Korean-Americans who lived through LA riots end their silence

It's been 25 years since the 1992 riots consumed Los Angeles, and some in the Korean-American community are sharing their horrific experiences for the first time.
8:36 | 04/27/17

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Transcript for Korean-Americans who lived through LA riots end their silence
For those who lived through the L.A. Riots there are many truths and your truth depended how you saw the world and how the world saw you. It was portrayedften in the media as a clash of two cultures, blacks agains Koreans. But the truth as you say is far more elusive. Korean Americans call what happened Korean for "4/29," the fateful day in April when it began. 25 years later in Korea town, we found from the ashes a new community is forged. Revisiting 1992. A lot has changed in 25 years. Reporter: For 25 years, Richard Kim has tried to suppress his memories that haunt these streets. That corner went up in flames. Reporter: Korea town, home to his family's hopes and dreams, devastated by hellish street fighting, looting and arson. That strip mall burnt to the ground. There was a whole lot of looting going on here. People without a voice in the community are the ones that are going to get victimized. We're not victims. Victim sounds helpless. I want to say survivors of the riots. That sounds more powerful. Reporter: Richard among those who took up arms as L.A. Descended into chaos. He says they were seen through the media as gun-toting vigilantes. But he was motivated by necessity. We have to be able to protect what's ours. I think that is -- that's a perspective they've had. We have to fend for ourselves. Reporter: Kim's family came to the states for their shot at the American dream. Eventually owning two electronics stores. During the second day of rioting, one came under attack. They said, you got to get over it because your mom was shot. That's the hydrant your dad was sitting on? Absolutely. Reporter: He rushed to their store. Outside his mother says she'd been shielding his father from gunfire. On the side of the LAPD it says "To serve and protect." They were neither serving us or protecting us. Reporter: Unable to contain the rioting here, too, the police pulled back, leaving Richard to confront a mob of African-American men. Some had guns. He had a semiautomatic rifle. The shooters were 25, 30 feet away. So I leaned over and I made a conscious decision to shoot the cars that they were standing next to. And not them? Not them. I could have taken them out. I hit the cars they were standing next to. And the street got filled with smoke from gunfire. I mean, the whole corner. As soon as that happened, I can hear them get until their cars, tires screeching. Reporter: That split-second decision, he says, is the reason we're not talking to him from behind bars. Had I seen my mother get shot, which she did, had I experienced that, I think I would have had no hesitation to take that person out. Total self-defense of myself and my family. Reporter: And the businesses they spent decades building. The first store was overrun and burnt to the ground. Like many Korean Americans, he took to the rooftops. At stake, his family's last store. We did not sleep for three days. The only way I think of it is like fourth of July, fireworks kind of gunfire, literally nonstop. Reporter: Richard was able to keep looters at bay, but so many others weren't as lucky. We own three businesses in south central on crenshaw. It's not -- nothing left, that's our dream. Everything we got, it was gone. All said and done, there was $1 billion in property damage, 40% sustained in the Korean American community. The aftermath, unimaginable. That's Richard captured by an ABC news crew wading through the wreckage. What makes you not hate? It's a system. So I think I was upset at the system. More than the people who actually looted and rioted. Reporter: His parents still live next door to where their first business once stood. The empty lot a metaphor for conversations they never had. You know, you were reluctant to talk to the press. Yes. In the culture I grew up in, I don't think we celebrate negative things. The L.A. Riots, it's not what we commemorate or celebrate. You hadn't even thought about it. For many years. Reporter: But Kim says he now realizes that his silence was part of the problem. It's one of the reasons Korean Americans were misunderstood in the first place. ??? How naive we were. To believe in harmony among the different races. Black people, they're kind of jealous. I don't think they would be wise for them to come back into the neighborhood. We can't just be an island on our own. We really have to be part of community in every way. Why were there building tensions between these two communities? In some ways it's structurally baked in. You have an immigrant class that's occupying what is oftentimes called a middleman minority position. Reporter: Jerry kang oversees diversity and inclusion at UCLA, like me a Korean immigrant. He believes the riots were a painful awakening, forcing us to create the roles we all played in creating the tension. The stereotype is Koreans are rude, Koreans aren't particularly friendly with customers. It might be culturally they were taught not to look people in the eye, shake their hands, slap them on the back, smile. Just as there was some resentment of outsider community coming into your own space, your own turf, and taking up these stores. Reporter: But out of the ashes of those days, a new koreatown is rising. In no small part due to guys like celebrity chef Roy Choi. Do you ever go, look at this, look what I've done. I do all the time. Reporter: He watched as part of k-town went up in flames. Now he literally wears its heart on his sleeve. There's olympic boulevard. There's olympic boulevard. Reporter: Choi is king of a Korean taco food truck empire. You had to stand a line a couple of hours. For that all these little walls would break down. Reporter: It's kimchi as street diplomacy. It brings people together? It brings people together throughout L.A. Reporter: Like many community leaders in koreatown and south L.A., Choi is banking on the idea their best hope is not just see each other, but know each other. Hola. Reporter: Choi consciously hires locals, often immigrts, to work in his businesses. In Korea town and places like Watts. How many jobs do you think you've created? Between all the spots? 400 to 500. Reporter: 500 jobs. Impressive. But sadly, he knows it's just a drop in the bucket when the problems the communities are facing run so deep. A lot of people say that fundamentally, that is why this unrest continues. Spots. Look, we don't start getting in and actually creating ways for people to get credit to rebuild their life, to create bank accounts, to have jobs, you know. You're going to have a whole other generation that's going to live in poverty, right? I could take you right now to Watts and you're going to see the same existence and the same situations that were going on back in 1965. Reporter: It's been more than 50 years since the Watts riots. 25 since the L.A. Riots. It seems we keep having to relearn these painful lessons. I wish I had a little bit more love in my heart back then, a little more understanding, a little more patience. My mom, she wishes that people would just -- I guess not see color, but just to see people for who they are. Reporter: And with the next conflict always threatening on the horizon, all of us have to keep looking inward and reaching outward. We've got to listen to the community more. It's not an us against them mentality. It's not the civilians against the police. It's not about black this, white this, that. We're human beings, we have to act like it. We're going to die together if we don't learn to get this right.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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