Attorney Tong Soo Chung, born in Korea and educated at Ivy League universities, is a registered Democrat in Los Angeles.
Why, then, does he plan to contribute money to Republican Sang R. Korman, a political unknown seeking the GOP congressional nomination in a district miles away from Chung's?
"His message for the Korean-American community is that it is time to get involved," Chung said of Korman, who is also an immigrant. "He wants to be the example for the younger generation to aspire to those levels."
Korman's appeal reflects a desire by members of Southern California's fast-growing Korean community to find a political voice and make political gains, as have other minorities. The effort has been prompted, in part, by a need to protect the group's rights and interests on issues ranging from zoning, redistricting, government grants and bilingual social services to the depiction of Koreans in the American media, community leaders say.
Recent Korean immigrants "are well-educated, they are very concerned with political issues and they are financially better off" than other newcomers, said Chae-Jin Lee, a political scientist and dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at California State University, Long Beach. "They feel their overall community interests can be promoted by taking part in the political process."
Though the Korean impact has been limited thus far, these immigrants are edging toward increased political involvement, particularly in Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean population outside Asia. There are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Koreans in Southern California.
In recent years, community activists, including the youth-oriented Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, have pressured the U.S. media to repudiate unflattering depictions of Koreans, registered more than 6,000 new voters and helped place young Korean-Americans in government jobs and internships.
A Korean-American Democratic Committee was recently formed in Los Angeles to raise $250,000 from Koreans nationwide to contribute to one of the Democratic presidential candidates in the primary and general-election campaigns, said Chee Hyung Lee, committee director. The committee has not decided which candidate it will support.
Well-heeled Korean businessmen and professionals have already contributed generously to the campaigns of Mayor Tom Bradley; Michael Woo, the first Los Angeles city councilman of Asian descent; former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., and unsuccessful City Council candidate Arthur Song, himself a Korean-American. Korean-Americans now appear poised to bankroll Korman's uphill candidacy, and there is talk of forming a political action committee to maximize the ethnic group's financial impact.
Reflecting this growing activism, Korean-Americans have been hired by U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, state Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Councilmen Nate Holden and Robert Farrell, whose districts include parts of Koreatown, which is in the mid-Wilshire area, west of downtown. Some aides are used as liaison to the Korean community; others have different staff positions. Such posts often become a training ground for future candidates for public office.
"Like many new immigrant groups, the Korean community is beginning to understand that government can have a major impact on their lives, ranging from building permits to community land-use questions to law and order," said Woo, who is Chinese-American. He added that they are learning quickly.
Woo recently joined Korean activists to denounce as racist a Rolling Stone article that described Koreans as having "the same Blackglama hair, the same high-boned pie-plate face, the same tea-stained complexion, the same sharp-focused look."
The protest has prompted an oral apology from Rolling Stone Executive Editor Robert Wallace, who said the article was intended as satire. But the Koreans are further demanding a printed apology and retraction, another article on an Asian-related issue by a Korean or other Asian writer, the adoption of an Asian internship program and dismissal of staff writer P. J. O'Rourke. Another meeting has been scheduled between Wallace and Koreans.
Woo is considered a role model by some Korean activists: an Asian-American who earned his political spurs as an aide to Roberti before his 1985 election in a district that is less than 5% Asian. But his success also points up the hurdles Koreans face.