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Koreans Picket Japanese Firm

Protest: Demonstration follows funeral of an employee who killed himself after alleging discrimination.

November 11, 1999|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of Korean Americans staged a protest Wednesday in front of the Torrance office of Nippon Express USA Inc. after the funeral of Myung-Sub Lee, a former employee who took his own life last month after alleging that he was a victim of racial discrimination by employees of the worldwide shipping company.

His supporters say Lee, who worked for the Japanese firm for nearly five years, was driven to kill himself by the actions of his bosses.

Lee, a Korean immigrant, was fired and faced criminal charges for making threats against company officials. Conviction would have forced his deportation.

Lee's Japanese wife, Junko, said her 39-year-old husband was "trapped" by company officials during a personnel meeting at which he allegedly made the threats. The meeting was called after repeated complaints by Lee that his Japanese superiors often made disparaging comments about his Korean heritage.

"Personnel people from New York came to see him and suggested that they have a frank discussion," she said. "When they asked him how he felt when he was 'harassed,' my husband told them he felt like 'killing them.' "

Officials then notified police, she said.

Nippon Express spokesman Fred McFarland denied the charges that company officials harassed Lee because of his ethnicity. McFarland said Lee made threats against company officials and those threats were taken seriously.

"What the story points up is a continuing need for a new corner to turn in this historical dialogue among the people," said McFarland, who is African American. "In this case, you have two Asian cultures that are different, two takes on history between the two nations, and . . . the two are now here in the United States within the dynamics of American culture."

But a tearful Junko Lee said, "It is unforgivable that they would have my husband arrested, have him handcuffed and taken away from his office for answering their question truthfully."

She added, "My husband would never hurt anyone. He had a good heart. He had a short temper, but he would always apologize when he lost his temper."

In his sermon to the more than 100 mourners attending Lee's funeral, the Rev. Sung-Jong Shin lamented that the gap between cultures could have played a role.

"Koreans say 'I'm going to kill you' quite easily when they are angry," he said, "but that doesn't mean that they are going to carry it out."

Lee's comments to company officials were taken at face value and led authorities to treat him like a terrorist, Shin said.

The Rev. Hyun Seung Yang, chairman of the Committee for Justice for M.S. Lee, said he hoped Nippon Express would engage in a dialogue with the committee to come to a "moral resolution."

At Nippon Express, workers observed a moment of silence at the Torrance facility during Lee's funeral.

Nippon Express and Lee had reached a $50,000 out-of-court settlement regarding his harassment allegations, Lee's supporters said. But after talking with his wife, Yang said, Lee told his attorney that he wanted to back out of it.

Lee's mother, Ok-Ran Kim, 66, who flew from Seoul to attend the funeral, was inconsolable. "I wish I could die," she said. "I wish I could take my son's place now."

His mother-in-law, Kazuko Matsubara, who came from Nara, Japan, lamented his "destiny."

"I just can't believe it," she said.

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