20 Years & Counting

As a little end-of-year celebration, we’re posting up an essay by editor in chief Kai Ma, which originally ran in our 20th Anniversary Issue (April 2010).

Here’s to 20 years (and hopefully more)!

In 1990, the year KoreAm debuted, anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, while holding his wife’s hand, was released from a South African prison after 27 years behind bars. Later that year, the two Germanys would reunify. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space as U.S. legislators scrambled to prepare the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush that summer. Then in October—remember?—his nationally televised speech threatening to force the removal of Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait.

Surely, these zeitgeist-changing events didn’t fill our first pages (we’re a Korean American rag, after all), but also, because KoreAm grew from a desire to cover stories that weren’t found in the mainstream press. But more than just a journalistic vehicle, this new monthly was designed and devised to shine a light on our community—one that, in 1990, felt amorphous and for some, absent.

Around this time, Asian American ethnic press was experiencing a renaissance of sorts—A Magazine, Giant Robot and Yolk became prominent forums in the 1990s; AsianWeek was already more than 10 years old. It was a hopeful time, during which publications such as ours were by no means financially thriving, but nonetheless, alive. It was also a traumatic time, particularly for Korean Americans in Los Angeles, when in 1992, Korean-run businesses were targeted for violence and destruction during what’s known as this nation’s first multiethnic riot. We quickly recognized that KoreAm could do more than print press releases and calendar events. It could be a powerful voice for our English-speaking generations.

So when, in 2007, our nation confronted another difficult chapter, the Virginia Tech massacre, we had a place and space to cover the events surrounding this tragedy on our own terms. This past decade, our covers also highlighted what was beginning to feel like an apex for all things Korean. The Pinkberry phenomenon against the backdrop of the North Korean nuclear crisis, the globalization of South Korean pop culture, and then of course, the people: Michelle Wie, Far East Movement, John Cho, David Chang, Michelle Rhee. And when a Korean-speaking couple crashed onto an island on ABC primetime, it was as if, as a friend once put it, “Koreans were everywhere.” Remaining on the pulse of the Korean diaspora isn’t as back-breaking as it must’ve been pre-internet, but the new challenge is knowing how to cover a Korean American community that has a million different parts.

Though bound by a sense of cultural and ethnic identity, readers don’t always agree with all of our stories, or turn to the same pages—not that they should be expected to. And that’s what KoreAm has always been about: the different ways in which we define ourselves, the balance of gains and losses, and the ways in which we protect our culture, just as much as we let it go.

It’s no secret that ethnic media (us included) is facing an uncertain future, despite the voracious, information-obsessed culture we now live in. But 20 years after its inception, KoreAm sits in your hands, a reality that even our founding publisher James Ryu never imagined. (Back in 1990, he was just banking on lasting one full year.) For this reason, we are celebrating what we believe is a milestone. Not just for KoreAm, but for a community that has transformed over the two decades of this magazine’s life. It all started as a nascent  effort to help Korean Americans establish their identity. And today, as our pages can attest, that identity speaks for itself.

Click through to see a timeline of KoreAm’s last 19 anniversary issues:


KoreAm’s first-year anniversary. The newspaper-style front page covers Soon Ja Du, the 51-year-old South Central L.A. store owner who fatally shot the 15-year-old Latasha Harlins during a violent scuffle over an alleged shoplifting. “Black-Korean” tensions would become mainstream news fodder, and the tragic shooting would prove to be the match that set off the racial fire one year later.


For this anniversary issue, coverage on the recession hitting L.A.’s K-town; the L.A. riots wouldn’t break out until several weeks after this issue went to press. During and after the unrest, KoreAm becomes a forum for KAs to voice their opinions, grievances and concerns.


This special edition is devoted to the one-year anniversary of the L.A. riots. After a jury acquitted the LAPD officers accused in the beating of African American motorist Rodney King, the city exploded in violence, arson, looting and lawlessness, with property damage topping $1 billion. Fifty-three people died. The KA community, who was targeted, refers to the incident as “Sa-i-gu”—which translates to 4-29, the date the riots began.


The Sports Edition: Veteran hockey player Jim Paek is traded to the Kings; pitcher Chan Ho Park hits the Big Leagues as the newbie in Dodger Blue. Fourteen years later, Park would pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series. In 2010, he was the recipient of KoreAm’s Achievement Award in Sports.


We turn 5.


Four years after the L.A. riots, attorney and longtime KoreAm supporter Angela Oh, best known for her role as a spokesperson for the KA community after the civil unrest, writes: “Every newcomer group that has entered these United States has faced tragedy that went beyond  individual struggle—for Korean Americans it was the riots of Los Angeles in 1992. We must move forward in memory of the losses sustained by more than 2,000 Korean American families and we must act with honor, hope and conviction to ensure that such tragedy is never again visited upon our community, or any other among us.”


The 7th anniversary cover revisits Sa-i-gu, and includes these words by T.S. Eliot: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”


Our first anniversary issue since changing from a  newsprint format to a magazine. Founding publisher James Ryu and his father, Jung Shig Ryu, “felt like we were on our way to becoming a full-blown color magazine—which is what we always wanted,” says the younger Ryu. In August, KoreAm publishes its 100th issue. “That was a big milestone, “Ryu adds. “It was awesome.”


The anniversary issue pays tribute to Chung Bok Hong, a popular Korean grocer affectionately known as “Mama,” who was gunned down in the parking lot of her “54th and Van Ness Market” in Los Angeles that spring. The magazine reduces to standard newsstand size. Our website, www.koreamjournal. com, launches.


Playboy vixen Sung Hi Lee smolders on the 10th anniversary cover.


The scoop on Juju Chang, one of the most recognized newswomen on television. Today, Chang is an anchor for Good Morning America. In 2010, she was the recipient of KoreAm’s Achievement Award in Journalism.


A decade after the L.A. riots, a multiracial group of  contributors reflects on, as journalist John Lee puts it, “forgetting and remembering Sa-i-gu.” KoreAm hosts its first “Unforgettable” gala.


Hee Pok Kim, a leading organizer for the Bus Riders Union in L.A, packs a punch on the anniversary cover. Kim, an elderly immigrant, is known among community organizers as “Grandma Kim,” and is still today, redefining the “activist” profile.


A 14-year-old golf phenom, Michelle Wie, dominates our 14- year-old anniversary issue. When asked if it’s difficult having her father as her caddie, Wie says, “It’s nice. Less arguing.”


KoreAm’s 15th anniversary! (That’s 180 issues.)


Close encounters with Korean Canadian Grace Park, the sci-siren of Battlestar Galactica. In 2010, she was the recipient of KoreAm’s Achievement Award in Entertainment.


Va-va-voom! Starlet Moon Bloodgood on acting, family and her new Hollywood niche.


The anniversary cover story: Pinkberry head honcho Shelly Hwang, and her much-coveted fro-yo. Two of this year’s feature stories would also go on to win national New America Media awards: an article on Proposition 8 (California’s marriage amendment) and the Korean American vote, and another on the large numbers of Koreans moving into the L.A. neighborhood known as Little Tokyo, one of the last Japantowns left in California.


Jamie Chung and Joon Park of Dragonball Evolution on making their Hollywood mark. Other stories include the arrest of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea, and the appointment of Dr. Jim Yong Kim as Dartmouth’s 17th president. Our newly designed website, charactermedia.com, goes live.


Spoiler alert: Jin’s dead. But Daniel Dae Kim is very much alive on our 20th anniversary cover—the most ambitious issue to date. One of the most recognizable Korean American actors, Kim muses about Lost, Hawaii Five-0, and his meticulously mapped out rise to stardom.