The possibility that former City Commissioner Kyung Joon Kim could influence South Korea's Dec. 19 presidential election by giving testimony against the leading candidate is generating a lot of passion in L.A.'s Koreatown.
On Tuesday, leaders of two nationwide Korean American groups supporting front-runner Lee Myung-bak, denounced Kim, 41, accusing him of trying to "manipulate" the election by giving up his fight against extradition. Kim, an Ivy League-educated financier who was appointed to the city's Industrial Development Authority in 2003 by former Mayor James K. Hahn, returned to South Korea last week to face charges that he had masterminded a $30-million investment fraud there.
On Tuesday, as more than 70 reporters and camera crews from the Korean-language news media waited for a scheduled news conference by Kim's family at the Wilshire Plaza Hotel, protesters hurled questions and criticism. Among them were some elderly women who had draped yellow sashes around their chests and carried placards.
"Why did he spend three years fighting extradition, then suddenly give up the fight?" asked James Ahn, a spokesman for the Korean American National Assn. "He did that to cause mischief -- to exploit voters for self-serving reasons."
Yong Tai Lee, a Los Angeles physician who is the national chairman of Lee Myung-bak's support group in the United States, also spoke disparagingly of Kim and his family.
"No matter what they say, it won't work," because voters won't believe Kim, he said.
During the news conference, Kim's wife, Bora Lee, accompanied by her attorney, Eric Honig, said her husband had been wrongfully labeled an "international fraud," despite the fact that no court had convicted him.
Bora Lee handed out a stack of material at the news conference, including court documents. She also read a statement in Korean and showed a DVD of a deposition given by a former secretary of candidate Lee Myung-bak linking him to several companies her husband was affiliated with.
Both she and Honig declined to take questions from reporters. The reporters had waited more than two hours, standing in line for security checks, before being admitted into the room where the event took place.
Honig said the news conference was delayed because of the demonstrators and the huge number of local and foreign reporters who showed up. "We had no idea that there would be demonstrators," he said.
Ahn's organization had initially scheduled its protest in front of the Korean Consulate. But after learning about the Kim family's news conference, the group took the protest to the hotel.
The group later walked several blocks to the Korean Consulate, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, and marched for 20 minutes.
Kyung Joon Kim was arrested by FBI agents, U.S. marshals and Beverly Hills police in May 2004 at his Beverly Hills home and held at the Metropolitan Detention Center until last week. South Korean prosecutors have sought his extradition since then.
Lee Myung-bak, the presidential nominee for the conservative Grand National Party who is leading in the polls, is Kim's former business partner. Lee has said he severed all ties with Kim in 2001 and denies having knowledge of the alleged fraud.
Though many Korean immigrants in Los Angeles cannot contribute money to political candidates in South Korea or vote for them, they follow events in their homeland with a passion.
Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of Koreans in the nation, is a bastion of conservatives who have long been unhappy with President Roh Myoo-hyun's cool relationship with the United States.
"Who becomes president affects us in America," said Yong Tai Lee, chairman of the Hanminjok (Korean) Network. "Korean Americans want a closer relationship between South Korea and the United States."