Stabbings put spotlight on community

May 23, 2008 2:22:48 PM PDT
The recent brutal slaying of three members of a Korean immigrant family in Northern New Jersey has cast an unwanted spotlight on a normally insular community.Kang-Hyuk Choi was captured in Los Angeles this week and extradited to New Jersey, where he has been charged with stabbing to death his 27-year-old friend, the friend's mother and uncle, in a dispute over money.

Their decomposing bodies were discovered last weekend in the family's home in Tenafly - an affluent New Jersey suburb about 10 miles from New York City that has seen an influx of Korean families in recent years.

All three of the victims were Korean-born; Choi is also Korean.

As with the massacre at Virginia Tech - carried out by a Korean student - reaction among Koreans to the Tenafly killings has exposed a community that is of two minds about its place in American society.

While younger Koreans say the killings could have happened anywhere, some older Koreans feel shame that their community was involved.

"We have different opinions," said longtime Tenafly resident Sunjoo Kim, 48. "Myself and my sister grew up here - we don't look at these killings like a Korean thing - it could happen to anyone in any town.

"But first-generation Koreans are taking it very personally, they feel very ashamed that it was Korean people involved," she said.

Kim calls herself a member of the "1.5 generation," a term popular among Koreans to describe those who emigrated from Korea as children but spent their formative years in America.

Paul Lee, a board of education member in Palisades Park - a town near Tenafly which, at just one square mile in size, claims to be the most densely populated Korean municipality in the United States - said the divergent views between older Korean immigrants and younger ones came to light in recent disagreements over whether to hold a community meeting at a Korean church to discuss the Tenafly killings.

"It's like Virginia Tech - why are we doing something to apologize for the fact that he (the suspect) was Korean?" said Lee, who is Korean. "As much as we want to assimilate, you can never completely assimilate."

Choi, a U.S. citizen who has been charged with all three murders, has pleaded not guilty. He is being held without bond in a Bergen County jail. His attorney has declined to comment on the charges against Choi.

New Jersey's Korean community is one of the fastest growing in the nation - nearly doubling between 1990 and 2000 according to U.S. Census figures. The most recent tabulations show about 86,000 Koreans in New Jersey, the majority of them in northern New Jersey - mostly Bergen County.

The Korean Consulate in New York estimates there are more than 140,000 Korean-born residents in New Jersey, not counting U.S. born Koreans.

Steve Kang, the president of the Korean American Association of Palisades Park, said Koreans who migrated to traditional ports-of-entry like Queens, N.Y., in the 1970's - mostly working in dry cleaners, fish markets and fruit stands - started heading for New Jersey in the mid-1980s in search of better schools and home ownership.

"The people who came in the 1970's had experienced the Korean War," Kang said. "They knew hunger. They knew the value of money. They put in long hours to make their businesses successful; to send their kids to college."

Now, Kang says the college-educated generation is putting down roots in New Jersey, attracted by its proximity to Manhattan and a place where their parents can enjoy business corridors now dominated by Korean shops - including chain stores from Korea - within walking distance of their homes.

"In Korea, North Jersey is very famous," said Sunjoo Kim. "Tenafly is very famous in Korea through word-of-mouth."

What Koreans of all generations hope is that North Jersey remains in the spotlight for all the right reasons, not for the brutal killing that brought attention to the community last week.

"This murder case has people using the phrase 'Korean American.' It's just American," Kim said. "I hope people don't look at it as though it happened to Koreans for any reason, just that it happened to a regular American family."


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