People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Korean Americans

About the Korean Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Korean-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The first Korean immigrants, who arrived in 1903-1905, came primarily from Inchon, which is now in South Korea, and Nampo and Wonsan, now in North Korea. The brides who came in the next decade were usually from the South, particularly the Yongnam area. While the immigrants of the last 25 years have come from the South, a disproportionate number are northerners who moved south after the country was divided in 1945.

Why They Left: Most of the early Korean arrivals were poor, and many had been uprooted by the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. While today's Korean immigrants are more educated, they still feel their economic prospects are better in the U.S. The immigrants at the turn of the century were escaping Japanese political domination; those today fear the South Korean government and the threat of war.

Where They Settled: The first group of Korean immigrants settled in Hawaii, although some subsequently moved to California. Only with large-scale Korean immigration since 1968 have large communities sprouted in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland, Washington-Baltimore, Honolulu, and Seattle.

Numbers: The 1970 census showed 70,000 Korean Americans in the U.S., but by 1977 they were estimated to number 280,000. There are about 40,000 Koreans in Canada, of whom 15,000 live in Toronto.

Their Story in America: In 1903 Hawaiian sugar planters began recruiting Korean laborers; the migration was effectively cut off in 1905 by Japan, which had political control over Korea.

Of the immigrants who came in the two-year wave, 90% were men. The community was a hotbed of activity on behalf of Korean independence; two of the heroes of the independence movement, Syngman Rhee and An Chang-ho, spent substantial parts of their lives in America. As a means of calming this political activism, the Japanese government began granting exit permits to contract brides after 1910.

The U.S. government also limited Korean immigration, first in 1907 by restricting both the influx to the U.S. and movement from Hawaii to the mainland, and in 1924 by excluding Koreans altogether. Though their small numbers kept them from becoming specific targets of overt anti-Asian racism, as the Japanese and Chinese had been, Koreans were still subject to laws barring Asian immigrants from becoming citizens and, in some states, from owning land and marrying across the color line.

Those men who had not left their plantation or railroad jobs by the time their brides arrived generally did so then. They moved to urban docks and canneries and later to small businesses.

After the Korean War, the community's size was almost doubled by the arrival of orphans (adopted by non-Korean families), GI brides, and students. The brides, however, have had relatively little contact with the organized Korean community, and the orphans have had almost none.

Today the community consists of a small core of acculturated second- and third-generation Americans who are numerically overwhelmed by new immigrants. Though many of the newcomers have university educations, they have difficulty finding work in their fields and tend to go into small businesses, notably fruit and vegetable markets, especially in Los Angeles and New York.

Koreans overwhelmingly supported the U.S. effort in both W. W. II and the Korean War. In the anti-Japanese hysteria of W.W. II, during which Japanese Americans were interned, some California Koreans wore badges which identified them as Korean. Many new immigrants, while supporting the South in general, oppose the regime of Chung Hee Park. The South Korean Central Intelligence Agency keeps tabs on many Koreans in the U.S., and some who have criticized the Park government have suffered economic boycotts and even beatings. The community has generally been embarrassed by the scandal involving bribes of U.S. congressmen by South Korean officials and by the publicity surrounding evangelist Sun Myung Moon.

Famous Korean Americans: Philip Ahn, actor; Chung Myung-Whun, pianist; Kim Hyung Wook, former head of South Korean Central Intelligence, who defected to the U.S.; Richard Kim, writer; Nam Jun Paik, artist; Suzi Park Thomson, former congressional secretary and key witness in "Koreagate" scandal.

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