Korea and Virginia: The Canary in the Coal Mine?


Constituent politics in the United States often has a major impact on foreign policy.  The ballot box can send a signal in a more direct and, at times, cutting way than any academic debate on foreign policy at a Washington think tank.  As any Congressional staffer knows, vocal advocacy by constituents on behalf of their ancestral homeland is not likely to be ignored.

The Korean-American community marked a watershed anniversary this past July with a Capitol Hill reception that signaled a political coming of age – the tenth anniversary of the passage of H. Res. 121, the Comfort Women resolution.  This resolution was unanimously agreed to without objection on the House Floor on July 30, 2007 despite vigorous lobbying efforts by the Japanese Government.

Now that same community is focused again on the dark clouds gathering over the Korean peninsula due to the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis.  With close family members and friends still residing back in Korea, the thought of a second Korean War is a personally painful concept for these voters.  Inflammatory rhetoric coming out of Washington regarding “fire and fury” is disquieting for an electorate with loved ones who would be caught in the crossfire of any potential military confrontation in Korea.

Presidential hints at the renegotiation or outright abandonment of the U.S.-South Korea landmark free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) at this critical juncture is not welcomed news either for the vast majority of the Korean-American community in Virginia.  Pointed criticism directed at America’s Seoul ally rather than Pyongyang following a sixth North Korean nuclear test on September 3rd was also disquieting.  The tweet from President Trump that “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work – they only understand one thing!” did not go unnoticed.

A first public indication of this disquietude could be revealed in the upcoming elections in Virginia in November.  This is certainly not welcome news for Ed Gillespie and other candidates on the GOP ticket.  The eighty-thousand strong Korean-American community, along with other immigrant communities in northern Virginia, has proved pivotal in recent state elections, helping to turn a former red state blue with the two Obama victories, followed by Ed Gillespie’s razor-thin (less than 20,000 vote) loss to incumbent senator Mark Warner in 2014 and then landing Virginia in Hillary Clinton’s column in 2016.

Gillespie could well see the governor’s mansion slip away due to the Asian-American vote as happened earlier when he lost the Senate seat in 2014, generally a banner year for Republican Senate candidates.  A January 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times cited a 2014 election exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund that showed Gillespie lost Asian-American voters by a 2-1 margin, thus giving the incumbent Mark Warner his margin of victory.  History seems likely to repeat itself this upcoming election day in the Old Dominion.

Unwelcoming messaging on immigration, as well as the shocking August events in the Virginia college town of Charlottesville, has further unnerved Korean-Americans as well as others from northern Virginia’s diverse immigrant communities.  A young Korean-American university intern from Virginia, seeing the KKK march through Charlottesville with alt-right white supremacist slogans observed “why would I ever vote Republican?  They don’t welcome people who look like me.”

An ethnic Indian doctor in northern Virginia reported that Charlottesville reawakened a childhood nightmare.  Leaving East Africa with her parents in the nineteen seventies, when Idi Amin, among others, engineered the expulsion of the South Asian community, the doctor reported she immigrated as a child to northern Virginia.  One night soon after her family’s arrival, some young white racists toilet-papered the outside of her house and painted “KKK” in red lettering on the sidewalk.  The doctor said she had repressed this unpleasant memory until the events in Charlottesville decades later brought it all vividly back.

When my son graduated from UVA in May with an MBA, his in-laws came from South Korea.  They were confused and disturbed to see one of the first KKK rallies over the Robert E. Lee statue, with the torches and the racist slogans.  “Is this America?” they asked incredulously.   And a Korean-American friend from Charlottesville reported a sobering atmosphere in the college town that seems directly connected to August’s events.  He disclosed that while he and three other ethnic Koreans were gathered on the UVA tennis courts recently, a group of young white men drove by shouting racial slurs.  “They were emboldened by what happened,” he observed.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party in Virginia is taking a much more proactive, positive approach.  The cream of the Korean-American community gathered on the evening of August 20th at Northern Virginia Community College’s Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert and Arts Center for a “Korea-US Music Festival.”  Leading local Democrat Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the County of Fairfax Board of Supervisors was there to personally make welcoming remarks to the audience.  She noted that other Virginians “cherish” the local Korean-American community, “the largest minority population in Fairfax County,” for its contributions in the arts, academia, commerce and social service.  Ms. Bulova took the opportunity to introduce a local candidate for election to the gathering.  Not a Republican, including no surrogate from the Gillespie campaign, was anywhere in sight.

Politics 101 should teach that a sense of connectedness, even more than discussion of policy or programs, is what leads voters to support a certain party or candidate.  In Chicago growing up, with a grandparent working regularly at City Hall, I observed how old Mayor Daley often stopped by at an Irish Catholic wake, an African-American funeral parlor or a Jewish shiva gathering on his way home from work to pay his respects to the deceased.  “Voters always remember on election day that His Honor the Mayor came by to call when grandma died,” one astute political observer explained.  Being informed that you are “cherished” goes a long way toward making this connectedness so important on election day – especially when it is fast approaching on November 7th.

It is a historic irony that the political party of Abraham Lincoln now runs the risk of turning away ethnically diverse voters like the Korean Americans by being identified with the KKK and white supremacy.  It was the Democratic Party, after all, that was the one that rejected a plank at its 1924 national convention that condemned the KKK.  At the same time, 20,000 Klansmen gathered across the river in New Jersey from the Madison Square Garden convention site to revile the Catholic candidate Al Smith for his religion.  The party of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant, on the other hand, had stood for the fifteenth amendment – “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude” – and oversaw the stationing of Federal troops in the former Confederacy partially to see that this amendment was enforced.

Recent presidential statements of moral equivalency between the KKK and counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville have largely erased this legacy of Lincoln. Those who embrace an ideology which Lincoln led the nation to reject are now cited as “some very fine people.”  The Great Emancipator must be turning over in his grave while the diverse immigrant communities of northern Virginia look on with increasing trepidation.

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