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Flushing man to head Korean group

The position of president of the Korean American Association of Greater New York is largely ceremonial, pays nothing and is determined by an election that draws only a small swath of the hundreds of thousands of people the group claims to represent.

But Yong−Hwa Ha, a Flushing insurance agency owner, spent more than $200,000 to get elected to the post this week and said his reasons for doing so will be justified by the work he has set out to do.

“There’s a different way you have to think about it,” Ha said in an interview Monday. “I came to this country 23 years ago and I made a strong company over here because the Korean−American community supported me. Now it’s time for me to give back.”

More than 15,000 votes were cast in the biannual election — a record for the group — for the presidency Sunday, with Ha defeating incumbent Semok Lee and contender Chang Yon Han to take over the position on May 1.

Each of the candidates claims to have spent more than $200,000 on their campaigns — more money than is typically spent in many elections for the City Council — conducting polls, opening campaign offices and distributing thousands of pamphlets and fliers.

Pyong Gap Min, a sociology professor at Queens College, said the money could have been better spent.

“They spend money for social status they achieve through the position and that’s not a good way to do things,” Min said. “The board of directors should hire a president, and if he is qualified, he should be paid. They waste too much money.”

But Ha is not bashful about the money spent, and even though a significant portion came from his own pocket, he said it represents the will of the Korean American community.

“A lot of it came from fund−raising,” Ha said. “People gave anywhere from $20 to $5,000, and I think that shows that they really wanted me to be elected. The community has a lot of expectations for me now, but I’m ready.”

According to its Web site, the Korean American Association of Greater New York, founded in 1960, is an umbrella organization for more than 200 Korean American groups in the tri−state area that primarily acts as a networking tool for recent immigrants seeking various services as they assimilate into the United States. According to the 2000 census, there were more than 63,000 Korean American residents in Queens alone.

The president of the group, a volunteer position, serves as an ambassador to the community, which Ha does not take lightly.

He said his first priority will be to bridge what he called a cultural gap between first−generation Korean Americans, who are tied almost exclusively to Korean culture and language, and second−generation Korean Americans, who speak English fluently but identify more closely with American culture.

“I’m going to try and overcome that gap,” Ha said. “We need to get the second generation more involved. I want to try to get them to work together for the Korean community.”

Ha also said it is important for the Korean American community, which tends to be insular, to build bridges to other immigrant communities. He said this isolation has prevented the tri−state Korean community, which the South Korean consulate says is about 324,000 strong, from wielding much political power.

“We always walk together within our own community, but now I want to walk together with the mainstream,” he said. “We can exchange our culture and we can exchange our business. Especially nowadays, with the financial crisis, this is very important. If we know each other, it’s a great chance to grow.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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