The dapper middle-aged man in suit and tie lifted his hands from the table, locked them together and then, very loudly, imitated the sound of gunfire.
“Tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh!” shouted Byung Sun Soh, startling the children at nearby tables in a Burger King in Flushing, Queens, on a quiet Sunday morning. Mr. Soh, a 66-year-old with a kindly face, was recounting his family’s experiences at the hands of North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. His family only just escaped death.
He said he has long feared that “the Korean community would be drenched by communism.” And, today, in his eyes, there are communists everywhere.
Mr. Soh has plunged into a local fight that is roiling the Korean-American community. The conflict pits those like him, who are virulently anti-communist and give no quarter in their hatred of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, against other, usually younger members of the Korean-American community, who are fierce critics of U.S. policy in East Asia and who sometimes sound like de facto supporters of Mr. Kim.
“I don’t think there is a decisive majority either way,” explained Taehyo Park, executive director for Korean American League for Civic Action. “Among the first generation of Korean-Americans, there is a deep emotional hatred of communism. The younger generation doesn’t have experience of the [Korean] War, and they would tend to argue, ‘Harsh treatment—what good does that do?’”
The rhetorical struggle between the two sides has reached new levels of vitriol since Oct. 9, when North Korea stunned the international community with the announcement that it had tested its first nuclear weapon.
The arguments currently taking place in New York and elsewhere are among the most extreme manifestations of a fundamental split in the two-million-strong Korean-American community. (About 100,000 Korean-Americans live in New York.) Mr. Park defines that split as between those of the “war generation,” who often insist that only the harshest action will bring North Korea to heel, and other, generally younger people who believe in a “long, patient engagement” with Pyongyang.
“The consensus is that there should be a peaceful resolution,” he said. “How to achieve that is where people differ.”
Mr. Soh, a Manhattan-based musician who has organized several benefit concerts to aid North Korean refugees in China, is adamant about the scale of the danger that he believes is festering in some quarters of Korean America. Left-leaning Korean-American groups, he claimed, are fronts for Mr. Kim’s regime: “They keep it secret when they talk to people …. They have support. There are a lot of communists.” One high-profile leftist group in New York is, he alleged, “on the communist side. They are captured by communism.”
The rhetoric seems to belong to another era, that of McCarthyism and Red-baiting. But the claims made by Mr. Soh seem less absurd when one witnesses some of the meetings at which the Korean-American far left makes its presence felt.
A so-called Korea Crisis Forum was organized at the start of this month by two Korean-American groups, the Korea Truth Commission and Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism (KAWAN). The International Action Center, the U.S. activist group founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was the other co-sponsor.
The meeting was held in a characterless room at the United Nations Church Center opposite the world body’s headquarters. Posters blaming the U.S. for the problems of the Korean peninsula lined the walls: “North Korean hunger problems and food crises are due from the US economic sanctions,” one proclaimed.
About 70 people attended, with white Americans outnumbering those of Korean heritage. The gathering seemed to fulfill every cartoonish stereotype of the leftist fringe. A man with a luxuriant gray beard and a T-shirt bearing the legend “Cuba is Our Neighbor” wandered through the crowd. A woman handed out copies of Workers World, the newspaper of a U.S.-based socialist party. In the general hubbub of conversation before the meeting began, the name of Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista and one-time bête noire of the U.S. who would a few days later be elected president of Nicaragua, drifted up repeatedly.
Mr. Clark himself was one of three speakers to address the meeting and—judging from the way the crowd thinned out after he’d finished—he seemed to be the main attraction. Mr Clark served as U.S. Attorney General during the Johnson administration, but since then has become better known for providing legal service to controversial figures, including Saddam Hussein.
Now 78, his tall frame has become stooped. Never one to shy away from embracing unpopular causes, he informed the crowd that the North Koreans are “a beautiful and good people, and they are greatly endangered by the United States.” Though silent on the subject of human-rights violations by the North Korean regime, Mr. Clark was positively gushing about his visit to the People’s Library in Pyongyang.
“The whole structure oozes with the desire for knowledge,” he said happily.
He received his loudest burst of applause when raising the specter of military action by the Bush administration against North Korea, insisting that “[we] should do everything in our power to prevent that happening.”
The two other speakers, Hwa Young Lee of the Korea Truth Commission and Kwan Ho Choi of the Congress for Korean Reunification, couldn’t match Mr. Clark’s rhetorical sparkle, but their views were cut from the same cloth.
At no point during the speech, or in a Q&A session afterwards, was there any hint of criticism of the North Korean regime. Ms. Lee asserted that Kim Jong Il was “greatly admired and respected by his people.” Asked specifically about human-rights abuses, she asked rhetorically, “Is the United States in a position to condemn human-rights abuses? I don’t think there is a real human-rights issue. I cannot say, because I have never lived there.”
(Amnesty International’s most recent report on North Korea stated that “fundamental rights including freedom of expression, association and movement continued to be denied. There were reports of public executions, widespread political imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment.”)
In 2003, Mr. Choi’s group was accused by the South Korean Consulate General of being a front for Kim Jong Il’s regime. Approached by this reporter after the meeting, he declined to give an interview, saying he was in a hurry to leave. He also declined to give a phone number at which he could be contacted, instead offering an e-mail address. Two messages to that address went without reply.
The scene was much the same at an event hosted by a group called Nodutdol last Saturday at Hunter College. Nodutdol—the word has multiple meanings, including “stepping-stone”—has one of the highest profiles of all the left-leaning Korean-American groups, in part because it has previously clashed with older, more conservative organizations. Among other activities, it arranges trips to North Korea for young Korean-Americans. One of the purposes of Saturday evening’s event was to enable those who had traveled on (and paid for) the last trip, in August, to talk about their experiences.
One woman, Maggie Kim, reminisced from the stage about how “no one I knew [in America] worked towards anything besides their own personal gain, whether it be wealth, fame, happiness, enlightenment. Yet here was an entire country devoted to their great and dear leaders.”
Given such sentiments, it’s no surprise that conservative Korean-Americans consider Nodutdol as wayward at best, and allege that its trips are little more than exercises in indoctrination.
“The young people are only there for a few days, and they trust what they are told,” said John Park, president of the Korean American Empowerment Council. “They brainwash them.”
To Mr. Soh, the musician, Nodutdol is “insane” and the trips are simply “wrong.”
“If someone has a good spirit, they cannot go there,” he said.
Nodutdol’s Solidarity Committee coordinator, Cheehyung Kim, disagrees that his group is anti-American or a North Korean front: “We certainly do not support everything about North Korea, and we do not criticize everything about the U.S. either. We are like hundreds of other progressive groups—we criticize both countries,” he said.
Mr. Kim, though, is upfront about his own political philosophy. Arguing about the damage caused by “the dominance of U.S. capital,” he adds, “I have read Marx and I like Marx. Capital is a work of genius.”
The arguments at both extremes of New York’s Korean-American community are strident and often bitter. But do they matter? Some observers believe that a moderate majority has remained largely silent, leaving the field open to more dogmatic voices.
Professor Charles Armstrong, a Korea expert at Columbia University, said that, aside from the more extreme groups, “There really is not a lot of discussion about North Korea near the surface.” He added that, for many Korean-Americans, “I think there is a sense that there is not much they can do.”
Yong Il Shin, the U.N. correspondent of the Korea Times newspaper, cautions against overestimating the support that the far-left groups in particular receive: “These groups are virtually ostracized within the community, so they have almost no influence.”
Political representatives of the Korean-American community who offer a nuanced view seem to be in short supply, however. In their absence, the enmity between right and left surges on unconstrained. Mr. Kim of Nodutdol insists that North Korea has the right to develop nuclear weapons “to gain political clout.” Mr. Soh, the musician, says of such activists: “We must destroy them.”
“Nobody is afraid to speak out,” Mr. Park of KALCA said dryly of the two sides in this new, local Korean War. “They just don’t want to talk to each other.”