REVERBERATIONS MODULE

LA Uprising/
Saigu

Introduction

More often than not, framings of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, otherwise known as “Saigu” (a reference to the date 4.29 in Korean), as a traumatic watershed moment for the Korean immigrant community leave to the side the cold war militarization of South Korea and the deployment of U.S. war power to quell domestic “disorder.” No question, Korean American and immigrant businesses were significantly impacted, with over 2,200 Korean-owned businesses damaged or destroyed. Yet, despite Saigu’s complex historical context, mainstream news outlets like CNN continue to simplify the 1992 uprising as a violent “race riot” resulting from “Korean-Black tensions.” To this day in the social media sphere, Second Amendment zealots and white nationalists lionize armed Koreans on rooftops as exemplary defenders of private property in the absence of police protection. Few of these celebrations of “rooftop Koreans” account for the fact that many of these men served as South Korean mercenaries alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam. Virtually none dwell on the fact that the operational plans to crush urban revolt had their origins in Cold War-era domestic war strategies. In this manifestation, we situate Saigu within a longer historical context of the Cold War and Korean War, with attention paid to obscured genealogies of U.S.-South Korean militarized relations and the brutal ongoing war of intervention the United States continues to wage on the Korean peninsula. 

Keywords

Saigu

“It’s a war.”

Armed Korean merchants

Militarized migration

“Riot control”/ counterinsurgency

Mass deportation

Study Materials

[Book Excerpt] Abelmann, Nancy and John Lie, “South Korea’s Vietnam Interlude” from Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 64-66

In this excerpt from a chapter in Blue Dreams, anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and sociologist John Lie expose a little-known fact about post-1965 Korean immigration to the United States: namely, a significant number of Korean immigrant shopkeepers in south Los Angeles had fought in the Vietnam War alongside U.S. forces. Indeed, many of these men immigrated to the United States directly from the Vietnamese theater of war.

[Book Excerpt] Chung, Angie Y. Legacies of Struggle: Conflict and Cooperation in Korean American Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007, 78-104

In this book, Angie Y. Chung provides a nuanced analysis of contemporary activism, politics, and community-based organizing among Korean Americans after 1992. In chapter four, Chung examines Saigu (the event itself as well as the community organizing that emerged in its aftermath) as significantly influenced by US-Korean relations and events, such as the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and growing protests against US military presence in South Korea, as well as the the Bush administration’s hostile rhetoric toward North Korea.

[Book excerpt] Kim, Claire Jean. Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, 1-52; 156-187

In this book, Claire Jean Kim challenges conventional framings regarding “Black-Korean” conflicts, including notions of racial scapegoating and the “irrational venting of Black rage” on Korean immigrants. Drawing on the 1990 Red Apple boycott in Brooklyn as her primary study (in which Haitian and Black nationalist activists organized boycotts against two Korean-owned produce stores), Kim focuses on the larger system of white supremacy, capitalism, and power relations that produce racialized orders (what she coins as “racial triangulation”). In chapters 1-2 and 5, Kim examines the ways in which stereotypes like the “model minority” – which applies to Korean immigrant entrepreneurs in specific ways (as hardworking immigrants longing for middle-class security)-- are shaped by entrenched histories of US racialized violence, including war-making in and the militarization of the Korean peninsula.

[Documentary] Lee, Grace, Ktown92, 2017

In this interactive documentary, Lee gestures to the larger historical context of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, including urban deindustrialization; police brutality and the militarization of the LAPD; the influence of the Minjung movement on immigrant labor organizing in Los Angeles; and the history of Korean immigration as shaped by U.S. intervention. While footage of Saigu and other audiovisual materials (for example, more recent interviews with witnesses of Saigu) are indexed for viewers, the documentary itself does not offer a single coherent narrative, nor does it offer a “talking head” to guide viewers. Rather, viewers must sift through footage and interview clips to juxtapose different narratives of Saigu - which shatters any notion of Saigu as simply resulting from “Black and Korean” relations.

[Spoken word] Park, Ishle, “Sa-I-Gu,” Def Poetry, YouTube, 2005

In her poem, “Sa-I-Gu,” Ishle Park remarks that Koreans mark disaster with numbers, here alluding not just to Saigu (or 4.29) but also 5.18 (the 1980 Gwangju uprising and massacre) and 6.25 (the supposed start of the Korean War). Viewing the destruction of South Central from “mile-high” cameras, hovering media helicopters, as her poem recalls, dubbed the destruction below “the war between blacks and Koreans,” an account shrouded in “white silence.”

[Video] “US Marine Reacts to Rooftop Koreans (1992 LA Riots),” Combat Arms Channel, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vWVH-sV85g 

Commenting approvingly on a fellow YouTuber’s video of armed Korean immigrant merchants atop their swap meets and places of business during the 1992 LA uprising, an ex-Marine, who was once stationed in South Korea, describes “rooftop Koreans” as having “mystique” in the “gun world.” According to him, they exemplify America’s core ideal of having the right “to have your own business and being able to defend it.” The contagion of misinformation is transmitted from the narrator in the original video to the ex-Marine. The original narrator describes the armed merchants as escapees from North Korea who, as “voluntold soldiers[,]…knew how to fight”--disregarding the fact that many of the immigrant storeowners were Vietnam War veterans deployed by South Korea to fight alongside U.S. forces. This misprision then serves as the foundation for the ex-Marine’s projection onto the blank canvas of the “rooftop Koreans” the “American dream,” which can only be safeguarded by gun violence. Transformed in this way into a fanatical Second Amendment meme, armed Korean merchants are lauded for “battletrack[ing]” “looters” and “rioters” in a domestic war.

Questions

  1. The opening image—a still shot taken from Grace Lee’s interactive online documentary, Ktown92—includes a compelling juxtaposition of five photographs. Each photograph is a still frame from live video footage shot in Koreatown during the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. 

    • What does each photograph in this opening image depict? What kind of overarching “scene” is created from this visual montage? What do you see?

    •  How does this array of photographs gesture to the violent role played by the US National Guard (and to a larger extent, the US military) in the “quelling of racialized disorder” in places like Koreatown? How might you connect this Koreatown scene to the racial violence enacted by the US military in the Korean peninsula?

    • This opening image includes references to Korean business owners dressed in military fatigues and the presence of anti-racist, anti-military protestors in the streets of Koreatown. How might this arresting juxtaposition point to tensions and connections between the long history of US warmaking in Korea and Asia, and “domestic” forms of policing?

  2. One of the most iconic mass-mediated images of Los Angeles circa 1992 is that of the armed Korean merchant. The “rooftop Korean” has become a rightwing meme–a screen onto which Second Amendment fanaticism around private property and white fear about urban crime have been projected. What important context is stripped away from this portrait of the armed Korean shopkeeper? How might the gun-toting Korean be understood within a militarized genealogy of the unending Korean War?

  3. In late April 1992 when parts of Koreatown were burning, Radio Korea broadcast commentary from Korean immigrant store-owners, many of whom were seasoned mercenaries who fought alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam, who repeatedly turned to the idiom of war to describe what was happening: “전쟁입니다.” 

    • How do we begin to understand the ways in which Saigu was shaped, on multiple levels, by counterinsurgent U.S. violence? 

    • To what degree can the deployment of the National Guard and the rounding up and mass deportation of undocumented Mexican and Central American migrants in Los Angeles be understood as an exercise of war and police power?

  4. Based on the collection of study materials included in this section, including images and study questions, how might we begin to understand and address Saigu as a direct manifestation of ongoing war?