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Tensions hit home for Korean-Americans in Federal Way

Daniel Lee was shocked when, in November, he learned that North Korea had shelled an island off of South Korea. The act of aggression was the first military fusillade that crossed the infamous demilitarized zone since the Korean War cease fire in 1953.

Lee is the news producer for Federal Way-based Radio Hankook, a Korean language station that serves the Puget Sound area. After North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, which sits off the western coast of South Korea, just south of a line that divides the two nations, Radio Hankook was a local hub for information on the situation.

“The Korean community was shocked,” Lee said. “A lot of people called (the station) to find out what was happening.”

As tensions rise in the Korean Peninsula 5,000 miles away, so too do the worries of local Korean Americans. And it’s been a worrisome year for the peninsula.

The Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong was the most brazen act by North Korea against South Korea this year. The north attacked, reports said, because of South Korean military drills it perceived as an attack. Two South Korean civilians and two military personnel were killed in the attack, and many more injured.

In the wake of that incident, South Korea has retaliated, in a way, by conducting several military training exercises, one in conjunction with the U.S. military.

Last Monday, South Korean military conducted a live artillery drill off of Yeonpyeong, firing west along the border with North Korea. The north threatened to retaliate, but did not. South Korea conducted a similar drill last Wednesday.

In March, a South Korean naval ship was sunk in the Yellow Sea, near the border with North Korea. This year has also seen the pick of a successor to North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il: his third son, Kim Jong-un.

But it has not been all bad. North Korea was visited over the weekend by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, which some see as an encouraging sign that the north is willing to seek a diplomatic solution to tensions. Some Koreans see hope in an upcoming summit between Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao; both countries have interests in the region.

Federal Way connection

Federal Way is home to more than 5,600 Korean-Americans, according to recent census data. That’s about half of the city’s Asian population, according to the census. And though many resident worry about the situation in Korea, they may do so more than family and friends who actually live there.

Federal Way City Councilman Mike Park was born in Korea prior to the Korean War, before the country was split in two. He served in the military — compulsory in South Korea — during the 1960s. He witnessed acts of aggression by North Korea, like when they tried to penetrate the south with special forces troops.

“We thought, oh we're going to war with the north,” he remembers. “Everybody was ready to fire at that moment. There's always up and down all the time. That's why South Koreans are pretty much accustomed to those kind of tensions.”

With the present situation, Park believes North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il is just trying to attract attention. Though there are tensions between the north and south, six countries — the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas — have huge interests in the region.

“Right now, the South Korean people are accustomed to North Korea's strategy: building up very intense tension and then trying to get what they want,” he said.

After the South Korean government responded to the north’s attack by conducting live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong, Daniel Lee of Federal Way-based Radio Hankook interviewed local Koreans at H-Mart on Pacific Highway. Some worried the drills would make the situation worse, some thought South Korea should stand up to the north.

“I wonder if the government should do something that could provoke war,” said Son Joong-hyup, a student.

“Yes, we should respond firmly. Retaliation should be strong so that the north will not think about repeating its horrible acts again,” said Nam Jong-dal.

The Korean Peninsula has been divided and at the mercy of outside powers for at least 100 years. Japan annexed and then ruled Korea between 1910 and 1945. After Japan surrendered at the end of World War II in 1947, the U.S. and Russia took on the job of restoring sovereignty. But that proved to have consequences: it resulted in the seemingly arbitrary division of the peninsula into north and south, and the economic philosophies the two countries eventually adopted.

North and South Korea officially became separate countries in 1948. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, kicking off the Korean War. Historical accounts of the war point out that a cease-fire in 1953 ended the fighting, but no official end to the war was ever agreed upon.

Since then, South Korea has become an important economic power, while North Korea has become an isolated communist state, which recently gained nuclear weapons and continues to build up a nuclear-powered infrastructure.

Hee Jung Li, a real estate agent at Prudential Northwest Realty Associates in Federal Way, moved to the U.S. in 1987 when she was 27. She said she was never a politically active person, but remembers duck-and-cover drills in school. She recently saw a news clip of the same drills being conducted now, but agrees that Korean-Americans are more worrisome about the situation than those living there.

“Those faces aren't showing nervousness or worry,” she said of the news clips.

In fact, her children are in Korea for winter break. She said her American friends asked how she could not worry about her children in time of such tension.

A war is “not pleasant to think about, but they're not worried,” she said. “We've been dealing with these kinds of issues for so many years — almost 60 years now. That's why we're kind of less sensitive about the issue.”

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