LOS ANGELES — Residents in the bustling Los Angeles sector that is the largest Korean enclave in the United States are decrying the North Korean attack on a South Korean island as they phone relatives for updates from the country many once called home.
Korean-Americans in Los Angeles’s Koreatown speculated about what could have prompted the skirmish, which South Korean officials say began after North Korea objected to the South’s military drills near the sea border. Some saw the shelling as an effort by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to shore up power for his youngest son and heir-apparent. Others said the North was prodding the South for more aid.
Many see the attack on tiny Yeonpyeong island near the two nations’ disputed maritime border as the latest in a string of otherwise isolated incidents instigated by North Korea.
"They like to irritate South Korea," said Jae K. Kim, chairman of the Korean-American Federation of Los Angeles. "When a baby is hungry and crying and bugging the mother to get some food? That kind of very childish attitude (is what) they have."
About 200,000 Koreans live in Los Angeles County, according to the American Community Survey. Many live, work and shop in Koreatown, a densely-packed neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles filled with upscale malls, Korean barbecue restaurants and banks as well as older shops in strip malls where signs read only in Korean.
Some Koreans migrated to the United States after the Korean War ended in 1953, and many more came from the South to work and study here after the U.S. eased its immigration rules in 1965.
Over steaming bowls of spicy fish soup Wednesday in a Korean mall, three friends who usually chat about golf and business were debating how seriously they should take the strike — the first on a civilian population in South Korea.
"We’re worried about it," said Insoo Kang, while his 70-year-old lunch companion David Kim shook his head in disagreement. "They’re not like a country, they’re like the Taliban or something like that."
Chang Lee, chair of Koreatown development for the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, said he’d like to see South Korea take a more aggressive approach to the sporadic attacks from its neighbor, much like Israel.
"We’re just watching this bully," Lee said.
Many Korean-Americans also said U.S. support for Seoul was a key reason why they didn’t worry the incident would balloon into a bigger conflict. The U.S. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to guard against North Korean aggression, a legacy of the bitter three-year conflict that ended in a 1953 truce.
In the aftermath of the Tuesday attack — which killed two civilians and two marines — Korean-Americans called relatives and watched Korean television to find out the latest details. Some worried about business deals with the Asian nation and travel plans.
Some younger Korean-Americans said they don’t follow politics too closely in a country more their parents’ than their own.
But the attack hit close to home for 18-year-old college student Kevin Lee, who said his friends who have Korean citizenship fear they could be called up to fight if a war ever breaks out between North and South.
Crystal Kim, a 28-year-old loan officer, stopped by to visit her mother’s Koreatown bakery and asked whether the shelling could lead to an all-out war between the two countries. For 56-year-old June Kim, the latest incident, while tragic, isn’t cause for alarm.
The clash has been the source of conversation, and debate, around the dinner table, and for younger Korean-Americans, on Facebook.
"It’s everywhere — at home, at the dinner table, at the market," said Sarah Myung, 20, while picking up lunch at a mall food court.