Los Angeles — In cafes, restaurants and barbershops across the city’s vast Koreatown, the conversations Monday centered on one topic — North Korea’s claimed nuclear test and what will happen next.
Reactions in the United States’ largest Korean immigrant community ranged from frustration at America’s inability to keep the communist regime from going nuclear to worry about what it could mean for relatives back home.
“Is everybody going crazy?” said Joseph Kuo, 30, who immigrated 15 years ago and runs a restaurant in Koreatown. “The war in Iraq was enough, and now who knows what the United States will do to North Korea.”
As people went about their daily routines, televisions beamed images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and exploding atomic bombs into restaurants and shops throughout this city enclave where most signs are in Korean and English is rarely heard.
Local Korean newspapers blared the news with front page headlines reading, “Korean-Americans Are Shocked,” “North Korea Actually Tests Nuclear Weapon,” and “Korean Peninsula Quickly Freezing and the Future is Uncertain.”
“This makes you feel scared,” said Mingee Park, 18, eating and talking about the nuclear test with three friends.
Park, who moved here from South Korea five months ago to start community college, said the possibility of nuclear war made him see his home country’s mandatory 2-year military service as more than just a rite of passage for young men.
“It’s something all men have to do, but I’m worried about doing it now,” said Park, who planned to do his service when he turns 21.
Though the nuclear test dominated conversations Monday, discussions on nuclear proliferation and hopes of unifying the two Koreas are constant themes in this section of the city.
Nearly 200,000 Koreans live in Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Census, by far the largest grouping of America’s estimated 1.2 million Korean immigrants. And most stay intimately connected to their homeland, whether they’ve been here a few years or several decades.
When South Korea’s then-unification minister, Chung Dong-young, visited Los Angeles in December, he was given a movie star’s welcome by community leaders.
Even when word came of the nuclear test Sunday night, about 70 Korean leaders were holding a forum to discuss U.S. relations with both Koreas.
When the news broke, the group immediately started watching the reports, said Eun-Sook Lee, director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization.
“This act of North Korea could mean that other countries want to protect themselves with nuclear weapons,” said Lee, 39, whose family emigrated from South Korea when she was 6. “It’s a really dangerous path.”
Others were sharply critical of President Bush, arguing his administration could have kept North Korea from going nuclear by engaging the country instead of implementing economic sanctions, which Bush said Monday he wanted drastically increased.
North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 after U.S. officials accused it of a secret nuclear program.
Six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to disarm fell apart last year because of what Pyongyang described as hostile U.S. policies.
“If the U.S. had better diplomacy, instead of always just threatening, we could have been looking at a much better situation,” said Jiwon Hong, 27, a community activist whose family immigrated when she was 9. “Maybe North Korea felt it was the last button they had left to push.”