From behind the barred windows of his uncle's liquor store, Kim Dae deals with some of the city's most nefarious characters. The store is located at 11th and O streets NW, a strip known as "Bam Boulevard" because the heroin-boosting drug preludin (bam) is openly bought and sold there.
"The black people we see are sometimes strange to us," said Kim, who has worked at the store for two months. "We strange, too. So everybody work for better understanding."
Whatever Kim and his brother, who also works at the store, are doing seems to be working for them. The store has not been robbed since their uncle, Yong D. Kim, purchased it from Jewish owners four years ago.
Unfortunately, they are among a lucky few.
Since Korean immigrants began what could be called a "corner store revolution" in this city a decade ago, some law enforcement officials have become concerned that they are targets for robbers and shoplifters. Although Koreans make up roughly 6 percent of the District's population, they have been victims of about 20 percent of the reported armed robberies, according to police reports.
The situation has its roots in the resentment that even some law-abiding blacks hold toward Korean business persons. While there is sympathy toward Korean robbery and murder victims, such as the woman who was shot to death last week, the feeling that Koreans have somehow taken over as "merchants of the ghetto" remains.
To be sure, the young black men who perpetrate crimes on corner grocery store employes are likely to do so regardless of the ethnic background of the owner. But because Koreans often don't speak English well, don't hire people from the neighborhood, don't live in the neighborhood and go about their business in a no-nonsense manner, friction and conflict prevail.
"Almost every store is robbed once or twice every year," said Eugene Kay, former president of the Association of Korean Businessmen, which has about 1,500 members.
"We are trying to improve our relations," said Seung Ahn, a member of the Korean Chamber of Commerce here. "We want to know: What's the best way to avoid problems when the gunman comes in?"
At Kim's store, called K Vann Liquors, part of the solution is stated in two signs: "Warning K-9" and "Warning: Honeywell Alarm Systems." As affable as the Kim brothers are, they never do business face-to-face with customers, always operating behind a plastic bulletproof wall.
"I'm sorry we have this," said Kim. "That's not our style. But it was here when we came, and we figure that one day it may come in handy."
The key to what makes them popular businessmen, however, lines the shelves of their walls. Their champagnes are the cheapest money can buy. Their biggest sellers include Manischewitz red wines, Barcardi rum and Schlitz Malt Liquor.
"We have to listen to the customer," said Kim. "If they want a certain kind of liquor, we immediately go out and get it. If the price is too high, we try to cut it. We understand these people, and I think they like us, too."
Kim's uncle bought the liquor store with $8,000 after retiring from a construction company. To save money, the owner hired his nephews, who work 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
"Running these stores are so easy," said Kim. "You buy goods at proper prices and put in a reasonable margin. We can do what we want, how we want. That's what America is about, right?"
One thing that confuses them, however, is why would blacks be upset that Koreans have bought the stores. Although Koreans now own more than half of all "mom and pop" stores and carryouts in the city, there was a time when blacks could just as easily have bought them.
"I can't figure it out," said Kim. "I know the Korean has a sense of management and a long striving to be independent. But blacks do too, right? Koreans don't like working for other people. We don't like the 9-to-5. But blacks -- do they like these things?"