Yong Kim: Two Koreas, Paraguay and Then L.A.

arrival story yong kim with mar medium view.jpg
Yong Kim with his Crown Shoes colleague Mar Rodriguez

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@losjeremy) asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from store owner Yong Kim:



"I was born in Kunsan, Korea.

"A lot of Air Force people know Kunsan because there is an American air base there.

"When I was eight years old, my family -- my mother, my father and my two older brothers and I -- immigrated to South America, to Paraguay. Then, when I was fourteen, we came to the United States, to Los Angeles.

"There was no particular reason why we chose L.A., except that my dad had a friend here and that we spoke Spanish and there were a lot more Latinos here than any other area in the United States, other than perhaps Texas.

"Americans have to understand that before 1945 and World War II, there was just Korea. Korea was divided by Russians and Americans.


"My paternal grandfather was a moneylender in northern Korea. At that time, before and during World War II, banking in Korea was not well established the way it is now. Credit availability was not like it is today. So private moneylending was a very big industry.

"When the War ended, my grandfather had a lot of money out. But anybody who knows the Communist Manifesto knows that according to Karl Marx, the worst enemies of society are the banks and the moneylenders.

"So as America and Russia drew the line at the 38th and Communists moved into North Korea, nobody was going to pay my grandfather back. The government wasn't enforcing the law. My grandfather had a problem collecting debts.

"As I understand, at that time, dividing Korea into two was considered as foreign as if I told you that a Martian is coming tomorrow. Everybody thought it was going to be two years, maybe three years and then we were going to go back to normal, back to the way it was. Nobody thought Korea would stay this way.

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"In 1945, my dad and my great-grandmother and great-grandfather came down to Seoul, in South Korea. The border was still soft and they didn't want to be in the North. But my grandfather stayed back with my grandmother and my dad's younger brother.

"Instead of saying, 'Let's forgot about that' and coming down, my grandfather stayed up there and tried to collect more of the money owed to him. Eventually the border got hard.

"Three years later, the Korean War happened and then the border got really shut down. My grandparents and my uncle got stuck in North Korea. There was no way of finding them. Communication between the North and the South was completely off.

"My dad is a very quiet person. My dad says that my uncle was like me - very outspoken. He was also artistic. My uncle passed away in 1968. Which was very early; he's younger than my dad.

"In North Korea, or in the old Soviet Union, if you were told that someone died and you were told the date he died -- but they wouldn't tell you the cause of death -- that meant that he died in a gulag or a concentration camp as an 'enemy of the state.' But they won't say that.

"I had four cousins. I think two of the four of them died because of malnutrition. And because they are the kids of an 'anti-revolutionary,' obviously they could forget about any promotion.

"Things turned out very bad. It's all unofficial. They cannot write about it on the letters they send me. They cannot really explain it to us. But anybody who knows about North Korea will tell you that's what it is.



"We left South Korea for a variety of reasons. Korea is a rat race. If you think that L.A is a rat race, then Korea is a lot of rat races. My dad kind of got tired of it.

"Also, at that time, Korea was ruled by a military government. Basically, they came in and did things the way they wanted. Big conglomerates, in cahoots with the military government, had a blank sheet of paper and, out of nowhere, they grew so fast.

"I guess my dad saw that kind of stuff and was sick of it. And since he was from the north, he didn't have deep roots in Seoul.

"A friend of my uncle's had moved to Paraguay. When he came to Korea, he talked to my dad and that's when my dad got into that Korean emigration fever. Same thing with America, where 150 years ago it was, 'Go west!' So, the family moved to Asunción, the capitol of Paraguay. We left Korea in 1974 - almost forty years now. We're not the only ones!

"Now that I look back, the Paraguay of the late `70s was a very stress-free existence -- as long as you didn't speak out against the government!

"You didn't have to worry about property tax, you didn't have to worry about income tax. You had a very carefree existence. But, really, there was danger.

"I didn't grow up in a high society neighborhood, but I did grow up in Paraguay in an upper middle class neighborhood. Not the 1% -- those guys were the ultra-conservative with a military connection.

"At that time, Paraguay was ruled by a guy named Alfredo Stroessner who was backed by people from Nazi Germany. His military police were like the Gestapo.

"When I was in South America, being a little kid, I was into boy's stuff like tools. There was this place called Ferretería Alemán -- the German Hardware store.

"Well, according to 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace -- this was a while back -- the reason why a guy like [post-War Paraguay resident and Nazi mass murderer Josef] Mengele was difficult to catch was because if he had to communicate, he would send a messenger to that Fereteria. And that Fereteria would give it to the person that Mengele wanted to communicate with.

"I was smack in the middle of that Fereteria and didn't know what was going on. There were a lot of Nazis in South America and I didn't even know it.

"That's that same period when the Disappeared was going on in Argentina, the Dirty War. In Paraguay, there was Stroessner. In Chile, there was Pinochet. So obviously my dad said, you know, 'The world can change. There could be a revolution. I don't think this is a safe place either.'

"That's when he decided to come up with a Plan B. America was Plan B. Brazil was Plan C but we never needed it.



"I'm 'Il-june-oh-sae-die' -- the '1.5 generation.'

"That means you are not first generation and you are not second generation. It means you are capable of operating in American society and in Korean society.

"It's a term that a Cal State LA sociology professor came out with it -- or that's where I first heard it. [See KPCC's Leslie Berestein Rojas' piece for more information] It's not an insult, it's not a compliment. It's one way of classifying someone like me.

"Since 1985, we've owned Crown Shoes in Echo Park. [Read the related story: Twenty Years After The Riots, What's Changed?] We bought the store when it was called Meyer's Shoes. When we left Paraguay, we flew from Asunción to LAX. We lived at first in Koreatown and then I moved away and now I'm back again.

"The population of Koreatown has remained somewhat the same. It's mostly Latino. I think the biggest change has been Bangladeshi people moving in. There are also a lot of Mongolians [Read this Arrival Story about Mongolian sumo wrestler, Byamba]. If someone had told me thirty years ago that there would be people from Mongolia moving in to Koreatown I would have said he was crazy. Mongolia at that time was a Cold War Soviet Bloc country. But that's what has happened.

"There were some big differences between Paraguay and L.A. You'd think that Paraguay would be a lesser county than the United States - which is true - but at least in the neighborhood I grew up, most kids didn't talk about if they are going to college or not. Instead, it was about what college you are going to.

"But when I came to this area, I was shocked that most kids weren't even thinking about going to college. And I was shocked - because I was pretty innocent - that everybody was thinking about dropping out of high school and having babies.

"It was extremely shameful in South America for unwed, pregnant women to walk around with her belly up. That's like, 'your family is going down a few notches low - that's a no-no.' There was a family that lived near us and that happened. First, they sent their daughter to Buenos Aires. She came back with a baby. And then the father of the bride demanded that the [baby's father] take her in as a wife. They got married, okay? He demanded!

"Another thing -- when I was here in high school here, kids got shot. That's the kind of thing you never heard of in South America. I know there are military police, but everything happened underground. I wasn't really stoked about high school - that's why I didn't bother to show up at my graduation. I was up in the mountains instead.

"These days, I travel all across L.A. For the silk-screening and uniform part of our business, I visit many school campuses and I talk to a lot of people. I worry that Americans take our liberty and freedom for granted.

"I was asking a bunch of kids recently about President Lyndon Johnson. Much to my surprise, nobody knew who he was. They know Clinton, but that was about it. A lot of them are already forgetting about who Reagan was. I won't even go back to Truman.

"Look what happened to our family in North Korea. The bottom line is, you don't know history, you are bound to repeat it."

-- Yong Kim
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

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