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In Observance of Centennial of Korean Immigration to the U.S.

» Korean American Population Data    
---Learn From the Past, Shape the Future---

A Brief History of Korean Americans

Korean Americans are celebrating year 2003 as the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the United States. However, Korean American history goes back further than that to 1882, when the U.S. signed a treaty of peace, friendship, and commerce with Korea, allowing each country to establish a diplomatic mission in the other's country. From then on, Koreans began to arrive in the U.S. as diplomats, political exiles, merchants, or students.

Korean emigration to the United States can be divided into three major waves. The first, from 1903 to 1905, consisted of about 7,500 Koreans, mostly men, who went to work on Hawaii's sugar plantations as contract laborers. The second, beginning in 1950, consists of women who married American soldiers and children adopted into American families. Nearly 100,000 so-called "internationally married women" or "military brides" entered the United States between 1950 and 1989, while approximately 300,000 Korean adoptees entered the United States beginning in 1953. The third wave, beginning in 1967, consists of Koreans who came under the occupational and family reunification preferences of the 1965 Immigration Act. These waves of emigration followed growing U.S. involvement in Korea during the twentieth century.

I) The Early Pioneers
Philip Jaisohn (a.k.a. SEO, Jae-Pil) arrived in the U.S. in 1885 as a political exile, and became the first Korean to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. He also became the first Korean American medical doctor as well as an influential political reformer in Korea when he returned to home in 1896. He established Korea's first modern newspaper, Tongnip Sinmun (The Independent), and also a political organization called Tongnip Hyeop-hoe (The Independent Club). In 1947, he returned to Korea and became the chief advisor to the commanding general of the U.S. Army in South Korea. He died in the U.S. in 1951.

In December 1902, 56 men, 21 women, and 25 children traveled from Korea across the Pacific Ocean on the S.S.Gaelic and landed in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Jan. 13, 1903. Some of them were denied of entry for health reasons. Korean migration to Hawaii was largely a result of the efforts of Horace Allen, a missionary, medical doctor, businessman and self-styled diplomat and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association. The association, made up of the owners of sugar plantations, was constantly looking for new sources of cheap labor. The planters used a policy of employing different racial and ethnic groups on the plantations in order to keep the work force divided and prevent general strikes. This policy led them to actively seek workers from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Allen was a confidant of the Korean king and was able to persuade him that allowing Koreans to go to Hawaii would strengthen Korea's connection with the United States.

Recruitment was not easy, however, and Allen was forced to use his missionary connections. As a result, nearly 50 percent of the recruited contract workers were Christian converts. They and their descendants built a church-centered Korean immigrant community in Hawaii and the American west coast. They quickly left the plantations as soon as their three-year contracts expired and worked in a variety of manual occupations, as tenant farmers, or as the owners of small businesses. About half of them eventually returned to Korea. For this generation, Korean independence from Japan, which had annexed Korea in 1910, became a focal point of community concern and ethnic solidarity. On the eve of annexation of Korea, thousands of Korean laborers in Hawaii signed a petition to U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt advocating independence for Korea.

In October 1902, Ahn Chang-Ho (a.k.a. Dosan) and his wife, Lee Hye-Ryun, arrived in San Francisco to study. He would become an outstanding leader for the Korean community in the U.S. and abroad. He established the Friendship Society in 1903, the first Korean organization in the continental U.S. He also established the Mutual Assistance Society (MAS) in San Francisco, 1906. MAS and United Korean Society (1907, Hawaii) merged to form the Korean National Association (KNA) in 1909, and it began publishing The New Korea newspaper. KNA (a.k.a.Taehanin Kungminhoe) became the "official agent" of Koreans in the U.S. until the end of World War II. KNA also provided financial support to the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai between 1919 and the 1940's. Ahn also founded Young Korean Academy (a.k.a. Heungsa-dan), whose main purpose was to promote the renewal of moral character through self-cultivation, in 1913. This organization is still active in South Korea and the U.S. today. When Koreans staged a nationwide demonstration for independence on March 1, 1919, Dosan wrote "A Korean's Appeal for Independence" as chair of KNA in the Nation magazine. Thereafter, he went to Shanghai to work for the Korean Provisional Government there. He was arrested by the Japanese police in 1932 and taken to Korea. He died there in 1938 while serving a prison sentence.

In 1904, Syngman Rhee came to the U.S. to study and became another leader for Korea's independence. He received a Ph.D. in international affairs from Princeton University in 1910. He returned to Korea in 1945, after Korea's liberation from Japan, and became the first president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948, with the support of the U.S. military government in Korea. He became a stubborn dictator and was overthrown from power by angry students in 1960. He died in Hawaii in 1965.

In 1905, Yongman Park came to the U.S. to study and entered the University of Nebraska. During his time at the university, he established the Korean Youth Military Academy. He wrote two books: the National Military and Soldiers Requisite Knowledge in 1911 and 1912 respectively. Moving to Hawaii in 1912, he founded the All-Korean Association of Hawaii. He also founded there the Korean Military Corps in 1914, to fight for Korea's independence. He believed that Korea's independence could only be achieved by means of military power. His philosophy was not well received by Syngman Rhee who believed in international diplomacy. After a falling out with Rhee, he went to Vladivostok, Russia to build a military base there. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in China in1928.

II) Early Discrimination Against Koreans
It is quite a mystery how Philip Jaisohn obtained his citizenship in 1888 when the federal immigration law at the time allowed naturalization to only "free white persons." Perhaps, his marriage to a white woman and his political connections may helped him. In any case, he was an exception to the general rule. In 1924, the U.S. Congress designated Asia as a "barred zone" from which immigration was totally prohibited. About three hundred Korean students were admitted with Japanese-issued passports between 1925 and 1940. They were allowed to remain in this country as long as they continued to register for school.

In the 1930's, approximately 650 Koreans in Los Angeles County formed a community in the area between Adams and Slausen Boulevards and between Western and Vermont Avenues, now called South Central Los Angeles. Despite their small numbers, Koreans were targets of anti-Asian violence as well as anti-Asian legislation. Korean farm workers were attacked in Hemet Valley, California, in 1913, by an angry mob of white workers who mistook them for Japanese. The same year, California passed the Alien Land Act, which prohibited immigrants ineligible for citizenship - that is, Asians - from buying property. Koreans, like others of color, were subjected to both employment restrictions and housing segregation. Thus, many Korean Americans engaged in tenant farming and small businesses, such as barbershops and rooming houses, that cater to people not permitted to use facilities reserved for whites.

The prohibition against Asian immigration was finally lifted during the Korean War, when the McCarran-Walter Act was passed in 1952. This law reformulated the 1924 barred zones and national origins restriction allowing, amongst other things, for East Asians to apply for U.S. citizenship.

III) Impact of the Korean War
The emigration of military brides and adoptees has been a silent phenomenon that has not been fully explored. Perhaps, their emigration can be traced back to the U.S. military landing in Korea in September 1945 when the Truman administration divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel, establishing a U.S. military government in the southern half. Military rule ended after three years and the Republic of Korea (ROK) was established in the south in 1948. However, some 500 U.S. soldiers continued to remain in South Korea as military advisors until June 1950 when the outbreak of the Korean War brought hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers to Korea. As of May 2003, there are still some 40,000 U.S. troops station throughout South Korea.

Military brides and adoptees entered American families and scattered throughout the United States, often in suburban or rural areas with few Asians. Military brides have formed their own networks of organizations and friendships, essentially forming their own communities separate from the mainstream Korean immigrant communities. They and their families, even after the husband leaves the military, are most often found near military bases. The most well known military bride communities are in Texas and in Washington, but cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. also have significant military bride populations. Military bride emigration peaked at an average of 4,000 per year during the 1970s and 1980s.

Korean adoptees were placed primarily in white American families throughout the United States. Harry Holt is credited with beginning the practice of sending Korean children overseas for adoption when he and his wife began to adopt war orphans in the early 1950s. Korean adoption quickly spread to include not only war orphans and Amerasians (offspring of Korean women and American soldiers), but also the children of unmarried women and poor families. Many of the children sent overseas were not orphans at all, but were given up by their families for various reasons.

These adoptees have recently begun to speak out about their experiences. They have organized national and international associations, held conferences, published poems, essays and short stories, and are becoming an increasingly visible presence. Like military brides, there is not much interaction between mainstream Korean American communities and the adoptees. But also like military brides, many are quite eager to establish meaningful ties with these communities and have begun to assert their membership in the wider community of the international Korean Diaspora. The number of Korean adoptees peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, and is now declining. In response to criticism during the late 1980s, the South Korean government has made it increasingly difficult to send children overseas for adoption.

IV) Major Increase in Korean Immigration
The third wave of immigration since the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed family and employment immigration, has resulted in the development of large Korean immigrant communities in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, as well as smaller communities throughout the United States. Although Korean immigrants have become well known as successful entrepreneurs, such stereotypes conceal great diversity. The majority of Korean immigrants are engaged in factory work, clerical work, and other low-status jobs. More visible to the community and to American society at large are those in professional occupations such as engineers, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. In Hawaii, descendants of the labor migrants to the sugar plantations dominate the Korean community, while on the mainland, the communities are dominated by the new post-1965 immigrants. A sizable minority of these immigrants first migrated to either Germany or South America before coming to the United States.

In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riot, Korean communities have become increasingly concerned with community empowerment and forging alliances with other minority communities. The 1.5 generation (those who migrated as children) and the 2nd generation (those who were born in the United States to immigrant parents) Korean Americans are now playing more visible roles in Korean communities, prompting talk of a "generational change" and a "coming of age" for Korean communities in America. In 1994, the National Association of Korean Americans, following the tradition and spirit of the early Korean National Association, was founded in New York, becoming the first national civil and human rights organization of Korean Americans.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the total Korean American population stands at 1,076,872 and 1,228,427 (including mixed blood). Korean American immigrants have settled primarily in California (345,882), New York (119,846), New Jersey (65,349), Illinois (51,453), Washington (46,880), Texas (45,571), Virginia (45,279), Maryland (39,155), Pennsylvania (31,612), Georgia (28,945), and Hawaii (23,537). Korean Americans now reside in all fifty states with the smallest number in North Dakota (411).

V) Conclusion
On June 27, 2002, the U.S. Senate passed a historic resolution (S.R. 185), recognizing the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the United States. The National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA) was instrumental in introducing and passing the resolution. In accordance with the resolution, President Bush issued a proclamation recognizing the centennial on January 13, 2003, commending Korean Americans for their "important role in building, defending, and sustaining the United States of America." Although growing in numbers, Korean Americans have yet to emerge as a political force. It is now incumbent on them to become active participants in the American political process: empowering their community, contributing to a peaceful reunification of Korea, and strengthening the American democracy at the same time.

(©2003 by NAKA. Edited by John H. Kim, Esq., with contributions from Prof. Ji-Yeon Yuh, Prof. Elaine H. Kim and Prof. Eui-Young Yu)

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