Just two weeks ago, Sue Kim, a 33-year-old Korean immigrant who runs a tiny soda-and-snacks store on Georgia Avenue NW, was robbed three times in the same day. Teenagers twice came into the shop and helped themselves to boxes of candy and ice cream while Kim's sister, who speaks little English, tended the counter. Later, after Kim had returned, two youths walked in and snatched Kim's purse.
During the four months she has been in business, Kim said, she has had a series of violent encounters. She was cut and bruised on her arms and hip as she struggled with two robbers just a few days after she opened her store. In addition, she said, she has been robbed at gunpoint six times and "almost got killed three or four times" during other robberies.
After the latest rash of robberies, Kim finally put her store up for sale. "I have to get out," she said.
While Kim's store is in a high crime area, a 30-year-old black customer, walking out of the store recently, said he thought some of Kim's problems were caused by her callous manner toward customers. Just a few moments earlier, he said, he had asked Kim for a bag for the two sodas and potato chips he had purchased. "She didn't say anything. She just looked at me as if she thought I didn't need a bag. She looked like she hated me. Finally, she threw the bag down. That's disrespect . . . and it happens all the time now that all the stores in the black community are being taken over by Asians."
This tense drama over the grocery store counter is replayed every day in Washington's black neighborhoods, where many small businesses have been taken over by Koreans and other Asians. It is a confrontation over money, territory and race.
Coming from countries with ethnically homogeneous populations and strong social discipline, Asians acknowledge that they often have difficulty adjusting to working in a city that is 70 percent black and has a high crime rate. On the other side of the counter, black patrons are often scornful of the Asian immigrants' language problems and admit they resent the newcomers' takeover of small businesses in black neighborhoods.
A vivid portrait of this conflict emerges from interviews with Asian storeowners and their black customers in many parts of the city. Two reporters, one Asian, one black, talked separately with people on both sides of the conflict, finding only a few bright spots. Because of the sensitive nature of the conflict, most persons interviewed asked not to be named or photographed.
Since immigration laws were eased in 1965, the number of Asians in the Washington metropolitan area has grown dramatically, from 20,115 in 1970 to 68,665 last year, according to U.S. Census figures. Virtually all the growth has been in the suburbs. In Northern Virginia, for example, the number of Asians has soared from 5,113 to 35,716.
According to a 1977 Census Bureau report, there were 560 Asian-owned businesses in the District, of which 225 were grocery stores or other small retail establishments. Census figures also listed 202 service firms. The 560 businesses grossed $41 million in 1977, the last year for which figures have been compiled. Census officials said new figures will be released next year.
John Yoon, executive director of the area's Korean Businessmen's Association, estimates there are now more than 1,000 Korean-operated businesses in the metropolitan area, of which about 350 are in the District.
The average mom-and-pop business in the District costs between $60,000 and $80,000, with a downpayment of about 30 percent, according to Washington brokers Ben Eisenman and Al Stern. Stores in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods cost about $30,000. Asians began "buying up" small businesses about eight years ago, they said. Since 1973, Eisenman said, he has handled the sale of about 50 small businesses to Asians while Stern has handled about 100. Most of the Asian buyers were Koreans, they said.
A 7-Eleven franchise requires an initial cash investment of $27,500, said the Southland corporation, the chainhs owner. Southland gets 52 percent of the annual gross profits and the franchisee gets 48 percent.
Eleven of the 24 7-Elevens in the District are operated by Asians.
For Korean storeowners in some low-income areas, the average work-day ushers in an avalanche of worry and fear. D.C. robbery squad detective Joseph Kaclik says Asian-owned stores are hassled "all the time" and robbed more often than other stores.
However, the frequent robberies of Asian-owned stores may have little to do with racial tension, said Lt. John Harlow of the D.C. robbery squad. Holdup men, he said, know that storeowners with a limited command of English will have trouble identifying them and taking them to court. One other obvious reason, he said, is that many of the stores happen to be in high-crime areas.
Blacks and Koreans alike have a common concern about the impact of crime on neighborhood businesses. A year ago, Chang Yoon, 43, whose shop is in the 3800 block of Georgia Avenue NW, shot at three men who tried to rob his store -- wounding one -- and in the process confiscated two guns. Afterwards, he recalled, dozens of neighbors came to his store to congratulate him for taking a stand against crime.
Many Korean immigrants regard the jansa (small business) as the fastest way to get ahead in America -- especially because it requires less knowledge of English than other occupations. Yet, they often find that their limited command of English leads them into heated arguments with frustrated customers.
"The problem starts out small and builds up because of communication (problems)," said one Korean manager.
However, he added, "they hate us just because of our faces. They come in, see we are Asians, and start singing 'Ching Chong' and 'Chink.'"
Blacks, in turn, commonly accuse Korean storeowners of showing no respect for people in their community. Since mid-February, the 25-member youth drill team at the Union Temple Baptist Church on 14th and U streets SE has been boycotting the nearby Korean-run 7-Eleven store. Ricardo Payne, the drill team leader, said the boycott was called to protest the alleged mistreatment of neighborhood children by the store clerks.
"The people there yell at them and throw their change at them and rush them out of the store when they're trying to purchase items . . . I told (the manager): 'You don't persecute or mistreat all the children just because a few are shoplifting.'"
The store operator, Sa Chi, commented: "I don't think that we treat the children bad. But sometimes 50 to 70 kids come in at a time . . . it gets hard to handle them."
During the several years he has been operating the store, he said, his shop window has been shattered 18 times, often byirate customers with whom clerks had had disputes.
Some Korean storeowners, like Sue Kim, are shocked by the problems they encounter. Kim said she had never seen a black person until she came into this country. A single woman who usually tends her store alone, Kim lives with her sister and brother in College Park, Md. Kim said her parents, who still live in Seoul, South Korea, sent her to the United States in 1966 "so that we would have more opportunity." Kim said when she first bought her store, she did not know what she was getting herself into.
Koreans with sufficient funds usually buy suburban businesses, which offer more security. Storeowners in the suburbs said that while their language problems are no different from those of their counterparts in the city, suburban black and white customers tend to be more understanding.
Sally Choe, 15, whose family runs a cleaners in Fairfax, Va., said her family considered buying a shop in the District, but was dissuaded by the feelings of white and Korean friends.
"Everybody said, 'There are more problems in D.C.,'" Choe recalled. "'Problems like black people.' People said black people are a problem because there are very many bad black people. They said black people don't pick up their clothes after they bring them to the cleaners and black people steal a lot."
Chul-Soo Chin, editor of the New York edition of the Dong-A Daily News, a Korean-language newspaper, said, "Koreans have been a homogenous race for many centuries. They are prejudiced against many other races -- the Chinese, the Japanese. At first (when they arrive in this country), they don't know how to treat black people."
Blacks, on the other hand, tend to group Koreans with all other Asians under the category "Chinese," and some mistakenly identify them as "the boat people." Refugee resettlement workers said that there are relatively few Vietnamese-owned stores in the District and most of those are in the more affluent areas of Northwest and the suburbs.
Blacks, especially those in low-income areas, express anger over the Korean takeover of small businesses in their communities.
Koreans now operate a 7-Eleven and a grocery store between 13th and 14th streets along Good Hope Road SE, a situation frequently discussed by local residents.
"Black people really feel like there's something wrong," says Joe Hill, 45, a longtime resident of the area. "They don't know how these yellow people are doing this. I truly believe that someone is behind them. They brought a lot of suitcases over here, but there weren't any clothes in them. there was money, gold, silver. . . . They could be getting money from the Unification Church or from the U.S. government. . . . It seems like we're helping the system work for everybody else but us."
Lawrence Snowden, 31, an unemployed Anacostia resident, said: "This is the land of the free, so they say. But I think everybody else who comes into this country is freer than us . . . the whites are bringing the Asians into their economic heaven and that heaven is our hell. All the scuffling that we've been through and we're still at the bottom."
D.C. City Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who heads the council's Housing and Economic Deveopment committee, said she understands this resentment on the part of blacks. "To get into the economic mainstream for blacks has been a tremendous road of obstacles. And now to look around and see other minority groups getting into the mainstream with less obstacles . . . ."
"But," says Jarvis, "The question is not how we can put obstacles in the way of others but how we can remove the obstacles for ourselves."
Koreans said their big-money image among blacks is just a myth. Echoing stories told by Korean storeowners, Sung-Woun Hong, editor of Hankook Shinbo, a Korean-language newspaper published in Washington and himself the owner of a small carryout restaurant in Northwest, said, "Ninety percent of Koreans come with nothing in their pockets. They start out by working for a couple of years in other people's stores. They have two jobs, three jobs." Wives also work two jobs, he said.
Honh says that while Koreans also misunderstand black people . . . black people do not understand that it is not too difficult (to better themselves through business). They can do it in two or three years, but they have to work very hard," Storeowners often work 13 hours a day and seven days a week, they said, "so that future generations will have it easier in this country."
Han Yun Cho, past president of the Korean Businessmen's Association, said blacks have had "more opportunities than I have. (They) were born here. Black people . . . have congressmen, mayors . . . ."
For a variety of reasons, many Asian immigrants who work in the District live in the suburbs. For some, it is because they want their children to go to better schools. For others, it is because they fear and dislike blacks. But the primary reason, they said, is crime.
"(If) you live upstairs (above his store), you die," said Soon Sang You, who runs a grocery store on 16th and A streets SE. You takes turns with his wife waiting on customers and standing outside the store watching for suspicious persons. The You family lives in Silver Spring close to other Koreans.
The fact that many Asian business people live in the suburbs has contributed to what one black Southwest resident and businessman called "a form of rape" -- Korean businessmen coming into black neighborhoods by day and retreating to the suburbs at night with their money.
"The onslaught of Asian-owned businesses is one of the worst things that has ever happened to us," said Calvin Rolark, executive director of the United Black Fund. "Those people are not equal opportunity employers. They only employ members of their own families or their Asian friends . . . no one has the right to come into a community and not offer jobs."
The Asian-owned stores give nothing to the same community that buys from them and thus break one of "the black community's ground rules," said Rolark.
Darrell Sabbs, director of the Mayor's Youth Leadership Institute, says the movement of Asians into small businesses is a question of self-determination for the black community. "We need to come together . . . and deal with the economics of our neighborhoods . . ." he said, "if we are to take control of our destiny."
Yoon, of the Korean Businessmen's Association, said, "We are not trying to take over the black neighborhoods, but that is where the opportunity is when you have little money." Yoon says association members often discuss how they can improve relations with their commmunities.
Businessman Cho, who said he is "getting popular with the neighborhood," said he has hired six blacks for his 12-member staff and personally attends meetings of various community organizations.
But Cho's store, the spacious Warehouse Supermarket on First and K Streets NW, is a world removed from many Korean groceries, which are cramped and creaky storefronts, sometimes with merchandise stacked on makeshift shelves. Owners of smaller stores said that unlike Cho, they do not speak English well, have no time for community activities, and cannot afford to hire outside help.
Even so, some Korean storeowners said they are making significant contributions to their communities. Chang Yoon said that when he opened up his grocery on Georgia Avenue NW three years ago, "there were many hooligans on the streets blocking the street and bothering customers. But I persuaded them to go. . . . I have been trying to clean up the community."
The phenomenon of "middle-man minorities" servicing black neighborhoods is not new, said Edna Bonacich, a specialist in ethnic relations at the University of California at Riverside. "Before the Koreans, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Japanese, and Chinese . . . performed the same function." These groups also came into conflict with their communities, she said. Tensions caused by middle-man ownership of shops can be exacerbated by such factors as high black unemployment, said Bonacich.
But in Washington, the pattern of antagonism and misunderstanding between blacks and Asians is by no means universal. Korean storeowner Peter Back, who runs an ice cream parlor in Northeast, said he likes his neighborhood and has "no problems" with customers.
In other cases, relations have improved over time, as merchant and customer have grown more accustomed to each other. Sun Choi, 41, said that when he bought his grocery store a year ago on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southwest, he sometimes quarreled with customers, some of whom disliked him because he was Koren. But now, he said, the situation has vastly improved.
Sometimes the interests of the two groups fuse.
Black storeowners in low-income areas face problems similar to those of Korean storeowners and sympathize with their plight. One black owner of a small business in Sue Kim's neighborhood said, "These stores are being bought out by Asians because no one else wants them. Who wants to put up with all that pressure, the problems of dealing with dozens of children, the people who go in and buy a pack of potato chips and steal a soda? Small businesses are hell . . . ."