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Koreans Stunned by Tragedy

The fiery deaths of two children horrify the community. Experts say immigrant men like the father face pressure to attain financial success.

April 08, 2006|Hemmy So | Times Staff Writer

Like many in Koreatown, Chang Ae Jung's first reaction was one of horror when she read about the father accused of killing his two young children by placing them in the family's sport utility vehicle and setting it on fire.

"Even with everything going wrong," said Chang, 47, who has followed the story closely in the Korean media, "how could someone do something like this?"

Police and friends say Dae Kwon Yun, 54, was distraught over his failing clothing business, the breakup of his marriage and mounting bills from his daughter's private school.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of his children have jolted Southern California's tight-knit Korean American community, which prides itself on hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit and strong family values.

Along with the outrage is the recognition of the pressure that many immigrants face in their struggle to assimilate and make a better life for their families in the U.S.

It was something that Yun had talked about privately, complaining to one friend "about the stress of having a good, high-end lifestyle."

But most struggling with personal or financial troubles find ways to resolve their problems through family and friends, their church or social service agencies, said Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, who has spent a quarter century studying the Korean American community of Los Angeles.

"Korean immigrants live under tremendous pressure to earn a living and to educate their young," he said.

"Sometimes those pressures can reach crisis proportions.... But what Mr. Yun did is so extreme, even those of us who know the community well are at a loss to explain. His action is an aberration -- a tragedy for him, his family and, also, the community," he added.

For a time, Yun had achieved the kind of success that many immigrants hope for in America: He owned a profitable T-shirt manufacturing business, drove a Mercedes-Benz and had a home in Hancock Park.

Then it all unraveled. Yun's business began losing money, his family moved to Monterey Park after experiencing financial problems and two years ago he was arrested on suspicion of hitting his wife, Sun Ok Ma, who filed for divorce last week.

But no one who knew the family was prepared for what happened next.

According to police, Yun drove his two children, Ashley, 11, and Alexander, 10, on Sunday to a deserted alley downtown, then splashed gasoline around the interior of the SUV.

Witnesses told police they saw Yun arguing with Ashley before forcing her into the back seat. Then he climbed into the front passenger seat, and the vehicle burst into flames.

Seconds later, Yun rolled out onto the ground, his legs engulfed in flames, police said.

He has yet to be charged in the case but remains in custody at County-USC Medical Center, where he is being treated.

Y.K. Min described his former business partner as a hard-working man who never talked about personal issues.

"We talked two or three times a week, and he said his business was getting worse and worse," Min said. "But I never heard a single word from him about his wife or family."

Yun had complained to others, however, about his struggle to maintain a comfortable life for his family, including the high cost of private school for his daughter. Yun closed his business last month.

"He said life was too much to handle," said Jasmine Jung, the owner of a cafe in the building where Young had his business.

Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said many immigrants struggle with the pressure to achieve financial success, especially in a status-conscious society like America's.

"It's so much of what you wear and what you drive versus your character," she said. Korean Americans "have fallen for that. A lot of Americans have fallen for that. Think about it: Why do so many Americans have huge credit card debt?"

Community leaders also say cultural differences may exacerbate the problem. The traditional emphasis on the male as the breadwinner, combined with the adjustment to a new culture and language, can often present stressful challenges for older Korean immigrant men, said Johng Ho Song, executive director of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.

Lee Han Ok, 53, an acupuncturist with his own business in Koreatown, said it was hard to adjust when he arrived with his family in the U.S. in 1996.

Because his wife stayed at home with their children, Lee was the sole provider. To deal with the financial stress, he said, he took a strict approach to the family budget, saving half of what he earned.

"In Korea, coming to America means being successful and making a lot of money," Lee said. "But when you get here, you understand that it's not easy, and even if I want to make money, I may not."

Susan Lee, a counselor and director of program development at the Hanmi Family Counseling Center in Garden Grove, works with Korean American families on issues of domestic violence and parent and youth education. She said what happened to Yun reflects a larger problem.

"It's an issue of basic human conflict that just went totally out of control," Lee said. "There were issues of marital problems, maybe parental problems, financial distress in the family. Those are intrinsic to any society, any culture, any ethnicity.

"We see in the mainstream women drowning their kids, beating their kids, starving their kids," she said. "The problems that this incident reflects are our modern-day American problems."

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

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