ So that’s when I decided to correct it.

“When I started, I didn’t know what to do,” Kim says. He talked to friends in the Vietnamese community, which, a decade earlier, had its own experience trying to get the official flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam replaced with the yellow and red striped flag of the old South Vietnamese government at all Virginia public schools. (It had failed after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was meddling in U.S. foreign policy.) Kim’s friends pointed him to We the People, the whitehouse.gov petition site set up by the Obama administration in 2011. Kim posted a petition on March 22, 2012, vaguely demanding to “correct a FALSE history in our textbooks” about the name of the body of water, initially intending to take out any reference to the Sea of Japan in all textbooks across the U.S. The petition shot to the No. 1 spot on the site and ultimately gathered 102,043 signatures, making it one of the most popular petitions in the site’s history.

That many signatures qualified it for an official response. Word from the State Department was blunt: The U.S., as a matter of policy, solely recognizes the Sea of Japan name, as established by the International Hydrographic Association. So Kim filed a second petition. This time he got a meeting with the White House’s Asian American liaison and an advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who encouraged him to write to Duncan. He did. He eventually heard from Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle, who was finally the one to inform him that the federal government does not set standards for school textbooks; those decisions are up to state and local school boards. She gave him some basic guidelines for contacting legislators and board members. And he was off.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Japan and Korea have sharply divergent views of the historical record on the matter of what the water between their countries has been called. Both can point to antique Western maps that use their preferred names. Exclusive usage of “Sea of Japan” didn’t start to gain widespread acceptance until the late 19th and early 20th century, solidifying with the Russo-Japanese War and the start of Japan’s domination of Korea. Before then, foreign cartographers referred to it by various names, including East or Oriental Sea or Sea of Chosun (the dynastic name for Korea). And Koreans, who used “East Sea” for 2,000 years, feel strongly that they never got to make their case to the world while under foreign occupation. Since liberation in 1945, as part of a broader decolonization process, successive Korean governments have made reasserting East Sea usage a priority. Already National Geographic, Google Maps, Nystrom and several other atlases use both names.

But this isn’t really just about maps. The name issue is but one of a much larger set of ongoing conflicts between Korea and Japan, which includes a territorial dispute over a pair of tiny islands Koreans call Dokdo and Japanese call Takeshima (population: 2), as well as compensation for “comfort women,” Korean women forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial army. Western media often describe this relationship as a “rivalry,” but that is imprecise. Korea would call it demanding recognition and recompense for the subjugation of its population and near erasure of its culture. Japan would call it petty and vindictive, if it paid attention, which it mostly doesn’t.


It’s this imbalance over the perceived importance of Japan’s imperialist legacy for its neighbors that exacerbates these wounds and turns symbolic slights into full-blown geopolitical crises, complete with repercussions in the D.C. suburbs. When any Japanese prime minister visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, as Shinzo Abe did last December, it unleashes ferocious protests in Korea and China. The Japanese government always says it’s only honoring war dead enshrined there, some of whom just happen to be Class A war criminals. But visitors to the shrine’s museum get a tour of ultra-nationalist revisionist history, where they learn, for example, that Koreans asked the Japanese to invade, and those tens of thousands killed in the Nanking massacre were all “Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes.” (Presumably all those women and children were soldiers, too.) After one such visit in 2001, a group of 20 knife-wielding Korean protesters calling themselves “Save the Nation Do or Die,” and rumored to be gangsters, held a demonstration at Seoul’s Independence Gate Park where, in front of an assembled crowd, they all chopped off their pinkie fingers and announced they would mail them to the Japanese embassy. Extreme as such reactions are, it’s hard to imagine German school textbooks today failing to mention the Holocaust, as Japanese textbooks for decades erased and continue to downplay references to wartime atrocities.

Every Korean family was affected by the occupation, including my own. My mother is Korean. Her father, my grandfather, was sent away by Japanese colonial authorities to a mining camp on the then-Japanese-occupied Russian island of Sakhalin, part of an effort to shore up the Empire’s war production. What became of him we’ll never know—if he died in the massacres by Japanese police or the invasion by the Red Army, or if he survived to work the mines under Soviet rule—because he was never heard from again.

So I understand the painful memories, the long shadow they cast on mundane names and symbols, and the desire to correct the historical record that continues to be distorted today, particularly for the oldest generation of Koreans who lived through that era.

But still. Is this really the best use of hard-won political capital?

“I know,” sighs Mark Keam, the sole Korean American in Virginia’s General Assembly. “I had to scratch my head myself. I don’t remember this being such a big deal when I grew up. But for folks in their 70s and 80s, it gives them closure. They grew up in a dark period and want to know their children and grandchildren won’t be held back due to their heritage or race.” It’s no coincidence that when the Korean American Association of Washington did turnout for lobby days, they bused 150 Korean senior citizens to Richmond.

Keam is hopeful. “If this will help my parents’ generation move forward, let’s let them.” But what then? What about issues, right here, that shape their children’s and grandchildren’s futures more than any nationalist campaign whipped up by politicians back in Korea?

THE CURRENT push wasn’t the first. The map issue had come up in Virginia political circles before. A few years ago, a small group of Korean businessmen had approached David Marsden, a Democratic state senator who represents Annandale and Centreville, with a complaint about the “Sea of Japan” name. He introduced legislation that only applied to online textbooks, but it died in committee in 2012.

Kim knew Koreans needed to adopt a different strategy if they were going to win. So he went to the Korean American Association of the Washing- ton Metropolitan Area, the region’ s oldest and largest Korean community group, and asked them to convene a meeting. They called on 47 other Korean nonprofits in the area. Kim made his pitch to a skeptical audience. “‘We’ve never done anything like this,’ they said. ‘Is it even possible?’ I said ‘It doesn’t matter. We gotta try.’ ”


Kim put together the literature. It consisted of a single PowerPoint file, full of thick blocks of text and a barrage of citations of Korean-Japanese colonial history and mapmakers recognizing the East Sea name, which he emailed to every member of the General Assembly.

Then he followed up with phone calls. Some lawmakers invited him to events they were holding, where he spoke with them personally. With each, he asked for support in writing. He did the same with both Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, who were running for governor last year. Kim met McAuliffe at a campaign event in April hosted by the Korean Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and asked him for his support. McAuliffe said yes. Kim asked for a signed letter: “You know those guys, they don’t like to give you written confirmation,” he says. “But in the end they did.” Cuccinelli followed suit.

In the Senate, Kim asked Marsden to reintroduce his 2012 bill, and he agreed. But Kim felt Marsden, a Democrat, wasn’t enough in a General Assembly where Republicans control the House of Delegates and the Democrats control the Senate by just one vote. He started looking for Republicans and found Dick Black, who’d voted for Marsden’ s 2012 bill. Black’s affection for Koreans goes back to his days as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where South Korean troops fought alongside Americans. “I flew hundreds of Korean Marines into battle”—the Korean Marine Corps was founded, he notes, by the USMC—“and there was a real bond of respect between American and Korean Marines,” Black says. Kim got Black and Marsden to introduce two separate bills in the Senate. In the House, he lined up Tim Hugo, who represents Korean-heavy Fairfax and Centreville and serves as GOP caucus chair.

The high-ranking Republican had no problem attracting co-sponsors.

It looked like a sure thing. What threw everyone for a loop was something no one—not Peter Kim, not his legislative allies, and probably not McAuliffe—anticipated. It turned out Korean Americans weren’t the only ones who could play state politics. “I got a call from Richmond from a friend saying, ‘Hey, the Japanese embassy hired this lobbyist,’” says Kim. Specifically, the embassy had hired McGuire-Woods, a high-profile consulting firm situated steps from the state capitol, for $75,000, according to a contract Kim provided me.

As it turned out, Kim knew the lobbyist McGuireWoods sent, Theodore Adams. They had been classmates at VMI. “At the first subcommittee hearing he said, ‘Brother rat! I recognize you!’ and I said, ‘Yeah! I recognize you, too!’ So we shook hands. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to kill your bill.’ I said, ‘OK, you do your best, and I’ll do my best.’”

That wasn’t all. On Dec. 26, Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae sent a letter to McAuliffe. In it, he noted that “‘Sea of Japan is THE only internationally established name for the body of water between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean peninsula,” and that “Japan is the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Virginia,” accounting for a billion dollars in investments over the past five years and 13,000 jobs in the state. It closed ominously: “I fear, however, that the positive cooperation and the strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted.”


If it was intended as a threat, the letter provoked more confusion than anything else. “This is not an issue any Japanese person cares about. I don’t know why they got involved,” says Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator from Fairfax, who lived in Japan and has a Korean wife. “And that was a contest they knew they were going to lose. What were they going to do, close down every Toyota dealership in the state? Stop buying Virginia wine and cigarettes?”

But it did put some kind of fear in McAuliffe, who suddenly reversed course. The governor’s friends in the Senate introduced amendments to kill the bill, though one version of it had already passed there. (On March 4, the House bill, having passed and been sent to the Senate, was killed in committee by Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas, who complained the Assembly wasn’t catering equally to African American constituents. Lucas claimed she acted on her own; the bill’s author, Tim Hugo, says McAuliffe was behind the move.) That only made the GOP push harder, hoping to embarrass McAuliffe. The afternoon of March 5, the House passed the Senate’s bill, sending it to McAuliffe. He has publicly told the Washington Post he would sign it if it reached his desk. (Neither the Embassy of Japan nor McAuliffe’s office responded to requests for comment.)

Sen. Black, for his part, has gotten a kick out of his newfound celebrity in the Korean community, even hearing from a friend in Seoul that he’d been on the news there. “They showed me a newspaper with my picture on the front page,” he says. “I couldn’t read a word it said.”

YEARS FROM NOW, Koreans in northern Virginia may look back at the East Sea bill as their political coming of age. Never before had the community put together a concerted campaign for statewide legislation. Win or lose, Koreans are proud of their accomplishment, and rightly so.

But the question remains: All this over a map? Seriously?

Seriously, say Koreans. And because Koreans say so, and there are a lot of them here (and a lot more than Japanese), politicians have to say so, too. “These folks went through 35 years of colonial rule,” says Marsden. “It was very tough. And when names were being passed out for oceans, they weren’t at the table.”

This is true. What’s frustrating, though, is the wasted potential. Koreans have long been the sleeping giant in the region’s political landscape. One need only look to Cuban Americans in Florida to see how a well-organized immigrant group that asserts itself and votes as a bloc can put their issues on the table, even change the course of national elections. There’s no reason Koreans couldn’t do the same here, for dozens of other issues that matter more on a practical level to them, and to non-Koreans, than the East Sea.

Issues like immigration reform.

When President Barack Obama was heckled at a speech last November by a protester demanding an end to his administration’s record-breaking rate of deportations, that protester was an undocumented Korean American: 24-year-old Ju Hong, who fell out of status when his parents overstayed their visas. He was clearly chosen by his organization to make the point that immigration reform is also an Asian issue, and that not all those here illegally snuck across the Rio Grande. Exit polls conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2012 indicate 72 percent of Korean Americans, and 73 percent of Korean Virginians support comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Or issues like health care and Medicaid expansion. A great number of Koreans in the U.S. are small business owners, and neither they nor their employees (often relatives) get health insurance from work. Keam suggests others: Adult education. More ESL teachers in public schools. Taxes that affect small businesses. He says he appeals to Korean community leaders to get involved in these campaigns. “They nod, say, ‘We get that.’ But unless it has to do with the Korean peninsula, it’s hard to attract interest.”

Kim replies that the community’s enthusiasm on immigration reform is nowhere near as strong as the East Sea issue. Daniel Choi, president of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia, agrees. “There may be issues that directly affect them more, like voting rights and immigration. But no matter what, you need to ask, what does the community actually care about? And issues that get the most traction are those that involve their homeland.”

That’s consistent with ethnic politics in much of the rest of the country, particularly among groups whose identity is defined by some shared sense of historical injustice: Look at the Armenian American community’s persistent, fruitless attempts to win U.S. government recognition of the Armenian genocide. Sometimes their efforts can be so successful as to put U.S. foreign policy toward their homeland in conflict with the entire rest of the world, as with Cubans.

But at some point, most immigrant communities develop their own sets of interests and a political agenda that, if it doesn’t ignore the homeland, doesn’t put it front and center, either. Those interests need not conform with those of mainstream America, nor does this necessitate denying their heritage or minority status. But winning more than tributes for the mother country does require a sustained engagement with the political system of their adopted country, and with issues that affect communities besides their own.


Why aren’t Koreans in the D.C. area doing that? Most Korean organizers I spoke with cited a lack of English among first-generation immigrants as the primary barrier to greater political involvement. Petersen, the state senator from Fairfax, notes that many Koreans emigrated during the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan military dictatorships, which together lasted from 1961 to 1988 and did not exactly encourage an active citizenry. (Current South Korean President Park Geun-hye is Park’s daughter.)

Yet it’s wrong to conclude they’re apathetic. State campaign finance records show donations from 27 different Korean American organizations, from the Korean Senior Citizens Association to the Korean Dry Cleaners Association of Greater Washington. And they do get involved, if mostly for community and not political issues; for example, raising $1 million to build a Korean bell garden at a northern Virginia regional park in Vienna. Choi, who heads a multiethnic coalition, observes that “Koreans are respected by other Asian American groups for their ability to organize.”

And their vote is still up for grabs. Though Asians overwhelmingly vote Democratic in national elections, this trend is relatively recent; I can remember in my lifetime when Asians, generally thought of as church-going business owners, mostly voted Republican. (As Kim puts it, “They vote Democrat but they live like Republicans.”) This change is largely the result of Republicans repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. On election night 2012, conservative pundit David Brooks was on PBS’s News Hour and was asked why the GOP lost the Asian vote so badly. “Well, I think our old Scotch-Irish philosophy of you’re on-your-own individualism doesn’t resonate as well with other groups that value the community. Like Asians. And Latinos. And Jews. And Catholics. And…” At that point Brooks seemed to realize what he was saying and stopped talking.

There’s no fundamental reason why Koreans can’t throw their weight around more in Virginia and other states where they have such a large presence. But that requires an issue that galvanizes the community as much as names on maps, which in turn requires a focus on domestic politics comparable to that on the nation Korean immigrants, even those who have lived here for decades, still refer to as oori nara, “our country.”

Should their agenda continue to give priority to historical grudge matches over material interests they share with others, they may find their next campaign short of allies, and the new golden age of the Korean lobby could be over before it starts.

Epilogue: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has since signed the East Sea bill, as promised. This story was originally published in the Washington City Paper

This article was published in the April 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).