Korean Pride: Gangs and the Korean Community, by Dae-Gun Kim

Korean Pride. Korean Power. Especially at a place like Stanford, these phrases tend to be greeted with questioning glances. Even for those more familiar with the gang affiliations which these phrases represent, the images invoked tend to be of a rather harmless nature; baggy clothes, ghetto talk, and lowered Hondas with skyscraper spoilers and oversized mufflers. At its most extreme, Korean gangs are seen by some as being involved in the occasional fight involving fists, knives, or the more infrequently imagined gun. These stereotypes alone seem hard to swallow for a vast number of Koreans, especially when confronted with gang-affiliated children or friends. Unfortunately, they are also stereotypes that, in many respects, prove in many ways to be grossly tame and naive.

Ask Mu Yung Shin,* presently a prostitute at a Korean massage parlor in Dallas. Abducted at the age of 14 from her village home in South Korea by a group of Korean criminals, she was repeatedly raped, then sent to one of the infamous "sex farms" used by the South Korean army, where she was made a sex slave for two years. In the early nineties she was moved to the US legally through a sham marriage with an American GI and has served ever since as a Korean massage parlor prostitute in various locales stretching from Chicago and Houston to New York City.1

Mu Yung Shin is just one of several thousand Korean women abducted, raped, and virtually enslaved by the multimillion-dollar international prostitution network run by the Korean Killers, or KK. Korean Killers, and other major Korean gangs is the US such as Korean Power, based in New York, deal not only in prostitution, but in drug trafficking, extortion, and firebombings, mostly directed against the Korean community.

Take Tae Sook Lee,* a longtime member of the Korean Killers based in Los Angeles' Koreatown. With two accomplices, called his "enforcers," Tae would visit Korean businesses in the area, mostly car dealerships, and demand payments of money ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. If threats and intimidation failed to net him the money, arson would result. According to Ray Futami, a detective with the LAPD, "If they [Korean business owners] didn't pay, Tae would send in his boys, his enforcers, and they would burn cars and dealerships." Tae was finally apprehended in 1989 through information gained in the shooting death of Ha-Seung Lee, a sort of Koreatown "Godfather." In an ironic, and ultimately saddening twist, it was discovered Tae's parents themselves are the owners of several businesses in the Koreatown area.2

In 1993, five members of New York's Korean Power gang were arrested on charges of extortion from at least 100 Korean small businesses, using threats of physical pain or firebombings to keep their victims silent and obedient. These were not the actions of hardened criminals, but of Korean youths ranging in age from 16 to 23.3 Neither were these crimes rare aberrations. From Los Angeles to New York, prostitution and extortion are practiced on a daily basis by Koreans against Koreans.

Asking the question of "why" is in many ways a fruitless exercise; every community has its share of gang problems, and none have managed to fully understand, much less contain such actions. But a much more pressing question is reflected in the ignorance, skepticism, and silence that seem to be the stock response of the Korean community to the actions of Korean gangs. Why do so few Koreans hear or know of the problems, and why do fewer still choose to speak out about them?

The seeming inability of the Korean community to properly face up to its gang problems has had many damaging repercussions. Not only has it left multiple police investigations languishing due to lack of support and cooperation from the victims of these crimes, but it has created a culture of ignorance and denial within the community as a whole. When Korean-language media fails to report such stories, it only bolsters the individual Korean's vehement denials that the problems exist. When parents see children with cigarette burn scars on their arms and "Korean Pride" (another moniker used by multiple localized Korean gangs) caps atop their heads and fail to realize the full extent of the implications, it bespeaks of a breakdown in the idea of community. It has sacrificed the idea of honest, sometimes painful communication for the false salve of unqualified support. These attempts to provide support for the community's individual members, especially its children, have gone too far when, in doing so, they chose to ignore, and by turn exacerbate, gang problems which cannot simply be wished away.

Jump now to Washington D.C., where in a span of 18 months from 1985 to 1986 eleven Korean businesses were mysteriously firebombed. Though the investigation, handled by both local and federal authorities, first focused on tensions between Washington's Black and Korean communities, patterns and circumstances similar to Korean against Korean firebombings in Los Angeles and New York led investigators to suspect the work of a local Korean gang styling itself in the image of the better known KK and Korean Power gangs. Though the police had no firm evidence pointing to any specific Korean gang activity, several signs existed. All the businesses were Korean. The firebombings were all of a more threatening rather than destructive intent, unlike the heavy damage that would be more likely in racially motivated bombings. Except for the Korea Times building, the other businesses had no tell-tale outward signs of being Korean-owned. At the least, such evidence pointed to broadening the investigation to include the possibility of Korean gang activity. What investigators did not quite count on was the utter lack of cooperation given by the Korean community. One Korean business owner whose store was firebombed insisted that Koreans were "absolutely not" responsible for the firebombings and that any theories to the contrary were "without substance." The treasurer of the local Korean Businessman's Association was even more strident in his denial, saying that "there is no possibility, not even one percent" that Korean gangs might have anything to do with the string of firebombings. He insisted that the bombing resulted from "hostility against Koreans...Whenever I join some Black community meeting, I can feel some hostility exists there." 4

The Washington firebombings were not a case of casting guilt upon Korean gangs without firm evidence, as the forceful tone of the Korean response might suggest. The defensive nature of the Washington Korean community's reaction in not allowing even the slightest possibility of Korean gang involvement, indeed insisting that no Korean gangs existed at all in the Washington area, amply illustrates the dysfunctionality with which the Korean community has dealt with these issues. When the community cannot even ponder the idea that the firebombings were Korean in origin, even in the face of multiple similar incidents in Los Angeles and New York, there is more than a lack of communication or knowledge involved.

The Korean community has often been proven guilty of reverting to attitudes of programmed ignorance and instantaneous denial in the face of issues and events which have the power to reflect negatively on Koreans. An extreme form of the community's own extreme and unjustified sense of "Korean Pride," this knee-jerk tendency to react with unrationalized and vociferous denial in the face of issues which could lead to some sense of "communal shame" has unwittingly caused heavy damage to the community as a whole. The desire for Koreans to want to focus only on the academic and social achievements of their children while turning a blind eye to a thriving criminal counterculture has served as a major factor in the growth of Korean gang activity in the recent years. Without acknowledgment, the Korean gang problem can only get worse, and the Korean community will continue to be victim to its own suspension of reality.

* Names have been changed.


  1. Gallagher, Mike. "Prostitution Ring Traps South Koreans." USA Today - International Edition. April 7, 1995 : News, p. 5A.
  2. Crane, Alice. "Reputed Leader of Koreatown Gang Arrested." U.P.I. Sept. 15, 1989 : Regional News.
  3. "Korean Gangsters Held in Extortion." The New York Times. May 9, 1993 : Section 1, p. 26.
  4. Anderson, John Ward. "Extortion Eyed in Firebombings of Korean-Owned Businesses; Police Probe 7 Incidents in 10 months in NW Area." The Washington Post. Oct. 19, 1985 : D1.

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