ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-GCB

America My Country:
Let's Be Part of It

Grace Chung Becker

Summer 2002 ICAS Symposium

August 10, 2002 11:00 - 6:00 PM
Calvary Vision Community Center, 550 Township Line Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Grace Chung Becker

America My Country:
Let's Be Part of It

Grace Chung Becker
Assistant General Counsel,
U S Sentencing Commission

First of all, I would like to thank Dr. Kim and the ICAS for the opportunity to speak before you today. It is a great honor to be part of this important symposium. The topic I was asked to talk about is "America My Country: Let's Be a Part of It." As I contemplated how best to present this theme, I realized that there is not just one way of being part of America, there are several. And there are ways in which Korean-Americans have been very successful in being part of America, and other ways where we could use some improvement. To illustrate this, I will focus on four methods of being part of America:
  1. Through education
  2. Through success in the private sector
  3. Through vocalization of Korean-American issues
  4. And ultimately through this country's leadership.


One way of being "part" of America is to be educated in America. That's the first line of success for any young adult. "Study hard." We've all heard that phrase from our parents. It's such a simple concept, and yet so profound in its simplicity. Three weeks ago, the Census Bureau released a report comparing the earnings of individuals based upon the level of education. Their unsurprising conclusion was that education pays off (at least up until you reach the top). A high school graduate will earn $1.2 million over her lifetime. A college graduate will get almost double that $2.1 million, and a master's degree, $2.5 million. Interestingly, a doctoral degree gets $3.4 million while a professional degree gets $4.4 million. But, listen, we don't need the Census Bureau to tell us this. Korean-Americans have always known this. We have been very successful in finding out which schools are the best and sending our children there. That's why we often even see first generation Korean- Americans at Ivy League universities and other prestigious institutions nationwide.

Despite our initial success, we must prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead. We need to ensure CONTINUED success in this arena. With other immigrant groups, you often find that third and fourth generation children do not have the same academic success as their parents. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because these children are financially secure, so they lack that ambition to overcome adverse childhood circumstances. Or perhaps it is because their parents work too hard and are not home enough to oversee their homework and help them succeed. Whatever the reason, we need to stay engaged in our children's education and emphasize the importance of academic success.


Another way in which Korean-Americans have successfully participated in American society is through the private sector. Korean- Americans are natural entrepreneurs. My parents opened a little store in New York City when I was in Kindergarten. It went from being a little store selling candy and other little items to becoming a mini-department store selling high end cosmetics, handbags, and electronics to Korean tourists and the Korean-American community. It was the first store of its kind in New York Cici Bec-Ka-Jum. Now, stores like this are a dime a dozen.

Moreover, success for Korean-Americans has not been limited to the traditional mom-and-pop shops of grocery stores, delis, and dry cleaners. You see many Korean-Americans as doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and computer gurus, too. In June 2000, The Washingtonian magazine published an article called "Secrets of Korean Success" that talked about how first generation Korean parents have sacrificed for their children, so they could become successful. It was a wonderful article that showed just how far we have come in this area.


But being a "part" of America isn't just about succeeding financially and professionally. You can't be "part" of a family if you never speak. Korean-Americans have concerns like any other ethnic group in the United States, but often times they are easily ignored because we haven't vocalized them adequately. The quintessential example, of course, is the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. More than half of the financial damage from these riots was to Korean-owned businesses and yet, a much smaller share of the press and sympathy was directed to Korean-Americans.

In all fairness, I believe that we have made some considerable improvement in becoming more vocal in the last decade since the riots. Korean-American advocacy groups are growing. The Korean-American Coalition (KAC) started in Los Angeles almost twenty years ago. Now, they have about ten chapters nationwide. I was a Board Member and Executive Vice President of the Washington DC chapter of KAC last year and I am proud of the work that they do. This organization educates the younger generation on Korean-American issues and provides a vehicle through which Korean-Americans have a voice. KAC has issued press releases on various issues, sent letters to the media responding to unfavorable coverage of Korean-Americans, endorsed a Korean-American candidate for a Maryland judgeship, and sponsored internships for college students.

A second way to be more vocal is to call your local or federal representatives. When I was in college, I interned for Congressman Bill Green in New York. I did "constituent work" in his New York office. That means I responded to letters and phone calls from people who lived in the Congressman's district. Having seen what they receive, let me tell you that no complaint is too small. One person called to complain that her social security check was late. Believe it or not, someone in the office will then call the social security office and find out what the problem is. In DC, constituents complain to their representatives that their trash is not getting picked up, etc. Those Korean-Americans who own small businesses may want increased police patrols in their neighborhood. If the police department does not respond when you call them, you can try the mayor's office or the county official or your Congressman.

Another way to be more vocal is through demonstrations. I find it interesting that in Korea, student demonstrations are commonplace yet here, Korean-Americans rarely demonstrate. But it can be done. One relatively recent example that comes to mind is the demonstration in Palisades Park, New Jersey in November 1999. Nearly 3,000 demonstrators (a mix of merchants, locals, and college students from Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere) participated in an "Anti-Racism Peace Demonstration." They were protesting some graffiti stating "Koreans go home!" sprayed on overpasses and storefronts of Korean-owned businesses on Broad Avenue. There was also concern over racial discrimination in zoning decisions made in that area.

Lastly, the most obvious way of becoming more vocal is through the media. I was heartened by an article I read on July 12th on the front page of The Wall St. Journal. The article discussed racial discrimination in college admissions and compared a Korean-American college applicant, Stanley Park, and a Hispanic-American, Blanca Martinez. Mr. Park got a 1500 on the SAT's and was rejected from Berkeley and UCLA. Ms. Martinez's score was 1110 (390 points less) and she was admitted to both. In other respects, the students were very similar. Both students grew up with modest means, came from immigrant families, and were raised by a single parent. Both helped support the family financially when their respective mothers had breast cancer. The only other difference discussed in the article was that Mr. Park's school, University High School is ranked higher than Ms. Martinez's South Gate. Oddly enough, this counts against Mr. Park under the University of California's new admissions criteria. My purpose in telling you about this article isn't to get into a debate about affirmative action, but to illustrate how an issue affecting Korean-Americans has been brought to the attention of main-stream America through the use of the media.


For me personally, however, being "part of America" means participating in the federal government. If you really want to be a "part of America," you need to aspire to be part of the "management" of America. Do you know that there has never been a Korean-American general in the U.S. Army? That there are no Korean-American federal judges? No Korean-American Senators? There has only been one Korean-American Congressman, Jay Kim, and unfortunately, his campaign financing scandal has left a blemish on his career. And although we have had some impressive Korean-American political appointments in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, we need more.

There is a need for a Korean-American perspective in the government. Let me give you an example. On September 29, 1999, the Associated Press issued a Pulitzer Prize winning report of a wartime tragedy in No Gun Ri, Korea that occurred almost a half-century earlier. The story hit the front page of major newspapers throughout the country. It stated that U.S. soldiers shot and killed Korean civilians underneath a railroad overpass. The Army had denied past claims because it had no written evidence of such an incident. The surprising thing about the AP's story is that a handful of American soldiers admitted that this had occurred.

The story was so compelling, that the following day, the Secretary of Defense called for a review of the allegations, and the Secretary of the Army initiated an intensive 15-month review by the Army Inspector General's Office.

As I read the opening paragraphs of the article, my initial reaction was, "How could this country, where I have lived all my life, have betrayed my people in such a devastating fashion?" Then, as I read on, I realized that North Korean soldiers were disguising themselves as civilians and ambushing the American soldiers. Young, teenaged, American soldiers had arrived in Korea a few days earlier, were in retreat after losing battles and had difficulty distinguishing between refugee and enemy. I quickly realized that this was a complicated situation for both Koreans and Americans.

I never anticipated that I would work on an issue that was so significant for both Koreans and Americans. To tell you the truth, my getting that job was a bit of a fluke. A friend of mine sent me an e-mail telling me about the opportunity and where to send my resume. If it weren't for him, I probably would not have even known that the job existed. And it was a fantastic experience. I had a bird's eye view of the entire review. I worked closely with attorneys and officers in the Inspector General's Office, but I was also present at most high-level meetings, including those involving the Korean government.

Even though my role in the Army's review was relatively minor, I felt as though I played an important role because I was able to give Army and Department of Defense leaders, as well as their subordinates, a different perspective. For the first time in my legal career, I realized the importance of being Korean-American. Prior to this job, I concentrated on being the best lawyer I could be. Like many Korean-Americans, I was caught up in the day-to-day details of my job, and never took the time to analyze the bigger picture. Yet, as I worked for the Army, I found it incredibly satisfying to make a contribution back to the community. This review was of great importance to the Korean government, the villagers of No Gun Ri, the American veterans, Korean veterans, as well as the Korean-American public.

After a 15-month review, the Army officially admitted that U.S. soldiers shot and killed Korean civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in late July 1950. Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, the Army was not able to confirm the actual number killed or other details concerning the incident. Moreover, the Army could not find evidence of oral or written orders to shoot civilians at No Gun Ri. Personally, I do not think it was a deliberate massacre like My Lai in Vietnam. It was a true wartime tragedy. President Clinton issued a formal statement of regret, and the U.S. government established a scholarship fund and contributed millions of dollars to a memorial commemorating civilians deaths during the Korean War.

Although not every government job will have particular relevance to Korean-Americans, it is important to be in the inner circle, so that we will be there when the opportunity presents itself. So how do we get in the inner circle? That's a tough question. If you talk to people who have reached the top of their fields, whether in the public sector or the private sector, you often hear that they say that they got their latest position because a friend recommended them. I always found that very frustrating to hear because I didn't have friends who were very influential. In fact, I was offended by the notion that I should make a friend just because that person might help me in the future with business. It sounded so superficial. Moreover, I supposed I suffered from a bit of hubris and thought that I could make it on my own regardless of "who I knew."

During a job interview, an older, well-established attorney said to me,"Grace, keep in touch with all the friends that you made while clerking for your judge." At the time I did not appreciate the soundness of his advice, but now almost a decade later, I understand. My old buddies are now partners in major law firms or high-ranking government officials. Who would have guessed? It's unbelievable how I went from lamenting that I had no "connections," to now having friends whom I'm very proud of professionally as well as personally.

So, my advice to the next generation is to study hard in school, get good grades, keep in touch with your college and graduate school friends. Once you land a job in the government, make sure you do a good job, but also take the time to get to know your colleagues, say hello and take a minute to two to chat with people in the hallway, go out to lunch with others from the office, and go to happy hour after work. Be outgoing. I don't know why this is, but in American culture, if you say "hello" to someone in the hallway every day for a year, they feel like they kind of know you even though you haven't talked of anything more significant than the weather. And it'll be easier to break the ice if you need to talk to them about substantive work matters in the future if you've already established a rapport of some sort.

In short, my advice is to pack your bags and move to Washington. I hope to see you all there! Thank you.

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants
Summer 2002