We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Lobbyists have wet dreams about this scenario.
You’ve mobilized an entire constituent group, 80,000 potential swing voters in a swing state. It’s a growing immigrant population with a profile coveted by politicians: well-educated, relatively prosperous, suburb-dwelling, beholden to no party. State legislators and gubernatorial candidates meet with you and come to any press events you organize. They are prepared to speechify about whatever issue you tell them is dear to your community, and pledge that your cause is their cause. Any issue at all.
What do you tell them?
If you are Peter Kim, president of the Virginia-based Voice of Korean Americans, you tell them what your community really wants—more than anything—is for any reference in any school textbook to the body of water that lies between the Korean peninsula and Japan, commonly called the Sea of Japan, to say that it’s also known as the East Sea.
With no prior political experience, the 54-year-old senior paralegal and Chantilly resident put together a lobby consisting of 49 Korean-American organizations in the state. He met with legislators, got bills sponsored in both chambers, and got them out of committee. And when the Japanese government issued threats and the governor got cold feet, he locked down a veto-proof majority. Now equal time for the East Sea is on the way to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s desk. (Similar efforts are underway in statehouses in New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, and there has been movement at the local level in Maryland, where county school boards, not the state, choose textbooks.)
It’s the first time the D.C. region’s Korean population—the third-largest in the country, after Los Angeles and New York—organized such an effort. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a community making its overdue debut as a political force, or an interest group hijacking the legislative process to settle scores that are decades old and thousands of miles away. Or both. What’s remarkable isn’t so much that Koreans are pushing an issue that’s of zero relevance to everyone else: That kind of rent-seeking is as proud an American political tradition as gerrymandering, and in this case, the cost is relatively low. (Many major textbook publishers, including McGraw Hill and Holt McDougal, already print both names.) It’s that their inaugural issue is one that has such little impact on their own day-to-day lives. But the weight of history can skew priorities, and nationalism can trump local self-interest. Ultimately, the Virginia map saga shows both the emerging clout Korean immigrants can wield in the region—and the ways internal group dynamics influence how that political clout gets deployed once it’s stockpiled.
Despite his success, Kim has low hopes for the East Sea bills elsewhere (except Maryland, where five counties—Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Howard, and Baltimore County—have already adopted similar standards). He says Korean community leaders haven’t consulted him. “I don’t think they’re serious,” he says. “They want to get on TV and in newspapers, and nothing gets done. The politicians declared their support first, and the Korean leaders followed them. I don’t think that’s going to work. We’ve been through this process, and a couple politicians can’t do it by themselves. We need to have control, not them.”
VOKA, an ad hoc organization Kim and a friend who serves as chairman, Jung Ki-Un, threw together for the bill, doesn’t have an office or any paid staff. So I meet Kim at his day job, at the office of Maury B. Watts III, a personal injury lawyer. It’s located in a faux-colonial office complex in the heart of the D.C. area’s main Koreatown, Annandale, which locals sometimes call Annan-dong. Just down the street on the main drag, Little River Turnpike, are landmarks like Shilla Bakery, Honey Pig, and the K-Mart parking lot, a longtime site of community events, where hundreds of people gathered to watch South Korea play in the 2002 World Cup live on a giant projection screen. When Korea beat Italy that summer, at around four o’clock one morning, all of them hopped in their cars and drove around Annandale honking their horns. Neighbors called the police, who told the organizers they had to hold any future viewings indoors. Games now screen at one of the dozens of local Korean churches. By far the most important institutions for Korean immigrants, churches serve not only as houses of worship but also community centers and weekend Korean schools, where kids are expected to master the hangul alphabet, meet their future spouses, and learn the proper names for bodies of water.
While Koreans have been migrating to the U.S. for more than a century, most immigrants didn’t get further than Hawaii until after the Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated quotas designed to block entry for nonwhites. The D.C. region’s Korean population, currently 93,000 (and mostly concentrated in northern Virginia), is still relatively new and growing fast. As recently as 1990, central Annandale was 73 percent white; over 20 years, it went from 18 percent to 41 percent Asian. (The Census did not allow respondents to specify their ethnicity within the “Asian” category until 2010.) As the Korean population has grown, it’s shifted further from the District. Today more Koreans live in Centreville, to the west; in Annandale, Vietnamese now equal Koreans in number. But the heart of the Korean community, where the oldest and most visible businesses and organizations operate, remains here.
Kim introduces himself as a member of the “1.5 generation,” which within the Korean diaspora refers to those who were born in Korea and emigrated at a young age, typically before graduating high school. Distinct from both their first-generation parents, who emigrated as adults and remain cloistered within Koreatowns, seldom learning English, and their second-generation children, born in the U.S. and fully assimilated, ilchom ose, 1.5ers straddle both cultures nearly equally if not always comfortably. Which makes them the best go-between organizers.
Kim was born in Seoul, where he lived through junior high. His parents moved to Richmond in 1977, at the invitation of his mother’s sister, who was already there. He went to VMI, was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force for eight years, and left as a captain. Later, he worked for various defense contractors in northern Virginia before taking his current job at the law firm. Kim says he never had much interest in politics until a couple years ago. There had been chatter in the Korean community about how their children were being taught the wrong name for the East Sea in school. Kim took notice. His mother had been born under the Japanese occupation of Korea, and like others of her generation, had been prohibited from speaking Korean or using a Korean name, among other indignities. “So I asked my son Chris, he was a fifth-grader at the time in Fairfax County: ‘Do you know the name of the sea between Korea and Japan?’ And he said ‘Sea of Japan.’ I got really upset at him and he just said ‘Hey, that’s what I learned. It’s in the textbook’s maps.’ So that’s when I decided to correct it.”
“When I started, I didn’t know what to do,” Kim says. He talked to friends in the Vietnamese community, which, a decade earlier, had its own experience trying to get the official flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam replaced with the yellow and red striped flag of the old South Vietnamese government at all Virginia public schools. (It had failed after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was meddling in U.S. foreign policy.) Kim’s friends pointed him to We the People, the whitehouse.gov petition site set up by the Obama administration in 2011. Kim posted a petition on March 22, 2012, vaguely demanding to “correct a FALSE history in our textbooks” about the name of the body of water: initially intending to take out any reference to the Sea of Japan in all textbooks across the U.S. The petition shot to the No. 1 spot on the site and ultimately gathered 102,043 signatures, making it one of the most popular petitions in the site’s history.
That many signatures qualified it for an official response. Word from the State Department was blunt: The U.S., as a matter of policy, solely recognizes the Sea of Japan name, as established by the International Hydrographic Association. So Kim filed a second petition. This time he got a meeting with the White House’s Asian-American liaison and an advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who encouraged him to write to Duncan. He did. He eventually heard from Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle, who was finally the one to inform him that the federal government does not set standards for school textbooks; those decisions are up to state and local school boards. She gave him some basic guidelines for contacting legislators and board members. And he was off.
Not surprisingly, Japan and Korea have sharply divergent views of the historical record on the matter of what the water between their countries has been called. Both can point to antique western maps that use their preferred names. Exclusive usage of “Sea of Japan” didn’t start to gain widespread acceptance until the late 19th and early 20th Century, solidifying with the Russo-Japanese War and the start of Japan’s domination of Korea. Before then, foreign cartographers referred to it by various names, including East or Oriental Sea or Sea of Chosun (the dynastic name for Korea). And Koreans, who used “East Sea” for 2,000 years, feel strongly that they never got to make their case to the world while under foreign occupation. Since liberation in 1945, as part of a broader decolonization process, successive Korean governments have made reasserting East Sea usage a priority. Already National Geographic, Google Maps, Nystrom, and several other atlases use both names.
But this isn’t really just about maps. The name issue is but one of a much larger set of ongoing conflicts between Korea and Japan, which includes a territorial dispute over a pair of tiny islands Koreans call Dokdo and Japanese call Takeshima (population: 2), as well as compensation for “comfort women,” Korean women forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial army. Western media often describe this relationship as a “rivalry,” but that is imprecise. Korea would call it demanding recognition and recompense for the subjugation of its population and near erasure of its culture. Japan would call it petty and vindictive, if it paid attention, which it mostly doesn’t.
It’s this imbalance over the perceived importance of Japan’s imperialist legacy for its neighbors that exacerbates these wounds and turns symbolic slights into full-blown geopolitical crises, complete with repercussions in the D.C. suburbs. When any Japanese prime minister visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, as Shinzo Abe did last December, it unleashes ferocious protests in Korea and China. The Japanese government always says it’s only honoring war dead enshrined there, some of whom just happen to be Class A war criminals. But visitors to the shrine’s museum get a tour of ultranationalist revisionist history, where they learn, for example, that Koreans asked the Japanese to invade, and those tens of thousands killed in the Nanking massacre were all “Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes.” (Presumably all those women and children were soldiers, too.) After one such visit in 2001, a group of 20 knife-wielding Korean protesters calling themselves “Save the Nation Do or Die,” and rumored to be gangsters, held a demonstration at Seoul’s Independence Gate Park where, in front of an assembled crowd, they all chopped off their pinkie fingers and announced they would mail them to the Japanese embassy. Extreme as such reactions are, it’s hard to imagine German school textbooks today failing to mention the Holocaust, as Japanese textbooks for decades erased and continue to downplay references to wartime atrocities.
Every Korean family was affected by the occupation, including my own. My mother is Korean. Her father, my grandfather, was sent away by Japanese colonial authorities to a mining camp on the then-Japanese-occupied Russian island of Sakhalin, part of an effort to shore up the Empire’s war production. What became of him we’ll never know—if he died in the massacres by Japanese police or the invasion by the Red Army, or if he survived to work the mines under Soviet rule—because he was never heard from again.
So I understand the painful memories, the long shadow they cast on mundane names and symbols, and the desire to correct the historical record that continues to be distorted today, particularly for the oldest generation of Koreans who lived through that era.
But still. Is this really the best use of hard-won political capital?
“I know,” sighs Mark Keam, the sole Korean American in Virginia’s General Assembly. “I had to scratch my head myself. I don’t remember this being such a big deal when I grew up. But for folks in their 70s and 80s, it gives them closure. They grew up in a dark period and want to know their children and grandchildren won’t be held back due to their heritage or race.” It’s no coincidence that when the Korean American Association of Washington did turnout for lobby days, they bused 150 Korean senior citizens to Richmond.
Keam is hopeful. “If this will help my parents’ generation move forward, let’s let them.” But what then? What about issues, right here, that shape their children’s and grandchildren’s futures more than any nationalist campaign whipped up by politicians back in Korea?
The current push wasn’t the first.
The map issue had come up in Virginia political circles before. A few years ago, a small group of Korean businessmen had approached David Marsden, a Democratic state senator who represents Annandale and Centreville, with a complaint about the “Sea of Japan” name. He introduced legislation that only applied to online textbooks, but it died in committee in 2012.
Kim knew Koreans needed to adopt a different strategy if they were going to win. So he went to the Korean American Association of the Washington Metropolitan Area, the region’s oldest and largest Korean community group, and asked them to convene a meeting. They called on 47 other Korean nonprofits in the area. Kim made his pitch to a skeptical audience. “‘We’ve never done anything like this,’ they said. ‘Is it even possible?’ I said ‘It doesn’t matter. We gotta try.’”
Kim put together the literature. It consisted of a single PowerPoint file, full of thick blocks of text and a barrage of citations of Korean-Japanese colonial history and mapmakers recognizing the East Sea name, which he emailed to every member of the General Assembly.
Then he followed up with phone calls. Some lawmakers invited him to events they were holding, where he spoke with them personally. With each, he asked for support in writing. He did the same with both Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, who were running for governor last year. Kim met McAuliffe at a campaign event in April hosted by the Korean Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and asked him for his support. McAuliffe said yes. Kim asked for a signed letter: “You know those guys, they don’t like to give you written confirmation,” he says. “But in the end they did.” Cuccinelli followed suit.
In the Senate, Kim asked Marsden to reintroduce his 2012 bill, and he agreed. But Kim felt Marsden, a Democrat, wasn’t enough in a General Assembly where Republicans control the House of Delegates and the Democrats control the Senate by just one vote. He started looking for Republicans and found Dick Black, who’d voted for Marsden’s 2012 bill. Black’s affection for Koreans goes back to his days as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where South Korean troops fought alongside Americans. “I flew hundreds of Korean Marines into battle”—the Korean Marine Corps was founded, he notes, by the USMC—“and there was a real bond of respect between American and Korean Marines,” Black says. Kim got Black and Marsden to introduce two separate bills in the Senate. In the House, he lined up Tim Hugo, who represents Korean-heavy Fairfax and Centreville and serves as GOP caucus chair. The high-ranking Republican had no problem attracting cosponsors.
It looked like a sure thing. What threw everyone for a loop was something no one—not Peter Kim, not his legislative allies, and probably not McAuliffe—anticipated. It turned out Korean Americans weren’t the only ones who could play state politics. “I got a call from Richmond from a friend saying ‘Hey, the Japanese embassy hired this lobbyist,’” says Kim. Specifically, the embassy had hired McGuireWoods, a high-profile consulting firm situated steps from the state capitol, for $75,000, according to a contract Kim provided me.
As it turned out, Kim knew the lobbyist McGuireWoods sent, Theodore Adams. They had been classmates at VMI. “At the first subcommittee hearing he said ‘Brother rat! I recognize you!’ and I said ‘Yeah! I recognize you too!’ So we shook hands. He said ‘I’m sorry, but I have to kill your bill.’ I said ‘OK, you do your best, and I’ll do my best.’”
That wasn’t all. On Dec. 26, Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae sent a letter to McAuliffe. In it, he noted that “’Sea of Japan in THE only internationally established name for the body of water between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean peninsula,” and that “Japan is the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Virginia,” accounting for a billion dollars in investments over the past five years and 13,000 jobs in the state. It closed ominously: “I fear, however, that the positive cooperation and the strong economic ties between Japan and Virginia may be damaged if the bills are to be enacted.”
If it was intended as a threat, the letter provoked more confusion than anything else. “This is not an issue any Japanese person cares about. I don’t know why they got involved,” says Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator from Fairfax, who lived in Japan and has a Korean wife. “And that was a contest they knew they were going to lose. What were they going to do, close down every Toyota dealership in the state? Stop buying Virginia wine and cigarettes?”
But it did put some kind of fear in McAuliffe, who suddenly reversed course. The governor’s friends in the Senate introduced amendments to kill the bill, though one version of it had already passed there. (On Tuesday, the House bill, having passed and been sent to the Senate, was killed in committee by Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas, who complained the Assembly wasn’t catering equally to African-American constituents. Lucas claimed she acted on her own; the bill’s author, Tim Hugo, says McAuliffe was behind the move.) That only made the GOP push harder, hoping to embarrass McAuliffe. Wednesday afternoon, the House passed the Senate’s bill, sending it to McAuliffe. He has publicly told the Washington Post he would sign it if it reached his desk. (Neither the Embassy of Japan nor McAuliffe’s office responded to requests for comment.)
Sen. Black, for his part, has gotten a kick out of his newfound celebrity in the Korean community, even hearing from a friend in Seoul that he’d been on the news there. “They showed me a newspaper with my picture on the front page,” he says. “I couldn’t read a word it said.”
Years from now, Koreans in northern Virginia may look back at the East Sea bill as their political coming of age. Never before had the community put together a concerted campaign for statewide legislation. Win or lose, Koreans are proud of their accomplishment, and rightly so.
But the question remains: All this over a map? Seriously?
Seriously, say Koreans. And because Koreans say so, and there are a lot of them here (and a lot more than Japanese), politicians have to say so, too. “These folks went through 35 years of colonial rule,” says Marsden. “It was very tough. And when names were being passed out for oceans, they weren’t at the table.”
This is true. What’s frustrating, though, is the wasted potential. Koreans have long been the sleeping giant in the region’s political landscape. One need only look to Cuban-Americans in Florida to see how a well-organized immigrant group that asserts itself and votes as a bloc can put their issues on the table, even change the course of national elections. There’s no reason Koreans couldn’t do the same here, for dozens of other issues that matter more on a practical level to them, and to non-Koreans, than the East Sea.
Issues like immigration reform. When President Barack Obama was heckled at a speech last November by a protester demanding an end to his administration’s record-breaking rate of deportations, that protester was an undocumented Korean American: 24-year-old Ju Hong, who fell out of status when his parents overstayed their visas. He was clearly chosen by his organization to make the point that immigration reform is also an Asian issue, and that not all those here illegally snuck across the Rio Grande. Exit polls conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2012 indicate 72 percent of Korean Americans, and 73 percent of Korean Virginians support comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Or issues like health care and Medicaid expansion. A great number of Koreans in the U.S. are small-business owners, and neither they nor their employees (often relatives) get health insurance from work. Keam suggests others: Adult education. More ESL teachers in public schools. Taxes that affect small businesses. He says he appeals to Korean community leaders to get involved in these campaigns. “They nod, say, ‘We get that.’ But unless it has to do with the Korean peninsula, it’s hard to attract interest.” Kim replies that the community’s enthusiasm on immigration reform is nowhere near as strong as the East Sea issue. Daniel Choi, president of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia, agrees. “There may be issues that directly affect them more, like voting rights and immigration. But no matter what, you need to ask, what does the community actually care about? And issues that get the most traction are those that involve their homeland.”
That’s consistent with ethnic politics in much of the rest of the country, particularly among groups whose identity is defined by some shared sense of historical injustice: Look at the Armenian-American community’s persistent, fruitless attempts to win U.S. government recognition of the Armenian genocide. Sometimes their efforts can be so successful as to put U.S. foreign policy toward their homeland in conflict with the entire rest of the world, as with Cubans.
But at some point, most immigrant communities develop their own sets of interests and a political agenda that, if it doesn’t ignore the homeland, doesn’t put it front and center, either. Those interests need not conform with those of mainstream America, nor does this necessitate denying their heritage or minority status. But winning more than tributes for the mother country does require a sustained engagement with the political system of their adopted country, and with issues that affect communities besides their own.
Why aren’t Koreans in the D.C. area doing that? Most Korean organizers I spoke with cited a lack of English among first-generation immigrants as the primary barrier to greater political involvement. Petersen, the state senator from Fairfax, notes that many Koreans emigrated during the Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan military dictatorships, which together lasted from 1961 to 1988 and did not exactly encourage an active citizenry. (Current South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is Park’s daughter.)
Yet it’s wrong to conclude they’re apathetic. State campaign finance records show donations from 27 different Korean-American organizations, from the Korean Senior Citizens Association to the Korean Dry Cleaners Association of Greater Washington. And they do get involved, if mostly for community and not political issues; for example, raising $1 million to build a Korean bell garden at a Northern Virginia Regional Park in Vienna. Choi, who heads a multiethnic coalition, observes that “Koreans are respected by other Asian-American groups for their ability to organize.”
And their vote is still up for grabs. Though Asians overwhelmingly vote Democratic in national elections, this trend is relatively recent; I can remember in my lifetime when Asians, generally thought of as church-going business owners, mostly voted Republican. (As Kim puts it, “They vote Democrat but they live like Republicans.”) This change is largely the result of Republicans repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. On election night 2012, conservative pundit David Brooks was on PBS’s News Hour and was asked why the GOP lost the Asian vote so badly. “Well, I think our old Scotch-Irish philosophy of you’re-on-your-own individualism doesn’t resonate as well with other groups that value the community. Like Asians. And Latinos. And Jews. And Catholics. And…” At that point Brooks seemed to realize what he was saying and stopped talking.
There’s no fundamental reason why Koreans can’t throw their weight around more in Virginia and other states where they have such a large presence. But that requires an issue that galvanizes the community as much as names on maps, which in turn requires a focus on domestic politics comparable to that on the nation Korean immigrants, even those who have lived here for decades, still refer to as oori nara, “our country.”
Should their agenda continue to give priority to historical grudge matches over material interests they share with others, they may find their next campaign short of allies, and the new golden age of the Korean lobby could be over before it starts.