An exasperated look came over the face of Young C. Kim as he stood at the counter of his dry-cleaning shop. "What Korean business people?" he said. "Koreans are the same as Jewish business people, same as black, same as white. No difference."
Two weeks earlier, a gunman had robbed his Aaron's Cleaners shop, 1813 Benning Rd. NE, and shot his wife, Ok Ja Kim, in the head. The shooting, from which Ok Kim is expected to recover fully, is the latest in a series of attacks against Korean business owners in Washington.
Young Kim says there is no problem between storekeepers like himself and the surrounding, mostly black community. "In my opinion, you take anybody in my neighborhood and you ask, 'Do you have a problem with me?' I don't have any problem at all with my neighbors. Don't write on paper about trouble between blacks and Koreans," he said.
But some in Washington's black and Korean communities concede there may be problems between blacks and Korean store owners who, police officials and others have estimated, operate half the mom and pop corner stores in the city.
"There is a strain in relations with people who live in the community and Korean business people," said Ibrahim Mumin, executive director of Shaw PAC, a group devoted to business revitalization in the Shaw neighborhood.
Mumin added, "Part of the problem, I think, is frustration on the part of many Afro-Americans in the neighborhood in not being able to get loans to open up businesses and seeing other people whom they perceive as newcomers, who have just arrived from Korea or Vietnam or other places in Asia, getting what they think are better opportunities."
Sam Lae Cho, president of the Korean Businessmen's Association of Washington, said he believes that there is some friction, but that the problem is not severe.
"Jewish people used to run these kind of mom and pop stores for 30 years. Koreans took over these kind of stores, also dry cleaners, liquor stores, carryout and grocery stores," he said through interpreter Ilho A. Kim, a Korean insurance broker in the area. "In my opinion, there is some jealousy about that among the black community."
The crimes against Koreans, in addition to the shooting of Ok Kim, include the robbery and slaying last month of Young Ja Cha, proprietor of the Sherman Market, and a string of four arsons in five months against Korean shops in the 4th Police District.
Arrests have been made in the Cha slaying but not in the other cases. The arsons, police said, were similar, each occurring after midnight and involving the use of a flammable liquid thrown against the storefront. Three of the four occurred within a six-block area along Kennedy Street NW.
Police deny there is hostility between Koreans and blacks and say there is no indication the crimes represent an attack targeted against Koreans.
"You take an area like the 4th District, where 70 to 80 percent of the mom and pop stores are owned by Koreans," said Inspector Richard J. Pennington. "Whenever something happens to a mom and pop store, it happens to a Korean . . . and it is widely publicized . . . . We've been meeting with Koreans, we've been meeting with the black community, we've been meeting with other business people. As far as we can determine there are not any open hostilities."
Jong S. Cha, the 20-year-old son of Young Ja Cha, believes there are hostilities. Since the slaying of his mother, he has dropped out of the University of Maryland for a semester in order to help his father behind the counter of the Sherman Market, at the corner of Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road NW.
"Definitely, there is a problem with the blacks and Korean people," he said. "But the problem doesn't have an obvious answer. I believe the problem is due to the lack of understanding between one another's culture. Due to stereotypes, everybody thinks lower of one another's culture."
Among the cultural differences are that Korean storekeepers tend not to employ many residents of the surrounding community, relying instead on family members to do the work; that many Koreans do business in the District but live in the suburbs; and that when problems arise, language barriers often create confusion.
"I would say the Korean businessmen around this area, throughout the U.S., they have language barriers, new customs, and a new way of thinking," said Han Yong Cho, a former president of the Korean Association of Greater Washington. " . . . I would say the Korean business could be one of the weak targets for robbery, shoplifting and holdup. But I don't think there is any racial friction."
By "weak target," Cho said, he means Koreans lack clout and communication skills that would help them curb crime against their own.
"When you have a meeting with different people, if I don't have language, if I have an opinion, a suggestion, it is harder to express. That is weakness," he said.
After the Cha slaying, police organized a community meeting to discuss ways to help the Korean shopkeepers. Among the organizations represented at the meeting was the 4th District's Metropolitan Police Citizens Advisory Council, a group that provides a liaison between citizens and neighborhood police officers. At the meeting the council's chairman, Charles L. Jackson, passed out fact sheets to Koreans, encouraging them to talk with members of the council to resolve their problems.
No Koreans have done so yet, he said.
"I think they like to do things within their own little gathering," Jackson added. "This is what I noticed up at the meeting we had. After the meeting had ended, they formed a circle and a couple of their leaders got in that circle. Everybody else was milling around and drinking refreshments . . . and they had their own little closed circle going."
The closed-circle behavior of the Koreans, traceable in part to language difficulties, may have been exacerbated by the crimes that have occurred and the resulting publicity. Interviews with some store owners victimized by crime show they and their families have plunged back into work and are not inclined to talk about their problems.
Paul Ko, 45, proprietor of Martin's District Grocery Store at 400 Kennedy St. NW, described the arson at his store alternately as "children's play" and the work of "some crazy people." Meanwhile, Ko continues to work 15-hour days, seven days a week, as he has for the two years he has owned the store.
Like many of the estimated 50,000 Koreans who live in the metropolitan area, Ko worked a salaried job until he could afford to purchase a business. "A lot of friends of mine have small businesses," he said. "Our problem is you can't spend money because there is no time."
Young C. Kim works 14-hour days, six days a week at his Aaron's Cleaners on busy Benning Road. Formerly a teacher in Korea, he said language problems dictate the kind of work he must do in America.
"If I can get government job, I wouldn't have this business," he said. "I can't get government job or corporation job. This is hard job. Fourteen hours a day. I have to work hard to take care of my family."
It is perhaps ironic that while Kim wishes he could work a salaried job, some blacks in the city apparently resent the opportunities Koreans have to own and run stores.
"I think the Koreans' culture encourages them to go into business," said black community leader Mumin. "Unfortunately, I think one of the failures of the civil rights movement was that it encouraged a lot of blacks to be good employes . . . rather than foster an understanding that people should become owners of businesses . . . .
"You have a real stigma against doing the necessary work it takes to run a small business . . . . Many of the blacks who have the formal training prefer the suit and tie, the secretary kind of thing. It's a status thing, a class thing. I think people in the Afro-American community who would be good business people have been encouraged to go to IBM, Xerox and the federal government."