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Korean crisis provokes anxiety, activism.

Growing up in the mostly white southwest suburb of Orland Park, Mira Im had few Korean friends.

"Encountering the Korean American community when I entered college was a shock for me--I'd never seen so many Koreans in my life," says Im, who has only faint memories of living in South Korea before moving to Chicago with her family when she was 10.

As a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Im began working at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center on the city's Northwest Side. Aiding recent immigrants and low-income families inspired her to continue working in the Korean community after she graduated.

Im, 22, who now lives and works in Chicago's West Ridge area, finds herself thrust into the debate about the standoff over nuclear weapons between the United States and North Korea. Im is a member of Young Koreans United of Chicago, the local chapter of a national organization that works to promote peace, human rights and social justice in the Koreas and the United States through education, grassroots organizing and advocacy.

As a progressive young Korean activist, she stresses that her views differ from the more conservative, less critical approach taken by elder members of the community.

She spoke with The Chicago Reporter about life as a Korean American in Chicago and how it has been affected by the recent conflict.

Tell me about the Korean American community in Chicago.

There are about 50,000 [Korean Americans] in the Chicago metropolitan area, but probably more than that because a lot of people don't participate in the census. About 10 years ago, [West] Lawrence Avenue, [which people have often] called Seoul Avenue, was the primary location where [immigrant] Korean Americans settled down. But about five or six years ago, a lot of Latinos started moving there, and a lot of Koreans started moving up north to the suburbs, like the Glenview/Northbrook area.

What is the biggest difficulty immigrants here face?

Language is a primary factor. I see my parents struggling with English. And [working in the United States] is a drop down for them. They feel like they can't really go far in life as far as pursuing the careers that they used to have back in Korea. It's like their life becomes a sacrifice for their children. I'm very thankful for that, but I also see the unhealthiness of it.

Sometimes it's financial problems. Immigrants come for better opportunities, but sooner or later they realize it's not that easy. Some come to settle down and then bring their families over, but, if they can't do that, they have a hard time.

How is the community here affected by crises on the Korean peninsula?

It's very uncertain. Everyone feels kind of insecure. North Koreans are required to register with the [U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service], but even South Koreans are affected by it because we look the same. Honestly, people can't really tell if we're Japanese, Chinese or Korean. All the more, because we look Korean, how are they going to be able to differentiate between North and South?

A lot of South Koreans have that fear inside of them that they might be the objects of discrimination. Many immigrants here, even those from South Korea, are undocumented. They really feel that insecurity--you might be deported because you look like a North Korean.

Has the local community had to deal with a backlash from the ongoing standoff?

The community isn't really outspoken. I think they hope it will just die down. But now, you really don't know what's going to happen with North Korea, so people are slowly starting to get ready, forming collaborations and groups so that when things like that happen, we have something to shield ourselves with. Young Koreans United, because we're a national organization, we're working with different chapters to at least form a position statement so that, when things like this happen, we have something to say.

How should the United States and North Korea address this situation?

It's not just a nuclear issue. The United States, Japan, China and South Korea discontinued the fuel supply [to North Korea] back in November. Because there is no oil supply for the winter, they have to keep that nuclear plant going to produce energy. Of course, I feel that the Korean peninsula should be nuclear-free--that's the only way to maintain peace. But, at the same time, we feel that the United States and North Korea both broke the 1994 Geneva Agreement. It's time for them to renegotiate. Stopping the fuel supply is just afflicting [North Koreans].

In that respect, Young Koreans United tries to provide humanistic aid. We can't really do anything about the oil supply at this point, but at least we can try to save some of those kids who are starving to death or those pregnant mothers who are not getting any food.
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Title Annotation:Korean American Mira Im
Author:Aaronson, Ben
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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