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Koreatown, Take a Bow

Sports: Their beloved South Korean soccer team loses in World Cup play, but proud and considerate fans still come away winners.

June 26, 2002|ANTHONY McCARTNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Haejin Lee cupped her face in her hands early Tuesday morning, watching through her fingers as South Korea's final shot missed the net. Around her, bodies sagged. Lee's face dropped one last time into her lap, which was covered by the flag she and so many others had come to embrace in recent weeks.

Then Lee lifted her head, disappointed that South Korea had lost to Germany 1-0 in the 2002 World Cup semifinal, but not distraught. All around her were signs of what the national team's improbable rise in the tournament had meant to Los Angeles' Koreatown district.

It was not just that local merchants made money from the thousands who missed sleep to gather at 6th Street and Alexandria Avenue for the team's last two games. It was that many area residents felt they had won back a sense of pride tarnished 10 years ago in the Los Angeles riots, when racial discord triggered attacks on hundreds of Korean-owned businesses.

For some, South Korea's surprising string of successes in World Cup soccer had even deeper historical significance: A country oppressed on many levels was now winning worldwide respect for beating Portugal, Italy and Spain.

The mostly young Korean American spectators, watching the first Asian team to make it to the World Cup semifinals, positioned themselves on the pavement of Equitable Plaza, trying to get the best view of the two 160-inch television screens set up to show the game. Most, like Haejin Lee, a 23-year-old office receptionist who emigrated from Seoul as a child and had never seen a soccer game before this tournament, had not gone to sleep before the 4:30 a.m. start.

They saturated the landscape with red--the South Korean team is known as the Red Devils--dressing in specially made shirts printed with the slogan "Be the Reds." By Monday afternoon this seemed the uniform of choice in Koreatown. By game time, fans had customized their shirts--women cutting them to expose their midriffs, men lopping off the sleeves to make muscle shirts.

Spectators brought drums and other noisemakers: air horns, cymbals, even a cow bell. Cars cruised down 6th, South Korean flags flapping from their windows, horns blaring. As drumbeats set the cadence, the crowd began chanting, "Daehan Minguk!" (Great Korean nation).

"With this moment," said Hong Kim, a Koreatown restaurant owner from Buena Park who was working with a volunteer group assisting police, "we're going to forget the 1992 riots."

Koreatown's evolution to a majority-Latino community was reflected by Nelson Paz, a Honduran construction worker who wrapped himself in his own national flag and came to watch the game to "give support to our friends the Koreans."

In Hollywood, Jimmy Choi, a 66-year-old Korean American dentist, watched the match at home on Korean-language television, celebrating it as another example of the arduous road his people have traveled to gain international recognition.

For centuries, the Korean peninsula was hounded by its powerful neighbors--Japan, China and Russia--because of its strategic location. In the 20th century, Koreans lived under Japanese rule for 35 years until 1945. Soon after Korea was freed from Japan, the peninsula was divided by the United States and the Soviet Union, once again becoming a geopolitical pawn.

Millions of Koreans died during the Korean War, which broke out 52 years ago Tuesday. South Koreans then endured three decades of authoritarian rule, during which even Korean Americans living in California were careful not to speak ill of the repressive government for fear of retaliation against loved ones back home.

Today, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the divided Korean peninsula remains a place where differing ideologies keep millions of relatives separated without even communication by mail.

"That our players can walk shoulder to shoulder with the most skillful soccer players in the world is so inspiring," said Choi, who, while not a big soccer fan, watched each World Cup game. "Though I am a U.S. citizen, my heart is very Korean. How can I help it?"

He and many others were convinced that the soccer team's rise had infused Koreans worldwide with confidence. Others wondered whether too much patriotism would create a backlash.

As happy as he was with the team's play, Warren Chun, owner of an auto-repair business in Koreatown, wished that Korean Americans would tone down the soccer fever, lest they give the rest of America a negative impression. Chun might have been comforted by what happened in Equitable Plaza after South Korea missed that last shot and the clock ran out.

Almost immediately, the spectators stood, many stooping to grab the red trash bags that had been left around the parking lot. They gathered up the papers, wrappers, plastic bottles and foam coffee cups that had been strewn about.

Then this river of red shirts flowed out onto 6th, leaving an empty, pristine plaza, the trash bags piled neatly by the exits.

Times staff writer K. Connie Kang contributed to this report.

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