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Monday, January 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Radio broadcasts from home at issue

Special to The Seattle Times

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For nearly four years, Radio Hankook has been a primary source of news and information for thousands of Korean-language speakers in Western Washington.

Now supporters of the Federal Way station, which broadcasts throughout the Puget Sound, fear their radio operation may soon be closed down. The Federal Way zoning department is expected to decide soon if Radio Hankook may continue operating in its present location, the house of founder and owner Jean Suh.

Last May, the company moved its studios and nearly 10-person staff out of a commercial rental property and into Suh's 330th Avenue house, without city permission. The property is zoned for residential use only.

Since then, the city has tried unsuccessfully to get Radio Hankook to either move back to a commercial area or comply with home-occupation guidelines by limiting its staff to members of Suh's family.

Meanwhile, Suh has asked the city for a variance that would let Radio Hankook stay and continue doing business. Unlike other broadcast stations that either operate nearby radio towers or use microwave transmitters, both of which generate high levels of radiation, Radio Hankook uses underground telephone lines to send all of its programming to company transmitters in Puyallup and Everett. The broadcast is heard on KSUH-AM 1450 in the south area and KWYZ-AM 1230 in the north.

Suh claims she's found strong support from several neighbors.

But, according to Code Enforcement Officer Martin Nordby, the city learned Radio Hankook had moved all operations into Suh's house after a resident complained. Since then, several other residents have also stated their opposition to Radio Hankook's move.

"The fact that it is a Korean radio station is not an issue with us," wrote Eloise McDonald, who echoed the complaints of other detractors in a letter to the city. "We would not want an American radio station located in the neighborhood.

"We don't argue that (Radio Hankook) is not an important part of the Korean community. We do, however, argue that the laws should be the same for people of all ethnic backgrounds."

Since the dispute began, Radio Hankook has engaged in a public campaign to generate support for its cause and sway city staffers in its favor - an approach that Simon Lim, publishing editor of the weekly Shisa Journal newspaper, says is similar to the way people work with government officials in Korea.

"They live in the U.S. now, but they're still trying to live in the Korean way," Lim said.

Sometime in the last few months, a rumor surfaced that the radio company would shut down if it ended up losing its bid to stay in Suh's house. That prompted about 3,000 listeners, mostly Korean Americans from throughout the region, to write letters and sign petitions asking the city to support the company and keep it open.

"This Radio Hankook is (a) necessary entity to make our lives a little more bearable," wrote Federal Way resident Un Jung Chi, 49. "My culture must remain intact and one of the very important ways is by having this radio station supply me with the local as well as news from Korea. Please consider the good that this Radio Hankook is doing for the community," she said.

Despite any amount of goodwill the station has earned, those closely following the case doubt Radio Hankook will get its variance. Lim said the radio company's fight with the city has divided the Korean community. While about half feel Suh is justified in her stand, the other half think the radio company should accept city ordinances more gracefully.

Suh vows the company won't shut its doors or stop broadcasting, whatever the final outcome. In a pinch, she said, her daughter Nancy Haan, a station manager, and she can handle the programming themselves.

"It may not be our (current) format," said Suh, "but it'll still be airing."

Since it began airing in 1997, Radio Hankook, which offers a multigenerational mix of world, national and local news, music, domestic affairs and religious programming, has developed a notable following, say community leaders.

"It's huge," said Shoreline City Councilwoman Cheryl Lee. Korean Americans make up about 5 percent of Shoreline's 55,000 residents. Recent government studies show an estimated 120,000 Koreans live in Washington state, with about 60,000 living in the Puget Sound area. "Radio Hankook makes them feel comfortable, it's the voices and sounds of home," said Lee.

Radio Hankook's dispute with the city has been difficult for Federal Way Mayor Mike Park, the state's first mayor of Korean ancestry.

Park has taken a lot of criticism by some in the Korean community, who feel he should be doing more to help Radio Hankook.

From the beginning, however, Park, who at one time did an issues-based column for Radio Hankook, has stressed the company's civic duty to follow city ordinances.

Park, who plays the Korean broadcast constantly in his Midway dry cleaners, says he's done all he can to help the station. "Radio Hankook means a great deal in people's lives," he said. "I really do want to see them succeed."

Lim thinks the dispute has offered a difficult but worthwhile lesson about the importance of following how things are done in the U.S.

"People will learn more about what they should know," said Lim. "I think this will be good for the community."

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