The New York Times
July 5, 2001

Extortion Case Explores Rifts in Korean Enclave in Queens
By SARAH KERSHAW

Last fall, Soon Hee Park, who as a waitress had scraped together her tips and her life's savings to open her own restaurant in Flushing, decided she wanted to run advertisements in The Korea Tribune, a weekly newspaper aimed at the Queens neighborhood's Korean residents. For $100, the newspaper was to publish four ads and design a Web page promoting Mrs. Park's broiled salmon and her sushi, the publisher told her.

Soon after she made the payment, Mrs. Park and her husband, Young Chan Park, who runs the restaurant with her, began scouring The Tribune, a free weekly filled with ads for Korean businesses and often stacked in restaurants and supermarkets around Flushing. But there was no sign of her ads, she said.

When she confronted the Korea Tribune publisher, Bryan Kim, the man who had sold her the advertisements that Mrs. Park says she never saw published in the weekly, things turned ugly: she demanded her $100 back and he got angry, continuing to pressure her to pay for more ads, Mrs. Park, 41, told Queens prosecutors. Mr. Kim then threatened to bomb the restaurant, publish an article about her stealing tips from her waitresses and make bogus complaints of bug infestation to the City Health Department, she told prosecutors.

''I couldn't understand why he was doing this,'' Mrs. Park said through a translator recently. ''I have worked here for 16 years and finally I have my own restaurant. And then this guy comes here and tries to shut it down.''

In April, Mr. Kim, 42, was arrested and accused of extorting money from Mrs. Park and four other Korean merchants, as prosecutors charged that he had tried to force the merchants into paying for advertising, threatening to smear them with false articles about infidelity or fabricated scandals about their businesses.

A Queens grand jury is hearing evidence in the case against Mr. Kim, the publisher, editor, reporter and advertising chief of the 10,000-circulation paper, which stopped publishing after Mr. Kim's arrest. The grand jury is expected to issue its decision soon. Through his lawyer, Mr. Kim said that he was innocent and that all the articles he wrote about the merchants were true.

The case against Mr. Kim is an unusual instance in which victims of swindles involving immigrants preying upon their own countrymen have been willing to come forward, prosecutors say. And while the case against Mr. Kim may be extreme, shopkeepers, editors and immigration experts say the case provides a window into a murky and potentially volatile set of relationships at work every day in immigrant neighborhoods across the city.

The weekly foreign-language newspapers, whose numbers have exploded in recent years, are closely read by immigrants and can hold considerable influence in their communities. They are free and widely distributed, but often short-lived and generally not as trusted as the more established daily ethnic publications.

And most important, according to experts on the ethnic press, the weekly newspapers operate on shoestring budgets, with one person wearing all the hats, from publisher to columnist. The lines between advertising and news, persuasion and intimidation can often become blurred, the experts say.

''Many people see this as a business rather than as a journalistic mission,'' said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association and a professor of journalism at Columbia University. ''Most of the organizations are good and they are committed to journalism, but the bad apples show you how deep the problem is.''

Prosecutors around the city say they have heard occasional grumbling from within the insular world of the ethnic press about the pressures on merchants to advertise -- and there was at least one arrest on charges similar to those made against Mr. Kim involving the publisher of an Indian weekly in Manhattan. But the task of sorting out the particulars has been daunting.

And even if they manage to get wind of a situation that has crossed the line from pressure to intimidation or worse, prosecutors are rarely able to make legal cases. Newspaper publishers like Mr. Kim, a former prominent real estate broker who is an influential figure among Koreans in Flushing, often wield formidable power in tightknit immigrant communities.

''This is a very, very gray area,'' said Brian J. Mich, chief of the economic crimes and arson bureau for the Queens district attorney's office. ''The publishers approach the merchants and then ask for advertising and because of the low budgets of these papers, there is a strong tie between the editorial and advertising departments.''

Among the perhaps hundreds of weekly ethnic newspapers published in New York City -- the number fluctuates often as the publications open and shut -- are hard-working journalists who say they hold themselves to the same legal and ethical standards as the mainstream press in New York, including marking strict lines between the advertising and editorial departments.

''There is a total separation of church and state here,'' said Veena Merchant, deputy publisher of India Abroad, one of the largest Indian weeklies in the United States. ''When we started, we were an eight-page paper and I used to lick labels and mail out the papers. But the publisher had an ethos and we followed it.''

In recent years, there have been at least a few cases in which aggressive weekly publishers have wound up in legal trouble.

John Perry, the former publisher of The News India-Times, a weekly in Manhattan, was described by competitors and experts on the Indian press as someone who tried to pressure merchants into taking out ads. He was convicted in 1997 by a federal jury of conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction of justice growing out his management of the paper, including charges that he defrauded advertisers. He was sentenced to almost four years in prison, a sentence that was slightly reduced on appeal.

In Flushing, the case involving Mr. Kim has reverberated for months, as a debate rages over the intentions of the powerful man at its center. Is he merely a muckraking journalist who has embarrassed people who are now seeking vengeance in court? Or is he a slandering profiteer with a violent temper?

Mr. Kim, a Korean immigrant who moved to Queens from Los Angeles, was well known in Flushing for his successful real estate business before he started publishing The Korea Tribune in 1997. Mr. Park, the restaurant owner whose wife complained to the authorities about Mr. Kim, had even secured an apartment through his rental office.

But Mr. Kim's business began to suffer after he was arrested in 1996 on a sexual assault charge, which was later dismissed. People who know him said that after the arrest he threw his energy into the newspaper, hoping to expose false arrests and other problems affecting Koreans.

And since he began publishing, Mr. Kim's articles have caused a stir in the community, with many subjects, including several Korean-American ministers, complaining to others in the Korean enclave that he was making things up to extort them into paying for advertising.

Prosecutors said that before he made the threats against Mrs. Park, Mr. Kim had already approached another Korean immigrant, who owns a Flushing nightclub, demanding $1,000 a month to advertise the nightclub in The Korea Tribune. If he refused to pay, Mr. Kim said he would ''smear'' the business and ''send Korean gang members to trash'' the club, according to the criminal complaint filed against him.

Byung Sook Lee, the president of the Korean Women's Business Association in Queens and one of the people who has complained to prosecutors about Mr. Kim, said in an interview that Mr. Kim approached her last spring, asking if she wanted to place an advertisement in The Korea Tribune for her organization. She said that during the initial conversation, Mr. Kim told her that if she did not advertise, he would write a ''negative'' article about her.

She said she refused to place an advertisement and then found herself the subject of what she said was a false article in The Tribune saying she was running an illicit massage parlor.

Two days after his arrest, Mr. Kim published a special issue of The Tribune, reprinting articles about the people, including Ms. Lee and a Korean minister -- whose photograph appeared on the front page of that issue -- who had complained to the authorities or others about the publisher's tactics.

In the special issue, Mr. Kim also published a new article about Mrs. Park, the Flushing restaurant owner, asking her to drop the charges and adding: ''By the way, last time we met I asked you if you were stealing tips from your waitresses. Maybe you were worried about that. But no way would I, Bryan Kim, write something like that.''

Mr. Kim would not comment for this article. But his lawyer, Matthew J. Jeon, said his client was innocent of all the extortion charges and ''supremely confident'' of the veracity of everything he published.

Mr. Jeon characterized the case against Mr. Kim as ''politically motivated,'' because one of the people who persuaded some of the merchants to file a criminal complaint, Terence Park, is running for the City Council in Flushing.

Mr. Park said in a interview that Mr. Kim had published an advertisement last October for his campaign without his consent and then demanded $500 for it. He said that after several confrontations with Mr. Kim, he sought out merchants and religious leaders about whom he had read negative articles in The Tribune. Few would come forward, he said, adding that a few Korean ministers had told him they agreed to pay Mr. Kim rather than have sensational articles printed about them.

Mrs. Park, the restaurant owner, obtained an order of protection against Mr. Kim, but his lawyer said that the move was unwarranted and that the criminal complaints were ''payback'' for embarrassing articles.

''What, they are afraid of paper and pen and a computer?'' he said.

The Parks, who are not related to the City Council candidate, said they were plenty fearful of Mr. Kim's newspaper. What had haunted them most, they said, was that someone from their own country had tried, in their view, to destroy them.

''In the end, I feel like this is a really sad situation,'' Mr. Park said. ''It's Koreans fighting each other. It's our own brother turning against us.''



Photos: The Tribune has not been printed since its publisher was arrested. (pg. B7); Bryan Kim, the publisher. (pg. B1)



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