Until the late twentieth century, Korean immigration to the United States was relatively small. However, the Korean War of 1950-1953 prompted a major wave of immigration from South Korea, and the liberalization of American immigration laws during the 1960’s brought an even larger wave of immigrants. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Koreans were one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. By the year 2008, about 1.5 million people of Korean descent were residing in the country, and Koreans constituted the fifth-largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, after Chinese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, and Vietnamese.
In 2003, Korean American communities throughout the United States celebrated the centennial anniversary of Korean immigration. However, the history of Korean immigrants in America actually started during the late nineteenth century. In 1882, Korea and the United States signed a treaty of amity and commerce that permitted Koreans to immigrate to the United States. Afterward, close political, military, and economic relations between the two countries helped shape Korean immigration to the United States. After the 1882 treaty, Korean diplomats, political exiles, students, and merchants began visiting, but they did not settle in the country. The first significant wave of Korean immigrants came to the American territory of Hawaii as sugar cane plantation workers in 1903.
During the late nineteenth century, famine and poverty had driven many rural Koreans to urban centers, where they were exposed to Christianity and Western cultural influences. During that period, Korea was feeling the pressure of Chinese and
That first wave of Korean immigration came to an abrupt end in 1905, when the Korean government received reports of mistreatment of Korean laborers in
Most of the early Korean immigrants were engaged in
Between 1907 and 1924, a small number of
The U.S. government was sympathetic toward Korean political refugees from
After World War II ended in 1945, the Japanese were ousted from Korea, which was effectively partitioned between the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States occupied the southern part of the Korean Peninsula until 1948, when the Republic of Korea was established under president
As the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States supplied military and economic assistance to South Korea and eventually negotiated the peace settlement with the Soviet Union. After an armistice was declared in 1953, Korea remained divided at the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States continued to provide military and economic aid to South Korea with the goal of containing the spread of
The Korean War was both directly and indirectly responsible for the immigration of Koreans to the United States. Many people, traumatized by the war experience and looking for political and economic stability, left the war-ravaged country. Because of its close ties to Korea, the United States became the primary destination of many emigrants. The most visible groups of Korean immigrants to the United States after the war were wives of American servicemen,
Along with the military brides and adoptees who came to the United States from Korea were students and professional workers. Between 1945 and 1965, about
After 1965, South Korea’s own government began actively encouraging emigration as a means to reduce the pressures of its growing population and to reap economic benefits from emigrants earning money abroad. Industrialization and modernization in Korea motivated its people to move to cities and to other countries, such as the United States and Germany, to find better opportunities and higher-paying jobs. Moreover,
The Korean immigrants who arrived before 1965 were not a highly visible group because of their small numbers and sparse distribution across the United States. However, with the rise of immigration after 1965, Korean immigrants have become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States. Between 1970 and 1990, the Korean population in the country rose from 70,000 residents to almost 800,000. By the year 2000, that number had grown to 1.1 million.
During the 1960’s, South Korea rose from the ravages of the war and gained economic strength and stability, aided by U.S. economic support and export-oriented economic policies. The living standards of South Koreans improved, and higher education expanded rapidly. During the early 1960’s, only about 6 percent of Korean Americans were classified as professionals and managers. The immigrants who have come to the United States since 1965 have been more highly educated and had more professional job skills than their predecessors. However, despite their educational attainments and technical skills, many new immigrants found themselves confined to the lower rungs of the occupational ladders in their fields and prevented from practicing their professional skills due to language barriers and their unfamiliarity with American customs. In response, many of them turned to self-employment, running liquor stores, greengroceries, and other small shops in urban centers throughout the United States. Unfamiliar with the American banking system, many Koreans have joined Korean-run rotating credit associations.
Residents of Los Angeles’s Koreatown watching a parade with floats supporting political candidates in South Korea’s presidential elections during the late 1980’s.
Korean immigrants have done well as small merchants throughout the United States. During the 1980’s, they began winning praise as a hard-working, law-abiding
The Los Angeles riots revealed deeply ingrained racism and economic disparities in American society and Korean ethnic communities. However, in the aftermath of the riots, Koreans made efforts to resolve the conflicts and form alliances with other minority groups. Meanwhile, Korean immigrants discovered greater solidarity within their own community. Like members of other Asian communities, Koreans have been noted for shunning involvement in political organizations and activities. However, after the riots, they became more outgoing, and national organizations began playing more important roles in Korean immigrant communities.
Abelmann, Nancy, and John Lie. Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Study of race relations of Korean Americans analyzed through the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Hurh, Won Moo, and Kwang Chung Kim. Korean Immigrants in America: A Structural Analysis of Ethnic Confinement and Adhesive Adaptation. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984. Overview of Korean immigration to the United States from a sociological perspective. Kim, Hyung-Chan, and Wayne Patterson, eds. The Koreans in America, 1882-1974. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1974. Chronology and fact book that examines the history of Korean immigration to the United States. Kim, Nadia Y. Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. Study with a global framework to examine racial ideas Koreans had prior to and after their immigration to the United States. Lee, Mary Paik. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. First-hand account of a Korean woman who immigrated to Hawaii as a young child with her family. It narrates early years of Korean immigration in the United States. Min, Pyong Gap. Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Sociological study of post-1965 Korean immigrants in the United States that focuses on lives and challenges of Korean merchants.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965