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America From Abroad : Pacific Ties: Koreans View Korean-Americans : Round table turns up a complex mix of resentment, admiration, envy--and some friendly advice.

July 20, 1993|KAY HWANGBO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SEOUL — Ask any Korean-American who has ever visited here, and you will learn that Koreans have definite ideas of how Korean-Americans should live, what they owe to their mother country and--if they have any doubts on the subject--who they really are.

"You're Korean; you should learn to speak Korean," cabdrivers here often admonish Korean-American visitors.

But Koreans' real feelings about Korean-Americans are more complex than such remarks suggest, said four Seoul residents who participated in an informal round-table discussion with a Korean-American reporter. Those attitudes are also changing as living standards improve here, they said.

"Koreans have mixed feelings toward Korean-Americans," commented sociologist Hong Doo Seung, who was consulted for, but did not participate in, the round table. "In one sense Koreans see Korean-Americans as Koreans, not as Americans. But in another sense they feel Korean-Americans are not Koreans, because they do not speak Korean and behave differently from the way Koreans do."

Another contradiction, Hong said, can be observed in the way Koreans lecture Korean-Americans to become better American citizens while expecting them to promote Korean interests in America.

Round-table participants came from various sectors of Korean society: Cho Soon Sung, a national assemblyman who spent 20 years teaching political science at American universities; Park Choon Ho, an international-law professor at Korea University with an interest in Koreans living abroad; Lee Byung Hoon, executive producer of the Korean MBC network's "Tenacious Wind," a popular miniseries about a Korean-American family, and Rhee Joo Young, editor of the Yonsei University English-language student newspaper, the Annals.

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Question: There seems to be the feeling among Koreans that even third-generation Korean-Americans are still "Korean" and therefore, expected to contribute to Korea.

Assemblyman Cho: I think so. The reason is that in Oriental culture, we tend to think of blood ties as being very important. In the United States, if you are born in the country, you are automatically considered a citizen. But in Korea, Japan or China, we are using a principle according to blood. If your parents are Koreans, wherever you are born in the world, you are regarded to be Korean. So, that kind of tradition has lingered on for a long time.

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Q: Do Koreans feel that Korean-Americans should be agents of influence for Korea in the United States?

Cho: Certainly in their hearts they are always saying that any Koreans who are living in the United States should influence Americans in the legislature or whomever it may be so that they can serve for the interest of Korea. . . . I can see the example of (U.S. Rep.) Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar). Now he's become the champion, the defendant, for the rice issue here. I read in the news that he says America should differentiate Korea from other countries. The reason is that if the rice market is opened in Korea, all Korean agriculture will be destroyed. It means he's a very effective medium for the Korean government even though he is an American citizen. That kind of influence we need. . . .

I think professors can contribute more than politicians. You know, the Japanese are doing very wisely on that. The reason is that in 1968 the Japan Foundation was organized, and it helped to establish Japan studies centers at 18 different American universities. And they required that these centers hire one Japanese linguist or historian or Japan specialist. They have become effective lobbyists for Japanese industry as well as the Japanese government. This is what I'm advocating for the Korean government. Finally Korea also organized a Korea Foundation. Now we are going to provide about six different universities with about $500,000. . . .

Student editor Rhee: I'm not sure Korean-Americans would really agree to being agents of influence. They probably have their own lives. I think it would be very confusing with their citizenship and their values.

Cho: You're raising an important issue. (It's) kind of a conflict of internal values. In my view, Korean-Americans have more information than other Americans who've never been exposed to Korea. We're not asking them to give exaggerated information about Korea. We're simply asking them to give a true picture, true facts. That alone is a major contribution in my judgment. . . .

A Korean-American boy might say, well, I have to fight for the United States in case there is a war. In that aspect, he may be a truly loyal American citizen, but in another aspect, in social life, when he was mingling around with American friends . . . he may be serving Korea.

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Q: Should Korean-Americans live as Koreans, or should they put down their roots in America and be American?

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