Monday, November 3, 2014

From Tragedy to Strength: The Korean American Community and NAKA


by Jay Hauben


The United States is a multi-ethnic society strengthened by immigrants from many corners of the world. Koreans have been coming to the US for over 100 years but especially because of and since the Korean War (1950-1953). In 2014, there are almost two million Americans of Korean descent. They partake in all sectors of US economy and society. The areas of the US with the greatest concentration of Korean Americans are in Greater Los Angeles and in Greater NYC especially in Bergen County NJ.

April 1992 was a tragedy and a turning point for Korean Americans. When the four police officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King were acquitted, a rebellion broke out in Los Angeles. A major victim of the civil violence was Korean owned businesses. The LA police did not protect them. Instead, some Korean shop owners took up arms to defend their shops and themselves. Many of the businesses were destroyed. For many Korean Americans their security was shaken.

In the aftermath  of the Los Angeles civil riots there emerged a sense that Korean Americans needed to be more politically active and needed to empower themselves if they were to be able to participate successfully in US society. There had been Korean American activists who worked toward the eventual reunification of Korea. Being in the US, these people had more chance than those still in Korea to work for reconciliation between the north and the south. But there was no national voice in the US speaking on behalf of Korean Americans and defending their rights. In 1994, the National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA) was formed to play this role but also to carry on activities toward the peaceful, independent reunification of Korea.

Founded as a non-profit civil organization, NAKA set itself four goals: (1) To contribute to the peaceful, independent reunification of Korea. (2) To help safeguard the rights of Korean Americans and others in the U.S. (3) To promote cooperation and better understanding between the Korean American community and other racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. (4) To develop Korean American culture and help articulate the shared values of Korean Americans as a community.

Twenty years later, on Oct 25, NAKA held a Gala Dinner and workshop to celebrate the work it has done since 1994. In attendance were people from S Korea, Hawaii, California, and all over the US East coast. At the dinner, NAKA's past presidents were honored and some of the story of its many programs and activities were told. For twenty years NAKA chose to continue advocacy for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula while promoting political empowerment of Korean Americans in solidarity with other Asian Pacific Americans and social justice and civil rights organizations in the US.

A major accomplishment of NAKA was its co-sponsorship of the Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Forum in July 2004 which brought together legislators and representatives  of the US, South Korea and North Korea in one room for the first time to discuss ways to ensure peace and security in the Korean Peninsula.  NAKA has also prepared policy analyses and recommendations for the US Congress and seeks to put the US on a more constructive policy path toward North East Asia.

One of the quest speakers was Lee Chang-Bok, a South Korean activist for reunification*. Mr Lee told the story of the formation of a 5000 member cheering squad formed in South Korea to cheer for both North and South Korean athletes during the recent 17th Asian Games. He contrasted that solidarity among Koreans with the further splitting of Koreans that will be caused by US plans to deepen a cold war by expanding the US-Japan and US-ROK military alliances.

The Twentieth Anniversary celebration included a workshop to discuss NAKA's past and future. Its dual purpose and activities on political empowerment of Korean Americans and promotion of a peaceful reunification of Korea was discussed. Many people spoke up. One woman said she had only recently become involved with NAKA.

She is a house wife who is in the MissyUSA internet group. She saw the reactionary direction in S Korean politics and started to form her opinions. She has to put up with a negative reaction from other Korean Americans but she said she will fight and she will win.

At the workshop there appeared to be agreement that the road to Korean unification and to safe guarding the civil rights of Korean Americans is a long one and that NAKA had done much on that road and should continue and seek renewal from bringing in younger activists from the next generation of Korean Americans.
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* South Korean Chair of the All-Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration
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