KoreAm Archive: Angela Oh’s Views on L.A. Riots, Five Years Out

A fire rages during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. ©HYUNGWON KANG

This week, as we mark the 22nd anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, a seminal event in Korean American history, we are posting relevant stories from our archives. This commentary was published in KoreAm Journal in April 1997, upon the five-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Its author Angela Oh served as a vocal community advocate in the weeks, months and years following the crisis. 

A Fleeting Moment


Just five years later, the thunder of Korean American voices after the L.A. Riots has subsided to a whisper.

The desire to bury a painful part of Southern California history is especially strong among Korean Americans. The spring of 1992 will remain one of the most devastating seasons in memory to Korean Americans across the country. We were unable to prevent the loss of thousands of small family-owned enterprises to racial bigotry, economic desperation, media panic and political ignorance. With the passage of time, things have changed, but without consolation or relief.

Korean Americans have paid the price all racial and ethnic minorities in the United States eventually must pay. “Sa-i-gu” (4-29) commemorates those who sacrificed their lives so the message of our permanence in this society could be delivered. What impact did the 1992 implosion in Los Angeles have on Korean Americans? Where are we headed as we approach the Third Millennium?


Korean Americans in Los Angeles experienced a brief moment of unity. Some 40,000 people from all parts of Southern California gathered at Ardmore Park the week after order was restored during 1992, in the city of Los Angeles a march which took its course through the area known as Koreatown was moving, unified, strong and defined. The message was clear: Korean Americans in Los Angeles (along with many others), from all walks of life, will come together to ensure the suffering inflicted uponthousands of innocent families will be eased. We have failed.

As one among many who could see the reasons why Korean families were hit especially hard in 1992, I was both saddened and enraged at the circumstances facing Los Angeles and newcomer Korean families, in particular. The reasons for the destruction among Korean-owned businesses were immediately apparent, and research since that time has confirmed the crisis was the result of an explosive situation created by a downturn in the economy, high unemployment, a lack of public trust in the police department, the general neglect of the infrastructure of Los Angeles, a lack of representation in the media, a lack of appreciation for the changing demographics of the city, and political leadership that failed to see the value in playing a facilitating role in resolving the intense community conflicts in Los Angeles.

Korean Americans received the brunt of community resentment and destruction because of several additional factors: failure to be informed about events and circumstances beyond the Korean community (like the trial of Rodney G. King and the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du), failure to pay attention to developing business customs being served, ignoring race relations and the tremendous impact it has on people who in diverse communities like Los Angeles, and forgetting that material wealth is little more than an illusion.


In trying to find solutions to the immediate and long-term challenges which faced our community, many lessons have surfaced. First, Korean Americans now realize what it means to be politically insignificant. Despite unprecedented organizing, community education and mobilization in the political area, meager relief has been brought to those families affected by the 1992 destruction. Families forced to accept additional debt funding in order to rebuild their small businesses face a new set of problems—deeperfinancial distress, civil lawsuits, criminal investigations and in some circumstances suicide. The advocacy taken up on behalf of these families have not brought relief, Small business owners and their families are entirely justified in feeling deep disappointment and cynicism.

Second, Korean Americans realize organizing is extremely difficult. But we also recognize that all communities experience similar difficulties because of political factionalism, inter-generational factionalism, apathy and petty jealousies. We know the Korean American community is no different from others, we just know more of the details and the personalities within our community have been able to create a unified voice. Yet, there is a constant cry for a “unified” Korean American voice. Why? It seems fairly obvious this dream is one which will forever elude us—as it has for more than 20,000 years.

Third, many of us in the second generation believe there are a new set of progressive principles which must be adopted in our efforts to go forward as Korean Americans with a new vision. Those principles emphasize concepts of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, compassion rather than criticism, and a constant push toward social change for justice—not just for Korean Americans but for all people. These are lofty notions, requiring extremely intense individual commitment. As we work, spend time with friends and families, worship, involve ourselves in civic and community-based organizations, the challenge of living by these values is constant. No, it is unrelenting. This is so because there is always more than can be done, there is always more that should be done. And there are never enough people, no is there ever enough time to complete the tasks before us. Korean Americans in Los Angeles have been trying for five years to be heard so some of the problems which surfaced in the aftermath of losses suffered in 1992 might be resolved. We are still struggling as a community to articulate the values that will guide us.


Finally, where are we headed? It seems everyone is trying to assess what has been accomplished in five years. Really, very little can be concluded after only five years. Books have been published, research is being done, surveys are being taken, statistics are being gathered. All of this is valuable but, we must realize the data will never keep pace with the reality of the unfolding Korean American story. The data will never capture the daily struggles encountered by families who were affected by the riots. For example, how can we ever document the unique problems which arise when language barriers, cultural barriers, community disunity and anti-immigrant hatred provide the backdrop for trying to rebuild a small family-owned business? Who will want to help the newcomers who arrived after April 1992 and unknowingly invested in businesses previously owned by other Koreans looking for a way out? Where will we find counselors and resources to deal with those families who have problems with their children because of the trauma which resulted from watching their stores burn or their families deal with personal ruin? How can we even begin to memorialize what will happen as Korean elders feel the impact of welfare reform in a time when their children are struggling to “rebuild”?

The impact of the riots on Korean Americans is emerging every day. It will take at least a generation to penetrate the institutions that serve as the foundations of our society and to weave the experiences of Korean Americans into the consciousness of this country.

The most meaningful thing Korean Americans can do during the fifth anniversary of the riots is to acknowledge that little relief was brought; and, to commit ourselves to staying informed and involved in our community. While this may sound unimpressive (certainly not as glorious as holding a rally or hosting a huge ceremonial event), it is without a doubt the most difficult path to walk because there are so many reasons not to remember the pain, humiliation and price paid by more than 2,500 Korean American families in 1992.