Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Austin Koreans Worried About Tensions Back Home

Korean Penninsula
Image courtesy Google Map Imagery, TerraMetrics, Mapabc, SK M&C, Zenrin
Tensions between North and South Korea are troubling some Austinites with roots in the region.

Relations between North and South Korea aren't exactly okey dokey these days. In March, North Korea sank a South Korean naval warship, killing 46 sailors.  Last week, the North shelled a South Korean island. Four people were killed then. We've also learned about the North's large uranium enrichment facility.

Thousands of American soldiers are stationed along the South Korean border with the North. The US and South Korea are scheduled to hold more joint military exercises Tuesday in a show of force.

Meanwhile, a major release of classified documents by WikiLeaks includes diplomatic cables that reveal how little world leaders know about one of the world's last totalitarian dictatorships. They also depict a Chinese leadership increasingly frustrated with its Communist ally.

The outcome of events on the Korean Peninsula carries real life consequences for thousands of Austinites who have roots in that part of the world. KUT News spoke about it with Richard Jung, a local attorney and vice president of Korean American Association of Austin.

KUT News: What is the local Korean community's reaction to the escalating tensions back home?

Richard Jung:Obviously, we are very concerned that things don't escalate. All Koreans, particularly South Koreans, but I'm sure also the people of the North, just don't want this to escalate into something that spins out into war, or something where serious artillery barrages hit South Korea.

There's very little actual inhabitable land in South Korea, so in a relatively short period of time you could have an incredibly huge impact on the lives of South Korean people with even a short-term artillery barrage, if they decide to come after the cities and things. It's something we're all very concerned about.

KUT News:How big is the Korean population in Austin

Jung: The latest estimates have the Korean population in the Greater Austin-area somewhere around 10,000. There is also a sizeable population up in Killeen. Generally, almost all the [Koreans] in the United States are from South Korea.

You have one of the largest student Korean populations in the US at the University of Texas, so there's another large group that feels this impact. And then [Seoul-based] Samsung is a huge part of the Austin community now, and they have most of their operations in Korea still. Anything that poses a risk to the people, the infrastructure and the economy over there, that's a serious concern for Samsung as well.

But I think the people here most affected by the recent shelling, there's a Korean Veterans Association here for Korean Marines, and it's those guys that took the brunt of the casualties. The two that were killed were Korean Marines as well, so I think they feel it very strongly.

KUT News: Some South Koreans, young people in particular, have shown resentment towards the US military presence in their country. Do these events agitate that frustration or do they help US-South Korean relations?

Jung: It takes a situation like this for a lot of people in Korea, as well as here, particularly the younger students, for them to realize how important it is that South Korea has an ally like the United States. Having the US as an ally, you can certainly criticize the US as an ally, and say, "This happened in the past, and that happened in the past," but with China and North Korea as neighbors - and I'm not saying China wants to invade to Korea or anything like that - but with real life threats to the well-being of the country and the people of Korea, it makes people realize that nobody has done anything perfectly right, and having a friend like the United States willing to stand up for the country, and to help South Korea in a time of need, that's why South Korea is an ally of the United States. 

There are interests that align together between South Korea and the US, and they'll diverge at times, but I think it's critically important that South Korea have the US as an ally.

KUT News: Yet within United States policy circles there is a wide range of opinions on how to deal with North Korea.

Jung: I think there a lot of people who think we need to put the mad dog down, they've finally crossed the line. We can't keep putting up with this. 

I think people in South Korea have those feelings too, but what's really important is that the situation not be escalated. South Korea is about the size of Indiana, but the area of land that people actually can live on is so much smaller than that, it might be Rhode Island sized. That can be decimated in a very short period of time.

The distance from those artillery guns to Seoul, the capital, might be from Killeen to Austin, or closer. It's that close. A quarter of the population in South Korea lives in Seoul. Most of Samsung's factories are just south of Seoul. That could just get wiped out in a day.

It's that important for South Korea and its people that things don't get escalated to an actual war, or even a serious ground assault or bombardment going on. It's very easy to think from a distance [that it's no big deal], but it's a very real threat and we want to make sure things don't escalate.

I think what the US and South Korea are doing right now is perfect, which is to show real resolve to send the carrier task force down there, to show that they're not just going to buckle to a lot of pressure, but not to escalate it to a point where there is actual combat going on.

KUT News: For people who want to follow events closely, what's the best source for English-language news about South Korea?

Jung: There are a couple of newspapers that you can see online, Korean newspapers. There's the Korea Herald, and the Korea Times, and both have English-language websites. It's not always perfect English, but it's pretty good.

Then there is Yonhap, a wire service in Korea, and a lot of the news agencies in Korea subscribe to that service. And in fact when the shellings first happened, a lot of the reports were basically Yonhap reports that were being disseminated by other wires.