Staff Reporter

Looking to flee their homeland's worst recession in decades, Koreans are coming to Los Angeles in search of work sometimes legally and sometimes not.

While the numbers have not been quantified by local or federal authorities, an influx numbering well into the thousands is being detected by business sources throughout Koreatown, and it has resulted in an employment market flush with cheap labor.

In response, the State Department is making it more difficult for Koreans to enter this country, according to several members of the local Korean community.

"A lot more Koreans are coming here, especially young people," said Harrison Kim, executive director of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. "Although they suffer hardship, they have a greater opportunity to succeed than if they stay in Korea."

Los Angeles has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, and for years it has been a popular destination for legal immigration. But the volume of incoming job-seekers surged last year after the South Korean currency collapsed and the International Monetary Fund imposed harsh economic reforms.

"Following the IMF economic reforms in Korea, you are seeing rapid unemployment and political instability," said Roy Hong, executive director of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocacy. "As a result there is a push factor that is driving people out of that country and into the U.S."

Immigration & Naturalization Service officials acknowledge they do not have the resources to track such an inflow. But sources in the Koreatown business community say their presence is already being felt, especially among smaller businesses.

"The only jobs they can find are in the underground economy," said Kim. "They work for small-time contractors who pay cash."

Korean-owned house-painting and janitorial services that were having difficulty finding enough workers just a few months ago now have waiting lists.

The kitchens of Koreatown restaurants that once depended on Latino workers are now staffed by Koreans.

Even the Koreatown hostess bars that once had to advertise in the Philippines for waitresses now have an ample supply of Korean women to employ at cut-rate wages.

"Korean bars used to have a hard time finding hostesses," said one longtime Koreatown businesswoman. "Now they have too many. Do they all have work permits? I don't think so."

Some business sources fear that the new arrivals will damage efforts to better the plight of workers in Koreatown.


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