Pushing aside shirts and pants wrapped in plastic and suspended from the ceiling, Jung Suck Lee makes her way through other people's clothes. Reaching the counter, she adjusts her downy white hair -- now slightly electric -- with a coquettish pat of the palm.
This morning at 7, Lee arrived with her daughter and son-in-law at the family-owned dry cleaning business on 6th Street in Koreatown. By 9, the first rush of customers has come and gone, but Lee has little time to stand around chatting about geopolitics.
Behind the rimless glasses, her eyes narrow slightly when asked about North Korea. "Evil," she says simply in Korean. "Bomb them."
She turns around, disappearing quickly behind a curtain of pastel business shirts. There are baskets of coat hangers to be sorted.
"To catch and kill the rat --" begins her daughter, 58-year-old Ok Soon Choe, before her son interrupts.
"Uh-oh," says Peter Choe, 25. "I hope she's not saying what I think she's saying.... No one wants to see Iraq in North Korea."
But in recent weeks, many Korean Americans have seen the specter of a new war in the smoky backdrop of Iraqi battlefields.
In Los Angeles, political differences in the Korean community fall largely along generational lines, says Kenneth Kim, a staff writer for the Los Angeles edition of the Korea Times. Many older emigres, who lived through the Korean War, support a hard-line stance, he says. For the younger generation, the North and the South "may have different governments, but they are the same nation." And although the Korean American community is not homogeneous, Kim says, "they share a common sense of insecurity."
Today, the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to discuss North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and apparent resumption of its nuclear weapons program. The White House is pushing a multilateral approach to the crisis, but North Korea is demanding bilateral talks with the U.S. -- and has warned that it would view any U.N. sanctions as a "declaration of war."
In South Korea -- traditionally a U.S. ally, and home to about 37,000 American troops -- there's fear that the North might retaliate against it. After the invasion of Iraq, thousands of demonstrators rallied in Seoul, some carrying placards reading "Iraq now, North Korea next."
"Before, I was thinking there's no way it's going to happen," says Peter Choe. "The fact that we're at war with Iraq makes it more possible. Even my non-Korean friends are like, 'Guess who's next?' "
"IT'S scary," says 18-year-old Ray Lim, sitting in the sun on the back patio of I Love Boba, a popular coffee shop on Western Avenue. The most gregarious of a group of La Canada High School students hunched over syrup-laden iced coffees, Lim says he fears a backlash against Koreans here, just as "the Arab Americans were treated differently after Sept. 11."
"It doesn't make sense, because we're not North Korean," interrupts one of his friends, Jenny Kim, 18.
Lim, who came from Seoul two years ago, is skeptical of U.S. foreign policy. "In Bosnia and in the Balkans, there were lots of infringements on human rights and the administration didn't do anything about it," he says. "Now we're invading Iraq because of that?"
Despite President Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric, war is ultimately an "industrial, commercial affair," says Lim. "You attack something, and you get something from that other country." But "there's nothing that the U.S. can gain by attacking North Korea."
A little while later, a group of girls from Beverly Hills High School finds a table in the sun.
Anabel Yang, 17, says her grandmother escaped from the North. "When I think of North Korea, I think of Hitler." Still, she doesn't want to see a war. "I'm afraid," she says. Her friend, 19-year-old Jenny Chong is afraid, too. "But just like everyone, she says, we're just trying to work and live."
"FOR Koreans, it's a very complex issue -- it's related to the motherland and immigration issues," says Young Hui Kim, a 49-year-old poet who studied French literature at the University of Seoul before coming to Los Angeles 25 years ago.
She has two teenage children, a boy and a girl, both confused about the war in Iraq. Their father, who is not Korean, is for the war. She is active in the newly founded organization Korean Americans for Peace. (The couple is divorced.)
"They have a conflict," she says of her children. "But I don't want to force my antiwar opinion on them." She talks often with her daughter about the war. "She really thinks Iraq is a threat to America."
A fellow peace activist, 32-year-old Yong-bin Yuk, says North-South reconciliation efforts (which earned then-South Korean president Kim Dae Jung the 2000 Nobel Peace prize) gave Koreans hope. Now, "there's that shadow of a possible war against the North," says Yuk. "We have a deep history of death and tragedy."
And Yuk, too, fears a backlash against Korean Americans. "Even in the latest James Bond movie, the villain was North Korean," he says.