After two years of armed robberies, broken windows and shoplifting at his Southeast 7-Eleven store, Tae Hwan Kim went out and got himself some muscle. He hired two experts; pistol-packing street veterans, off-duty District of Columbia policemen.
"As Orientals, we are not extremists, not fighters," explained Kim, the 38-year-old, Korean-born owner of the 7-Eleven store of 5026 Benning Rd. S.E. "We try to solve things peacefully, use our heads."
It's against police regulations for the police officers to work in Kim's store because he sells liquor, but Kim says having them there "sure has helped." The word is out on the streets. You don't mess around with Kim.
Kim's resourcefulness is rare among Korena merchants in the city. Real estate brokers, food wholesalers and city business leaders say that Korean-born businessmen now own about 50 percent of the convenience stores and "mom and pop" groceries in the city. Most are in inner-city neighborhoods where crime rates are high.
Unfamiliar with the American language and customs, subject to animosity from residents who don't -- or won't -- understand how "those foreigners" can be financially successful when they are not, these merchants have become easy prey for robberies, larcenies, vandalism and shoplifting.
Just in the last month, in three seperate incidents, one Korean store owner and two holdup men were fatally shot during robberies of Korean-owned markets. And police say there is no way of knowing how many incidents go unreported. "There's just so much of it going on lately that it's hard to tell," said Sgt. Don Blake of the robbery squad.
Enter Kim's two new employes. Between them, they have more than 15 years' experience walking beats in the Benning Road area. One, a self-described "Southern white boy from the other side of the Mississippi tracks"; the other a black D.C. native who says he "knows these streets like the back of my hand."
They say they know they are violating police regulations, but say they feel they have a "mission, helping to bring a little understanding to the neighborhood." Together, they cover the store seven nights a week as cashiers -- and as deterrents.
On a recent evening, the white officer, dressed in a maroon warmup suit, was working one register, a Korean employe another. The store was full of customers, both cash registers chiming away. The trade: single bottles of soda and beer, baby food, snacks and cigarettes.
The customers -- women wearing pink sponge curlers in their hair, kids with radio headsets, weaving drunks in battered clothes, seem to warm to him. He understands, makes eye contact, keeps up a running chatter: "This is the only place in town where robbery is legal, huh? . . . That's $1.69 for the can of Similac. You want to pay that much for it? . . ."
Waiting in line, a man and his two sons were buying "penny candy" at 3 cents a piece. One son, about 11, was doing the figuring "I got 24 cents worth. James got 24 cents worth; 24 and 24 makes 36."
"What you say?" asked the father. "Twenty-four and 24 be 48. What you go to school for boy?"
A pause. The other boy giggled.
"Well" said the first boy, "I learn the letters, from A to Y."
"Boy, you a mess," said the father, looking across the counter where the police officer from Mississippi and a reporter were standing. "You white folks takin' over the store now? First it was whites, then blacks, then Indians, then Koreans. Now you all are back."
"No man," said another man in line."They got police in this store now. I'll bet it's that one," he said, pointing to the reporter.
The officier laughed, ringing up the sale. The father emptied his pockets.
A nickel short. "I'll let you slide on this one," the officer-cashier said.
Meanwhile, tempers flared at the other register where a Korean employe worked. Customers crowded around. "Man, I told you I wanted Benson and Hedges menthol and Virginia Slims regular, and you give me the opposite," and a man in an old Army surplus coat. "Man, you are some stupid gook."
Sa Chin Chi, the cashier, screamed back chords of dissonant Korean. The white officer intervened. "Just relax man," he soothed. "Now what was it you wanted?"
The skirmish over, the officer returned to his side of the counter.
"This store has only been held up twice in the two years that Kim has owned it, but there's been a lot vandalism.Back in September and October, just before I came to work, they had the windows broken out once or twice a week," he said.
"They could steal cigarettes, smash the beer cooler.This is a high crime area, and a whole lot of it was here.
"This is an interesting area, diverse," the officer continued. "Within a mile you have federal housing projects, low- and middle-income housing for blue-collar workers, the new Fort Dupont town houses for $50,000 to $60,000, and the Silver Coast, where the homes go for as much as $300,000 and are as nice as those in Georgetown or any in the District.
"Most of the trouble is a breakdown in communications. Winos get mad about the price of wine. So later, when the store closes, they come back and get revenge," said the officer, who has been working at the store since Thanksgiving.
"Because the Koreans are from a different culture, a lot of things that are said, the humor, the whole nine yards, get past them. A guy will complain about the price of something and the Koreans will laugh because they think he's joking, and so much is going on in the store at the time. So the guy gets mad and the Korean gets confused. That's when trouble starts."
There was so much trouble last July that D.C. City Council member Willie called together members of the community, police and a representative from the Southland Corporation, which grants the franchises for the 7-Eleven stores.
"Kim came into the meeting," said Hardy, "acting all high strung, nervous, obnoxious. He couldn't communicate well with the people there -- all he said he was worried about was his customers; but he was yelling and cussing at them all the time.
"I requested that he keep his wife out of the store . . . She couldn't distinguish between a corner street dude and a gentleman . . . They just weren't willing to learn the customs. All they cared about was making their money," Hardy said.
Hardy sentiments were echoed by patrons of Kim's 7-Eleven during recent interviews.
"These people got no right havin' a store and making all this money off us. They don't understand a thing you tell them. You go up and ask a question about something and they start yellin' at you: You want it, you buy it. Don't ask questions,' they say to you. What kind of way is that to run a store," said Ella Johnson of East Capitol Street.
She left the store a few moments later, carrying her baby and a bag with $15 worth of cereal, candy, soda, Similac and cupcakes, paid for with food stamps.
"The prices are so high here," said James Grey, 25, of 45th Street SE.
"A pint of milk costs no more than 45 cents anywhere else. Here, it costs 55 cents."
"The people in this neighborhood would much rather see the store owned by a black," said the black officer, who has worked at the store for a month." They look at the Koreans as slant-eyed devils. They think that because they don't speak their language they won't know when they're stealing from them. But they do. They lose about 10 percent of their sales to shoplifting, so they just raise the prices of everything."
Though Kim has found allies in the Sixth District police, many Korean businessmen, said robbery Sgt. Blake, "don't understand the criminal justice system . . . don't trust the police.
"In the old country, the police are part of the government. They are hated . . . Also, they get frustrated when they call the police about somebody stealing something and that person is back in the store the same day," Blake said.
"We're preparing films and lectures to make them understand that the only way to fight crime is to fight back. They have to be willing to go to court and prosecute. Otherwise, the word goes out on the street that the merchant's not going to take the time to prosecute, and he becomes a target," Blake said.
Kim says that since he has hired his officers, troubles with crime have lessened. But he says he's accepted the animosity of his customers and is "trying to get along the best I can with them.
"I knew when I came here that this is a tough area," said Kim, who was a high school teacher before he came to Washington and started working for his brother-in-law in a Maryland 7-Eleven six years ago. "But the volume there is almost twice as much as other stores, about $60,000 a month.
"Personally, I don't have any bad feelings about black people. You have some bad customers everywhere -- in Korea, Vietnam, England, even in heaven, I think.
"Some people make trouble in the store, but they are customers. I try and think in terms of business and try and control my feelings. My two officers can take care of the rest."