30 Years Ago, He Talked Koreatown Through The Unrest Of ‘92
Tune into Radio Korea in the mornings, and you’ll hear veteran broadcaster Richard Choi in his Koreatown studio connecting immigrants to life in Los Angeles, whether it be about filing taxes or navigating the job market.
But on April 29, 1992, Choi found himself in a very different and challenging role that resembled being a crisis counselor.
Within hours of a nearly, all-white jury in Simi Valley acquitting the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, anger in Los Angeles turned into protests, looting, violence and fires.
Racial tensions had risen since the shooting death in March of 1991 of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Accusing Harlins of trying to shoplift a bottle of orange juice, a Korean American liquor store owner in South L.A. shot the Black girl in the back of the head.
The judge gave store owner Soon Ja Du probation. Just months after that decision came the LAPD acquittals, on a date referred to in Korean as Saigu — or “4/29.”
That evening, Choi was driving home from the studio in Koreatown when he heard on the radio that a white trucker, later identified as Reginald Denny, had been brutally beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Choi made a U-turn and arrived back at work as the calls began pouring in.
“We would have different business owners call and say, My store’s burning, what do I do?,” Choi recalled. “And we would ask, Where is it? — and they would say, for example, Around 96th and Vermont.”
Other business owners would dial in to ask if their stores were burning too. Those on the ground would call in to confirm.
“And so through this way, we were actually having real-time updates by the minute, where it played out as sort of a script in a way, which was very odd,” Choi recalled.
Violence claimed more than 50 lives and the city sustained about a billion dollars in damage. Korean-owned businesses were disproportionately destroyed. As the community struggled to get information or help to contend with the unrest and its aftermath, they turned to Choi and the reporters at Radio Korea.
At the time, Choi was serving as Radio Korea’s vice president after co-founding the station in 1989 and leaving behind a lucrative career in the steel import/export business.
The uprisings thrust Choi into the studio because, among the staff, he had lived in the U.S. the longest — since 1974 — and knew the area well.
“I was most well-equipped to assist when calls came in, to provide updates or to understand things and interpret them better,” Choi said. “And then I continued being on air from that point on until now.”
Here are highlights from Choi’s interview with LAist, edited for length and clarity. Interpreting was provided by Koreatown community organizer David Kim.
On the first of five days of unrest, staff members at Radio Korea were trying to make sense of what was happening, just like everyone else. Choi recalls telling listeners to avoid danger.
“What we emphasized was, although we came to America for the American Dream, to achieve something, what's more important than achieving anything and money is our own lives. And so if you see somebody attacking your business or coming near you, don't put up a fight. Don't cause trouble. Just try to cooperate as much as possible because your lives are the most important. So, ‘Please protect yourselves’ is the message that we started initially sharing with our listeners.”
That message upset some. On day two of the unrest, Kee Whan Ha, who owns the Hannam chain of grocery stores, walked into the Radio Korea offices holding a handgun. He rested it on a table and argued that business owners should protect their property. The president of Radio Korea, who had been hunkered down at the station, accompanied Ha around Koreatown to see what was happening.
“[Ha] was just emphasizing and reminding us [that] we built Koreatown. And we've been here for the past 20 years putting in our all to the Korean community — our time, our blood, our energy, our sweat — and we can't have Koreatown and the Korean community just disappear and be destroyed in one day and be gone.”
Choi says the station checked with its in-house counsel, David Kim, on the legality of bearing arms for protection.
“Mr. Kim shared at the time that in America, as long as you're defending yourselves because you're in danger and for your safety and and in harm, that it's completely okay to use a gun and there's nothing illegal about that. And so after hearing him share that, we started then changing our message to our listeners to say, Hey, we must protect Koreatown. We must protect our Korean community.”
Those wanting to defend Koreatown used Radio Korea broadcasts to pinpoint trouble spots.
“The community responded to that very actively, where people and business owners and listeners with guns would call in and share that they were able to help support and be deployed where needed. [Ha, the Hannam store owner] had set up a barricade on the top of his market and had guns there. And we even put out a call to our listeners for those who do have arms to let us know. We had even the [Korean-American Youth Association] assemble up to 30 to 40 members being ready to go to any part of Koreatown that [was in danger.] The Korean Marines veterans group also listened to our broadcasts for live updates and asked where to be sent to to provide help.”
Choi remembers one volunteer in particular. Eddie Lee, was killed in the crossfire, mistakenly shot, it turned out, by another Korean American. Lee would be one of more than 50 people to die during the unrest.
“Eddie Lee was also listening to our radio broadcasts and seeing what areas needed help, and he heard that a particular plaza was in danger. And so he went over to the plaza. The guards there and the people who were there protecting the plaza, saw him come over. They mistook him for being one of the rioters and actually shot him. It's very sad and unfortunate that this happened because it was friendly fire and there was a mistake.”
Those who armed themselves to protect their businesses were in the minority and got outsized attention from the media. But Choi says news of business owners mobilizing slowed the destruction of Koreatown. He likes to think that Radio Korea also had a role in protecting the neighborhood.
“So if you look back at what happened during Saigu, to be honest, if there was no radio, I'm not sure if Koreatown — and the Korean community as we know it here in L.A. — would be here. I'm glad that we were able to be of assistance in that way.”
Choi says the tragedy of the uprisings has shaped generations of Korean Americans.
“Up until that point, Koreans were just merely living in the U.S. There was no sense or identity of being Korean American. And although what happened in 1992 was heart-wrenching and really sad, what happened was that these Koreans who were merely living in the U.S. started becoming Korean Americans. We started seeing the identity of the Korean American be born and formed.
Choi calls those who grew up in the shadow of 1992, the children of Saigu. They include the politicians he now interviews on his show.
“They've all shared how it was Saigu that actually played a big influence in how they decided to run for office and enter the political realm. They realized that the Korean community needed political power. In order to live here in the US, you must have political power, you must have a presence.”
Choi plans to stay on top of his community because, at 74, he has no retirement plans to speak of.
“I love the radio business. I don't know why, but I think it is my calling.”