MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Twenty years later, that community is rebuilt and growing. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, many Koreans see those '92 riots as a turning point.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: You wouldn't have wanted to be in this neighborhood on April 29, 1992. Whole blocks of Koreatown went up in flames, but 20 years later, there's no evidence of the fires that night. There were malls filled with Korean businesses, new condominiums and a major metro stop a few blocks from where I'm standing.
Los Angeles has the biggest Korean population in the country. Edward Chang's family arrived in Los Angeles to pursue their American dream in 1974. He now teaches Asian-American studies at the University of California at Riverside.
Chang says his family and other Korean immigrants had a common goal: to become economically successful so they could secure their children's futures by educating them in the country's top universities.
EDWARD CHANG: And many believed that owning and operating small businesses was the easiest and quickest way to realize the American dream.
BATES: But working toward that dream came at a cost. Purchasing a business was expensive, so the new immigrants bought where they could afford, which usually meant in poor and working class neighborhoods in and near South LA.
Edward Chang says this was a shock to people who'd arrived from what's often considered the most racially, culturally homogenous country in the world.
CHANG: Remember that they came here without any knowledge of a history of racial confrontation or race relations in America, and many came believing United States of America was a white country.
(SOUNDBITE OF "LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE THEME")
BATES: A lot of what the early newcomers knew about America came from subtitled broadcasts of American TV, which often showed an idealized America. "Little House on the Prairie" was hugely popular at one point. Reality, of course, was considerably different, and for the newly arrived immigrants, trying to adjust to a new multicultural reality and a new language was stressful.
March 1991. First, the Rodney King beating occurred on March 3rd. He was very much on the national radar screen. Korean immigrants, though, mostly listened to radio and watched TV in their own language and King didn't figure prominently there.
Then, on the 16th, storekeeper Soon Ja Du argued with ninth grader Latasha Harlins over whether the 15-year-old had been trying to steal a bottle of orange juice from Empire Liquor, the store Du's family owned in Compton. After a brief fight, Du shot and killed Harlins. Months later, the 51-year-old was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but after posting a $250,000 bail, was immediately given probation.
ANGELA OH: So what you saw - the visual was a woman walking out of court, having just completed a case in which a teenager had been shot and killed. Right? So the ire was really intense at that moment.
BATES: Civil rights attorney Angela Oh is the daughter of Korean immigrants and was a spokesperson for the Korean community during and after the riots. Oh says Soon Ja Du's probation was the true ignition point for the LA riots.
OH: My belief is that that was the spark.
BATES: Large parts of LA were engulfed in flames and Korean businesses suffered disproportionately, a casualty of terrible black-Korean relations. Many buildings burned to the ground as their owners waited in vain for assistance from authorities. Some businesses were saved by volunteer gunmen who took aim at looters to scare them away.
Edward Chang says the riots were a turning point in Korean identity.
CHANG: Prior to 1992, Korean immigrants consider themselves as a Korean, but after 1992, they began to call themselves as Korean-Americans.
BATES: This distinction is important, Chang says, because Koreans began to see themselves as a permanent part of this country, not temporary residents. Korean-Americans began reaching out, working with other ethnic communities to lessen discrimination and politically empower themselves. Koreatown has physically recovered and expanded greatly beyond its original borders and scholarship on the Korean-American community has blossomed since 1992.
The changes are in full force at the annual dinner of the Korean-American Bar Association. It's a diverse gathering of Angelenos in civic and business life. Businessman Chris Lee says one important post-riot lesson for his community was the need for tolerance in a multicultural environment.
CHRIS LEE: I think we are much more accepting, which I think is a - you know, a first step toward becoming, you know, assimilated into this country.
BATES: Korean-American Judge Howard Halm believes Koreans' historic pattern of resilience has allowed his community to recover from the riot's devastation.
JUDGE HOWARD HALM: This is kind of the persona of Korean-Americans. It's like the Jews in Europe. They're used to being beaten down and then coming back again.
BATES: And, in LA, a large part of that comeback has been a growing embrace of one of the most multicultural, multiracial cities on Earth.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.