Saigu, on April 29, is a landmark date for many of LA’s Korean-Americans

At the age of nine Juri Kang was shot by a thief at her parents' business in South L.A. months before the riots broke out.
At the age of nine Juri Kang was shot by a thief at her parents' business in South L.A. months before the riots broke out.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
At the age of nine Juri Kang was shot by a thief at her parents' business in South L.A. months before the riots broke out.
Do Kim, a civil rights lawyer, raised funds to help black and Korean families after the riots subsided.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Ask most people to recall an image of the 1992 riots, and they will bring up the endless video loop of LAPD officers beating Rodney King or the smoke that lingered above the city for days.

They will also bring up the sound and images of gunfire from Korean shop owners as they defended their Koreatown stores from looters. To many in the Korean community, seeing that footage on TV over and over again was a humiliating experience. And to many young Korean-Americans, it was mostly confusing.

Juri Kang was 9 when she first experienced the simmering conflict here in the early 1990s. Her parents’ store and gas station were both robbed in one night, a year before the eruption of the riots. As the thief fled, he fired at Juri.

Kang was rushed to the hospital, shot once in the chest. Soon after, news cameras were at her side.

“I remember asking my mom why I was on the news, and I remember she told me that it was because I was the youngest girl to get shot during a robbery when her parents were left unharmed," Kang recalled. "And I just took it and accepted it until I entered puberty. We didn’t really talk much about it.”

Around the same time, there were several confrontations between Korean-Americans and blacks in South Central. Most notoriously, Korean grocer Soon Ja Du shot and killed a black girl, Latasha Harlins, for allegedly trying to steal a bottle of orange juice.

On April 29, 1992, the riots erupted.

“That night, I was at a family friend’s house watching it on TV as it was happening," said Kang. "I remember saying, ‘Oh, they didn’t burn my parents’ gas station!’ And, of course, it burned the next day.”

In the end, five Korean merchants were killed. More than 2,000 properties were damaged or destroyed across Los Angeles County, contributing to an estimated $1 billion in damage. Many of those who suffered the impacts believe that the city of Los Angeles never repaired relations with the Korean community after the riots.

“In some respects, the Korean-American perspective on the riots is that Korean-American merchants had become sort of a scapegoat for the problems the city was experiencing in the early 1990s,” said David Kim, an attorney and documentary filmmaker.

In his 2008 film “Clash of Colors,” Kim noted that at the time of the riots Los Angeles faced a serious recession, a growing immigrant Korean population and a corrupt police force. Few Koreans received help in rebuilding their stores, he said, and many among his generation haven’t forgotten that.

Civil rights lawyer Do Kim was a college student at Harvard when the riots broke out. He had been aware of local tensions for years, but admitted that he was shocked to see Los Angeles burning from afar.

“As a college student, I majored in African-American studies and sociology," said Kim, a former member of the Black-Korean Alliance. "A lot of people were wondering, what is this Korean person doing majoring in African-American studies? I wonder that myself. However, it was something that I was very, very interested in.”

When the violence subsided, Kim led an effort to raise funds to help black and Korean families in L.A. He also created a temporary one-stop center in Koreatown, where merchants could apply for loans, legal assistance or counseling services.

Unlike Do Kim, Juri Kang admitted that Saigu had been a difficult episode for her to put into words. Her family didn’t really discuss the impact of the violence, and she had known the episode had a huge influence on her Korean-American identity.

But it took an ethnic studies class in college, she said, to make her see the bigger picture.

“I could only see it from the point of view as the daughter of a store owner," said Kang. "I was unaware of the different perspectives out there. I didn’t know about the social, political, economic factors that helped trigger the riots.”

These days, Kang works as a rehabilitation therapist in Orange County. She does not make it to Los Angeles very often, but when she does, she avoids visiting the site of her parents’ former business in South L.A.

She did visit it recently, for the first time in 20 years. The building is now gone. In its place stands a Burger King.

Correction: Juri Kang was not the only person in the room when the robber shot her in 1991. Both of her parents were in the back office with her; her mom, sitting on one end of the bed in the office; her dad, lying on the floor, face down as directed by the gunman. Also, Kang visited the site of her parent's gas station in South L.A. only recently, for the first time in 20 years.