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The Fathers

Four children were dead. To most, this was incomprehensible. But some could understand.

October 29, 2006|Mona Gable | Mona Gable has been published in Salon, Health and West.

On April 2, as the late afternoon light glinted off the high-rises of downtown and the shopkeepers of Santee Alley began to close for the night, Dae Kwon Yun, 54, drove through the garment district. Sitting in the back seat of his white Toyota Sequoia were Yun's children, Ashley, 11, and Alexander, 10. Earlier that day, their father had picked them up on Hobart Street in Koreatown, where they lived in a small apartment with their mother, Sun Ma. They did not want to go with him. But they were obedient children. And their father had promised to buy Ashley an iPod, Alexander a book.

At about 4:40 p.m., Yun parked in an alley behind Stanford Street, a few blocks from Arco Apparel, the manufacturing business he'd been forced to close two weeks before. At some point, police believe, he doused the inside of the SUV with fuel. Later, witnesses would describe Yun arguing with Ashley in Korean outside the car. Later, witnesses would describe Yun grabbing the sixth grader by her ponytail and one arm and shoving her into the back seat next to her brother, and then climbing into the front passenger seat.

The Sequoia burst into flames.

A moment later, Yun opened the door and rolled out.

By the time firefighters arrived, at 4:45 p.m., the Sequoia was reduced to its metal shell. At first they didn't realize anyone else had been inside, the children's bodies were so badly burned.

That same week, on April 8, Bong Joo Lee, a 40-year-old resident of Fontana, called his ex-wife, Gina. It was a Saturday, and Lee wanted to take their 5-year-old daughter, Iris, out to eat. When he didn't bring Iris home by evening, Gina drove from her house in Upland to his house on American Way. The front door was locked, but Gina still had a key.

She found them in the master bedroom upstairs. Lee had shot and killed Iris with a 9-millimeter handgun and then killed himself.

The next day, Palm Sunday, the Kim family never arrived for the early service at Praise Church of the Nazarene. At 10 a.m., friends went to their apartment in Echo Park to look for them.

Sang Kim, 55, had shot his wife and two children before turning the gun on himself. He lay across the body of Young Ok, 50, in their bed. Matthew, 8, was dead too. Daughter Bin Na, 16, was alive but critically wounded.

All across Los Angeles during that cold week in early spring, the questions were asked again and again. Why had these fathers killed their children? Had they gone mad? Were the crimes simply a terrible coincidence? Or were they evidence of some deeper malaise afflicting the city's Korean American immigrants?

The Korean community was devastated by the murders and struggled to deal with their aftermath. Korean-speaking counselors were rushed to Wonderland Avenue Elementary in Laurel Canyon, where Matthew Kim had been a second grader, and to 3rd Street Elementary in Hancock Park, where Alexander Yun had been a fourth grader. At St. James' School in Hancock Park, the close-knit Episcopal school where Ashley would have graduated with her classmates in June, Korean ministers consoled students, teachers and parents. Within hours of Ashley's death, the Rev. Paul J. Kowalewski, the rector of St. James' Church, was fielding calls from Korean parishioners. This is not typical of the Korean community, they wanted him to understand. We are not violent. We don't express ourselves this way.

On the front pages of the Korea Times, academics sifted possible cultural reasons for the tragedies. "Why Murder Suicides Take Place" read the headline on an April 5 editorial. Marital woes were mentioned, financial setbacks, the stress and isolation of immigrant life. The shame Korean men feel in seeking help with personal problems. Two of the husbands, one story noted, had histories of beating their wives. Korean churches were blamed for ignoring the unseemly problem of domestic violence, and for their failure to reach out to troubled families. A group of Asian organizations sent a letter to hundreds of Korean religious leaders asking them to sign a national declaration. "We proclaim with one voice," the declaration began, ". . . that violence against women exists in all communities, including our own, and is morally, spiritually and universally intolerable."

Yet for all the agonizing and debate, "they all know this can happen," says Charles Kim, referring to the Korean American community. "And it will happen again."

'To understand Koreans," Kim is saying, "you have to understand woori mentality."

Kim is president of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles, a national organization whose goal is to promote the participation of Koreans in American political life. On a hot afternoon in September, he is leaning across his desk in his cramped office at 6th and Harvard in Koreatown, trying to convey the dynamics of the Korean family structure.

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