Who exactly were the Roof Koreans, or as they are sometimes called the rooftop Koreans? In April 1992 when four officers were accused of beating Rodney King, LA and the rest of the USA saw some of the worst riots in its history. It was here that the “roof Koreans”, or “rooftop” Koreans were born.
What is the backstory to the roof Koreans?
Los Angeles (LA) is home to over 300,000 Koreans, making it one of the biggest centers for the Korean diaspora after Yanbian in China. Many arrived during the 1970’s and 1980’s when South Korea was extremely different to what it is today. It should be remembered that when people spoke about the “Korean Economic Miracle” in the 70’s they were talking about the miracle that was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), rather than the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Many Koreans thus ended up in LA looking for the American Dream.
Because of lack of work opportunities and limited money, many of the Koreans that ended up in LA found themselves clubbing together and purchasing shops and stores that were predominantly in the black areas of the city, usually from white owners that wanted to leave. This meant that stores cost less, but were in locations that tended to suffer from a higher rates of crime.
To read about the Global population of Koreans here.
The Los Angeles (LA) Riots
What started as a protest movement about the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King quickly turned into anarchy. Arson, murder and looting were rampant and the situation in the area, regardless of race rapidly became out of control.
In the contexts of the Korean community in the area, ethnic tensions had already started to brew over well before the riots took place. Many Koreans had been killed during robberies at convenience stores, and there was a feeling among the community that they were being disproportionately hit by criminal attacks. When the riots began to get into full gear, fear of further violence thus turned into a call to arms.
Call to Arms for the Koreans
Korean radio stations in LA began to put out a call for volunteers to come and help Korean business owners, which soon led to a slur of volunteers carrying everything from homemade weapons to modern assault rifles and all manor of weapons in-between.
At the start of the riots, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) offered next to no help to the Korean business owners, or indeed anyone caught in the fray and largely retreated from the situation as things slowly went from bad to worse. With no police force to protect people the city was at the brink, with both racial and economic issues taking the forefront.
And as the situation intensified it would be almost a week before the besieged business owners would see any form of law enforcement, so they set about defending themselves. Thus, the roof Koreans and the meme it created were born.
One of the most iconic examples of the roof Koreans was at a California market in the LA”s famous Korea Town. The owner fortified his store and with 20 well armed employees and volunteers all of whom were wearing stereotypical white ninja-like headbands. This image would not only become one of the most iconic about what the Roof Koreans represented, but also the fact that the racially based element to the riots were not longer a black and white affair, both figuratively and literally.
The End of the Riots and protests
The riots would finally come to an end when the US government sent in the military, as well as the national guard. By this time 2,300 Korean stores had been looted, or burned down, which accounted for almost half of the total damage to stores. The Korean population suffered much more proportionately than any other ethnic group.. Yet although people had died and so much damage had been caused, the roof Koreans proved how a close-knit community could come together on ethnic and cultural lines and defend their fellow nationals through force of arms. Many of the Roof Koreans had also done mandatory military service, which certainly gave them an advantage when it came to organization.
Roof Koreans Meme
What are the origins of the Roof Koreans meme? Obliviously there was no #RoofKoreans in 1992, with the internet and indeed memes being in their infancy. On January 11th 2011 The LA Times ran article detailing teh story of the Rooftop Koreans, which included what are now some of the most iconic photos that we know. This brought their story back into the mainstream. Then on August 11th, the ArmBritain YouTube channel posted a news segment about them, again drawing more people to the story.
And it was from here that things went like wildfire, Craigslist posts were made (remember those guys) various forums were created and by 2015 Roof Koreans had their own entry in the Urban Dictionary. In May 2020 amid the ongoing protests and riots about the killing of George Floyd a picture was put on Reddit and with Reddit being Reddit it soon became spread, becoming the meme we know today. The Rooftop Koreans meme was not though created by the Korean community it should be noted.
The roof Korean meme has by and large been used by Americans who support and advocate the right to bear arms, with the standard pitch being to “take a Rooftop Koreans mentality”. The meme now has numerous Facebook Pages devoted to it, as well as multiple variations on the whole Rooftop Korean theme, including YouTube tributes!
As always YPT take a very nuanced and neutral view to all things political, but we do feel it important that people remember the dark history behind this particularly popular meme.
North Korea and the Roof Koreans
North Korean state media never came out and said anything official about the rooftop Koreans, but the DPRK have been extremely vocal advocates for black rights in the USA throughout its history., something few people know about. The Black Panther party even wanted to embrace some form of Juche in the United States, at least for a brief period.
You can read about the DPRK and the Black Civil Rights movement here.
So, whilst a trip to the DPRK will not include any “Roof Koreans”, a tour to North Korea will certainly help you understand how Koreans react to being in a siege mentality. If you’d like to check out the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea in the flesh check out our list of upcoming DPRK itineraries..