During the mostly lauded State of the Union address, President Bush uttered three words that have since prompted concern from Asian-American community leaders: axis of evil.
By lumping North Korea, Iran and Iraq together and using language that compares the nations to the Axis powers of World War II, some people are afraid that Korean Americans will face backlash, much like the hate crimes perpetrated against Muslim Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Korean Americans should be aware that we could very well be faced with a similar situation as Arab Americans, given that North Korea is considered a potential hotbed for international conflict," said Esther Ro, director of political and community affairs for the San Francisco Bay Area chapter the Korean-American Coalition (KAC). "In general, it may be that minorities in America will face a more precarious state in maintaining their civil liberties."
In a signal that the administration is taking a proactive approach, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the president just days after the speech to ensure that, if tension between the United States and North Korea intensifies, the Office of Homeland Security has the resources to respond to anti-Asian hate crimes.
"President Bush has made it very clear, as clear as one could, that we are dissatisfied with the actions of North Korea; that they continue to develop and sell missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction at the same time their people are starving to death," Powell said during a Congressional budget hearing on Feb. 6. "We will not shrink back from that clarity of purpose that the President had in his State of the Union address."
Nevertheless, the strong statements from the Bush administration are prompting Asian-American leaders to speak out about their concerns.
"Since Sept. 11, racism against immigrants has increased," said Catherine Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Portrayed as threats to national security, immigrant communities and families face growing instances of hate violence, racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement and the general public."
During the week of Sept. 11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations compiled more than 300 reports of harassment and abuse. That number was nearly half of the total number from 2000.
"Having witnessed what happened to Muslims living in America and Arab Americans following Sept. 11, violence in the United States toward other targeted groups is a reality," Ro said.
Other KAC members agree. As early as October, participants in a KAC discussion talked about the importance of Korean Americans maintaining awareness of potential backlash, Ro said.
But the problem isn't specific to Korean Americans. All Asian Americans are at risk, Ro said.
"People will use physical characteristics to target victims, and many people can't differentiate among various East Asian ethnicities," she said.
Ro points to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American from Detroit. Assuming Chin was Japanese, two auto workers clubbed him with a baseball bat because they blamed Japan for the decline in the American auto industry.
"This is a real issue. This 'axis of evil' is very dangerous for our community," said Sungkyu Yen, executive director of the National Korean-American Service & Education Consortium. "If the United States or any other country engages in a confrontation with North Korea, it could have severe implications."
This country has come a long way since WWII, when Japanese Americans were routinely sent to Internment camps because of concerns of espionage, but the aftermath of Sept. 11 proved that there is further to go, Yen said.
"People were lashing out against the Muslims and even against many in the Southeast-Asian community because they looked like Muslims," he said. "Even if you think you're not connected with U.S. enemies, you could be affected."