When guests at a North Korea Freedom Week dinner in Northern Virginia learned the Korean-American pastor at our table led a Maryland church, they immediately asked about the situation in Baltimore. It was May 1, and National Guard troops had been deployed to the city three days earlier to help quell the unrest sparked by the death of a man in police custody. The pastor let out a deep sigh before responding. A few members of his congregation had lost everything. After working diligently for years building small businesses in a new country, they watched their efforts literally go up in flames as looters trashed their shops and carted off their merchandise.
The crisis reminded many in America’s growing community of two million Korean immigrants and their descend-ants of another city’s devastation two decades earlier. Baltimore’s riots began two days before the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which Koreatown, the heart of the Korean diaspora in America, was subjected to pogrom-like attacks by irate mobs. Though Asian Americans had nothing to do with either Rodney King’s or Freddie Gray’s injuries, they appear to have been the targets of some of the animosity unleashed by rioters.
The depth of feeling about the L.A. riots—which left some Korean-American business owners who lacked insurance permanently impoverished—reached even the ancestral homeland, as I well remember. A delegation of dissidents, including pastors, labor leaders, academics, and students, called at the U.S. consulate at which I was stationed in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, in the spring of 1992 to demand that President George H. W. Bush “do something to protect our compatriots from rioters.” They considered inadequate the official U.S. government response that protection of life and property in civil disturbances in the United States was a local issue, primarily for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and that deploying the National Guard was the prerogative of California’s governor, then Pete Wilson. That evening, an enraged student demonstrator tossed a Molotov cocktail at the U.S. consul’s car—my car—as it departed through the consulate’s gates. Fortunately, the official car was armor-plated, a surplus U.S. government vehicle left over from the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games, so the gasoline-filled, lit bottle bounced off it without igniting.
Baltimore has brought back these painful memories and raised a less-examined racial divide than the obvious one between black and white America. Not only in Los Angeles and Baltimore, but in Ferguson and other cities caught up in racially charged confrontations, Asian-American shopkeepers, including Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab Americans as well as Koreans, appear to have been the victims of racial profiling. These recent immigrants came to the United States largely after the Civil War and the Jim Crow system of segregation and thus have no connection to the charges of continued institutional racism that some blame for the disturbances. Yet the New York Times reported April 27 that gang members in Baltimore had specifically “stood in front of stores that they knew were black-owned businesses to protect them from looting and vandalism,” pointing the rioters instead “toward Chinese- and Arab-owned stores.”
The Korea Times reported April 30, quoting the Korean-American Grocers Association International and the Korean Society of Maryland, that at least 40 Korean-owned businesses in Baltimore were damaged in the riots. One Korean-American-owned business, Fireside North lounge and liquor store, was set on fire, with its owner and the owner of another business, Uptown Liquor, reportedly sustaining injuries. The Associated Press stated that a total of 200 small businesses, many owned by Asian-Americans, were shut down as a result of damage caused by rioters.
Baltimore’s WBAL News reported the same day that “42 Korean grocers, delis, and carry-outs” had been “destroyed or damaged during the unrest,” with the total number still being tallied. The television station also noted that the Korean consulate and the Korean-American wife of Maryland governor Larry Hogan subsequently held meetings with some business owners to discuss reconstruction.
WBAL added that masked intruders not only looted Freddie’s Liquor but beat up store owner Young Park. John Bang, the owner of Hopkins Beauty Supply, said he applied lessons he learned from the L.A. riots: He barricaded himself “with an arsenal of weapons.” He told WBAL, “I have registered firearms, a shotgun, AR-15, pistols.” Bang said that if rock-carrying looters tried to enter his business, “I would say ‘I’m armed! Don’t come in!’ And if they don’t believe me and became more aggressive, I would give them a warning shot.”