Korea is a small country in Asia, surrounded by China to the west and north, Russia to the north, and Japan to the east. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the mountainous peninsula of Korea has been divided into two countries, the People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south. They are also known today as simply North Korea and South Korea.
Korean history is rich in cultural and artistic achievements. For example, Koreans invented the movable type printing press using woodblocks around 700 A.D. They invented metal-movable type printing around 1200, which was 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg printed his famous Bible.
Korea is also known throughout the world for its distinctive celadon pottery, found in museums across the continents.
While Korea has a celebrated cultural legacy, the tiny peninsula has also suffered great economic and political turmoil throughout its long history. Immigration to America, beginning in the early 20th century, provided welcome opportunities for Koreans in search of a new life.
Immigrant Koreans arrived in America in three distinct groups over the last century.
The landing of the S.S. Gaelic into Honolulu Harbor in January 13, 1903 marked the first wave of Korean immigration. The boat carried 120 men, women, and children, who made up the first significant group of Korean Americans. The majority would become low-wage laborers on Hawaii’s growing sugar plantations. Over the next few years, over 7,000 Korean immigrants – mostly men – arrived in Hawai’i to meet growing labor needs.
However, the Gentlemen’s Agreement did allow Japanese and Korean wives to join their husbands in the new country. Many of the Korean male laborers married “picture brides,” who were chosen through a process of exchanging photographs between America and Korea. About 1,000 Korean women immigrated as picture brides to America. The Immigration Act of 1924, one of a series of anti-Asian exclusion laws, put a virtual end to immigration from Asia, preventing even Asian spouses from joining their families in America. Koreans did not – because they could not by U.S. law – immigrate to the United States for over 25 years.
Many who made up this small community of new Korean Americans continued to work from their adopted country to free Korea from Japanese rule. A number of the leaders of the Korean Independence Movement lived and worked in the United States, seeking help from the U.S. government to free Korea, although to little avail. Korea remained under Japanese domination until the U.S. victory over Japan at the end of World War II.
The second wave of Korean immigration began during the Korean War (1950-1953) when the brides of U.S. servicemen arrived in the United States, thanks to the War Brides Act of 1946. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act allowed Asians to immigrate in small numbers and eventually to become U.S. citizens. Skilled professionals and students were given preference. As a result of these two laws, Korean immigrants between 1951 and 1964 included war brides, war orphans available for adoption, and professional workers and students.
The largest wave of immigration from Korea – and the largest wave of immigration from all of Asia – began with the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965.
Click here to read President Johnson's remarks
at the signing of the Immigration Bill on Liberty Island
in New York on October 3, 1965.
For the first time in U.S. history, immigrants from around the world, including Asia, were allowed to enter the United States in substantial numbers. Koreans were quick to take advantage of the new laws and, in fact, for many years, one out of three immigrants from Asia was Korean. While the number of Korean immigrants began to drop in the late 1980s, new Korean Americans are still arriving every day.
Because many of the new immigrants could not speak English fluently, they often were not able to work in the professions in which they were trained in Korea. In spite of graduate degrees and highly skilled backgrounds, a substantial number of Koreans could not find jobs as engineers, lawyers, doctors, architects, and other such professions. As a result, the new immigrants chose to become their own bosses and opened their own small businesses. Korean-owned greengrocers, restaurants, and dry cleaners can be seen throughout the country. From the outside, Korean Americans appear to have found easy success – but they have done so by working grueling 18-hour days, 7 days a week, and sacrificing many comforts for the sake of their families, especially the children.
Tragically, this apparent success has created conflict for Korean Americans with other minority groups. The message driven by the media is that if Koreans can become successful Americans, why can’t members of other minority populations? This kind of racially-motivated thinking has led to Korean American businesses becoming the target of racial hostilities, especially in the last 25 years.
The most highly visible example of racial tension began on April 29, 1992 in South Central Los Angeles, California, when African American customers revolted violently against Korean American merchants. The result of a long series of racially-charged events, the three days of violent chaos would prove to be the most destructive riot in U.S. history. Commonly referred to by Korean Americans as “Sa-I-Gu,” which translates literally from Korean as “ 4-2-9” or April 29, this tragedy shook the Korean American population to the core. Of the $850 million in estimated property damage, Korean Americans sustained 47% or $400 million of that damage, and of the 3,100 businesses destroyed, approximately 2,500 of them were owned by Korean Americans.
The events were portrayed by the media as an all-out racially motivated battle between Korean American merchants and disgruntled African American residents. In fact, the conflict was a result of a far more complex situation involving two minority groups who were both plagued by a history of racial inequality and oppression.
In spite of the tragic events that unfolded, the Korean American community also made hopeful progress as a direct result of the riots. For the first time in American history, Korean Americans found a unifying voice. They organized to stop the rioting, to ultimately find peace with their African American neighbors, and to move ahead in cooperation with one another. United activism became an important new way of life for many Korean Americans.
Today, Korean American communities are found throughout the country, with the largest concentrations in the Los Angeles, New York City, and the Washington D.C./Northern Virginia metropolitan areas. Korean Americans can also be seen in all walks of life – from artists to activists, from dancers to doctors, from editors to engineers, and everything in between. After a hundred years and more, Korean Americans are an integral part of the ever-changing American society.