Paul Kim was seen as a deeply religious man who acted as a mentor to teens at the Korean church in La Habra that he attended. He sometimes served as a translator and took it upon himself to counsel youth he saw as troubled.
But authorities say that in at least one case, his "counseling" crossed a line. Kim is accused of beating the 15-year-old son of a fellow church member with an inch-wide metal pole until the boy's legs were bruised and swollen. The misbehavior that prompted the alleged attack: The boy's parents believed he had been smoking.
Some in the Korean immigrant community described the case as an extreme example of the culture clash between first-generation parents and their Americanized children, as well as changing views about corporal punishment in Korean culture.
Kim, a 39-year-old mortgage broker, was arrested Dec. 7 at his Chino Hills home on suspicion of felony child abuse.
The case came to light after an athletic coach at the 15-year-old victim's high school in Irvine noticed the boy's injuries, according to a search warrant served on Kim's home.
The victim's parents, who knew Kim through church, reportedly contacted him after they found a lighter in their son's possession, San Bernardino County sheriff's officials said. The boy's father, according to the search warrant, told Kim about the "discipline problems" he was having with his son and asked Kim to meet with the boy, who was not identified because of his age, according to the search warrant.
The boy went to Kim's house in Chino Hills, where Kim questioned whether he was using marijuana, according to the search warrant. When the boy denied it, again according to the warrant, Kim began to hit him in the back of the legs with a long pole, later determined to be the pole from a tall floor lamp. Sheriff's officials said Kim struck the boy about 12 times, causing severe bruising.
Kim admitted to investigators that he had hit the boy. Investigators found four poles — two long and two short — in a search of Kim's house.
The boy's parents have not been charged in the case, although a school official filed a report with Child Protective Services. It is unclear whether — or to what extent — his parents had instructed Kim to use force in disciplining their son.
The boy's father, contacted at his home, declined to comment.
Sheriff's officials said investigators also were trying to determine whether Kim, who does not have children, was involved in any other similar incidents.
Kim was released on $100,000 bail after his arrest. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. Kim has not been formally charged but is scheduled for arraignment in February.
Officials at Korean Gospel Presbyterian Church in La Habra, where Kim had been a member for about 10 years, were reluctant to talk about the case but spoke well of Kim.
Sam Lee, a church elder, said he was surprised to hear of the beating, saying Kim and the boy's family were good people. He said he believed the charges stemmed from some type of misunderstanding about the "Korean way of doing things."
"It's really heartbreaking. They're not the type of people who would do such a thing," he said in Korean, adding that the case was a "private matter" and that the church was not involved.
Kim lives in a well-kept neighborhood in Chino Hills. Neighbors said he rents the two-story, red-tile-roofed home on Singing Hills Drive and has lived there for about a year.
"You know, nobody really knows them much. I see him take off and go to work in the morning," said neighbor Mark Neilson, 55. "This whole thing is just really bizarre."
Neilson said Kim and a woman, perhaps his wife, live in the home.
Others who knew him said Kim was deeply religious. One former co-worker at an Irvine mortgage company recalled that Kim started a Bible study group at work that would meet during lunch breaks and that he would talk about helping kids at his church.
"He's a very nice, family-oriented, religious person," said Paul Lee, Kim's former manager at Prospect Mortgage in Irvine, who added that he thought there must be more to the story than initial reports suggested.
Korean community leaders said that the degree of violence and the fact that someone from outside the family was brought in to impose punishment are anomalies. Corporal punishment was widely accepted in Korean society until relatively recently, and 20 or 30 years ago, some of them said, it was accepted practice for teachers to hit schoolchildren with wooden sticks.
But those norms are changing, said Charles Kim (no relation to Paul Kim), a La Habra resident and past president of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles.
"I think it is well publicized, and people know your kid is your kid," he said, "but you can't discipline them like you could in Korea."
Despite changing attitudes, one Korean news site, Money Today, published an article about the Paul Kim case. "Corporal punishment that would be considered an act of love in Korea is grounds for arrest in the U.S.," the article began.
A Los Angeles-based Korean-language daily, the Korea Times, wrote that the case "was one more warning to Korean immigrants who are often unaware that U.S. laws and customs are very strict when it comes to corporal punishment and child abuse."
Julius Nam, a professor of religion at Loma Linda University and former youth pastor at Korean American churches, said that, along with attitudes about corporal punishment, first-generation parents' frustration with their inability to control their Americanized children may have created a violent situation.
"Unfortunately, the parents and Mr. Kim seem to be caught in a twilight zone of changing cultural and religious mores," Nam said.