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Awe, Gratitude, Fear: Conflicting Emotions for Korean-Americans in the Era of Trump


© Rozette Rago for The New York Times   Newspaper dispensers outside H Mart, a supermarket chain, in a Korean strip mall on Beach…

By JENNIFER MEDINA, The New York Times 

BUENA PARK, Calif. — When it comes to immigration, Sylvia Kim has been a fierce opponent of President Trump. She has protested him at L.A.X. airport and written about his “shameful legacy” on refugees. But on Thursday Ms. Kim watched the dramatic events out of North Korea unfold with a mixture of shock and gratitude.

“To say it is extremely historic is an understatement,” she said.

Southern California is home to the largest Korean population outside of Asia and Ms. Kim is one of many Korean-Americans here feeling a whipsaw of emotions over the administration’s actions in recent days. While the president has infuriated some with his policies and rhetoric on immigration, others are hopeful that his approach to foreign affairs could help bring peace to a long-divided region where the vast majority of Korean-Americans still have relatives.

“It is very conflicting because what he is doing domestically is so horrendous on so many levels,” said Ms. Kim, the Orange County director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil-rights group. “Yet on the international level he might achieve something nobody else has.”

The Korean meeting, which Mr. Trump announced on Thursday, is the most promising sign in years for stability in the region, which has prompted an outpouring of support and celebration among many Korean-Americans. But many others — particularly younger Korean immigrants and the children of immigrants — are more focused on the fight against his domestic agenda. It has created deep divisions between those who admire the president and those who see his administration as a threat.

“It’s a question of priorities: No matter how important immigration is, nuclear war was always the higher danger,” added Ms. Kim, who also works with North Korean human rights groups.

There are roughly 325,000 Koreans in Southern California, with about one-third in Orange County, where they have thrived in suburban enclaves. In Buena Park, a bustling business district serves as a kind of suburban Koreatown, offering an endless array of restaurants along with K-pop dance studios and a Korean movie theater.

Their powerful economic influence obscures another fact: Roughly 20 percent of Korean immigrants are unauthorized. Immigrants from South Korea make up the fifth-largest share of DACA recipients, and the number of undocumented immigrants coming from the country has increased by more than 700 percent in the last 30 years. Now many young Koreans are embracing roles as immigration activists.

The fight over immigration, however, is of little interest to many older Korean immigrants who arrived in the United States decades ago. Instead, they have been captivated by the momentous developments in their native country, where three detainees were released by North Korea this week.

“This is more than stopping nuclear proliferation for us — it is very personal,” said Ellen Ahn, the executive director of Korean Community Services, based in Buena Park. Ms. Ahn’s mother, who was a refugee from North Korea in the 1950s, walked south for days to escape the country when she was 9 years old. Ms. Ahn said she grew up hearing stories of her grandfather being captured by the North Korean Army. “It’s really recent history for our families, all of those kinds of memories are etched in our collective family consciousness.”

Like many of her friends, she stayed up all night watching the Korean-language news on the meeting last month between the leaders of North and South Korea. She texted her 73-year-old mother at 2 a.m. to see if she was watching. “She told me she was in her 12th hour and had been crying the entire time.”

© Rozette Rago for The New York Times   Newspaper dispensers outside H Mart, a supermarket chain, in a Korean strip mall on Beach…

The next morning, her parents went out to celebrate by eating Pyongyang-style cold noodles — the kind the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, brought to a banquet during the meeting with President Moon Jae-in.

“To see what is happening is joyous and dramatic,” she added. Ms. Ahn said that fissures between the generations over the Trump administration are not just over issues like immigration; they are also about language. Younger Koreans raised in America rely on English-language media, while older generations voraciously consume news directly from South Korean sources. “People have divided energies,” she said.

Korean-American citizens have historically not been a politically active voting block: Nationally, about 46 percent of eligible voters nationally cast a ballot in 2016, compared with 61 percent among adult citizens overall. This year, though, their vote could be crucial in several competitive congressional races in Orange County.

Statewide, roughly 54 percent of Koreans self-identify as Democrats, according to the National Asian-American Survey, far more reliably liberal than immigrants from China and Vietnam. Nationally, 75 percent of Koreans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the same survey.

John Kim, who leads the Korean Federation of Orange County, said he voted for Mr. Trump in part because he believed his business background would help him solve intractable problems, like the Korean conflict.

“I supported him because he said he would do something,” Mr. Kim said. “He is honest and he is doing what he said he would do. He does not stand for nonsense. So to see this now, it is a relief.”

But among critics, anger toward Mr. Trump runs deep. Some view his past comments as racist, pointing to an incident earlier this year when he asked a Korean-American intelligence official, “Where are you from?” When she said she was from New York, he pressed to know where “your people” are from, suggesting the “pretty Korean lady” should negotiate with North Korea.

After Mr. Trump’s pre-dawn news conference on the tarmac, Korean-American leaders all over the country were struggling with how to rectify the White House’s paradoxical positions.

“We see there are various, blatant contradictions in his general attitude and disposition,” said John Park, 44, the executive director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, the leading Korean-American activist group in New York.

“In terms of North and South Korea, we do care about family unification; that’s something we’ve been hoping for, for a long time,” Mr. Park said. But, he added, “They are O.K. with splitting up families. They are really doubling down on that position, which is horrifying and inhumane to us.”

Even among those who support negotiations with North Korea, some Korean-Americans say they are skeptical the Trump administration will play a crucial role. Jung-woo Kim, who moved to Fullerton from South Korea when he was 15 and regularly speaks to friends there, said that it was Mr. Moon, the South Korean president, who deserved credit for the recent shifts.

“If you want to have peace, it’s Korean people’s work to do,” said Mr. Kim, who now works for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium. “Whatever he is doing is not about helping our people. He thinks he deserves the Nobel Prize.”

Mr. Kim is among the activists who hope the fight over immigration will play a key role in the midterm congressional races in Orange County, where Democrats are trying win several seats. Local political experts say Korean voters in the county are evenly split, with about a third each registering as Republican and Democrats and the remainder choosing neither party.

Earlier this year, dozens of people gathered outside Representative Mimi Walters’s district office, urging her to do more to create a path to citizenship. Since Mr. Trump’s election, the activists have focused their ire on Ms. Walters, along with other Republicans in Orange County who are facing tough re-election bids this year.

“They haven’t done very much for us, even though there are so many people here impacted,” said Erica Kim, who has lived in Orange County for years and now works as a parent organizer at the Korean Resource Center. “My daughter thinks she is American. My friends, they want to do something to help her. I tell them: The only way we can change anything is vote and get people who are elected to listen.”


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U.S. - U.S. Daily News: Awe, Gratitude, Fear: Conflicting Emotions for Korean-Americans in the Era of Trump
Awe, Gratitude, Fear: Conflicting Emotions for Korean-Americans in the Era of Trump
U.S. - U.S. Daily News
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