Significance: 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 twentyfirst century, Koreans were one of the fastestgrowing 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.
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. (Korea Society/Los Angeles)
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.
Country of origin
North and South Korea
Primary regions of U.S. settlement
California and New York State
Earliest significant arrivals
Peak immigration period
Twenty-first century legal residents*
189,144 (23.643 per year)
*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.
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 Japanese efforts to dominate its government, and many Koreans were becoming more sympathetic to the idea of emigrating. Meanwhile, friendly political and economic relations between Korea and the United States were opening the possibility of having Korean workers go to the U.S. territory of Hawaii. This idea was facilitated by both Hawaiian planters and American missionaries in Korea. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had contributed to a labor shortage in Hawaii. Hawaiian sugar cane planters relied mostly on Japanese laborers. However, as labor unrest among the Japanese increased in Hawaii, the planters contemplated the possibility of bringing in laborers from other Asian countries and invited Koreans to come to Hawaii as strikebreakers.
Horace Allen, an American medical missionary working in Korea, played a significant role in initiating Korean immigration to Hawaii. During a visit in the United States in 1902, he met with Hawaiian planters and afterward used his political influence as a missionary to send Koreans to Hawaii. Few Koreans were initially willing to go to Hawaii, so missionaries in Korea personally recruited workers from among their own Christian congregations. In contrast to the Japanese and Chinese workers who had come from confined geographical areas in their home countries, early Korean immigrants had diverse geographical backgrounds, and nearly half of them were Christian converts. In December, 1902, 56 men, 21 women, and 25 children left Korea on the SS Gaelic. They arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, on January 13, 1903. Over the next two years, nearly 7,500 Koreans went to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include all immigrants from both North and South Korea who obtained legal permanent resident status.
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 Mexico and stopped permitting its people to go to either Mexico or the United States. Japan’s government also pressured the Korean government to close its emigration bureau because it was concerned with the condition of its own citizens who were working in Hawaii. In 1907, the United States and Japan signed a Gentlemen’s Agreement that stopped immigration of Japanese laborers to the United States. By that time, Korea was effectively ruled by Japan, so Korean workers were also banned fromemigrating. After Korea was forcibly annexed by Japan in 1910, Korean immigration to the United States virtually halted.
Most of the early Korean immigrants were engaged in agricultural labor in Hawaii on three-year contracts. After their contracts expired, many Koreans went from Hawaii to the mainland United States or returned to Korea. Some of those who made their way to the United States found success in the West Coast states, where they bought farms and started agricultural enterprises. However, California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented all Asian immigrants, including Koreans, from owning land and limited their leases in California. Some of the Koreans who left Hawaii worked on railroads on theWest Coast, and some of these people were recruited to work as farm laborers.
Between 1907 and 1924, a small number of picture brides, students, and political exiles fromKorea were admitted to the United States. Approximately 1,100 picture brides joined their prospective husbands between 1910 and 1924, when the new U.S. Immigration Act instituted discriminatory quotas based on national origins. This new law greatly reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe and virtually ended it from Asia. Even after 1924, however, small groups of Korean political exiles and students continued to arrive in the United States, fleeing from the Japanese colonial rule in their homeland.
The U.S. government was sympathetic toward Korean political refugees from Japanese rule and admitted them to the United States as nonquota immigrants. Between 1925 and 1940, about 300 Korean students entered the United States on Japanese-issued passports. Most of them remained in America after completing their studies because they feared persecution by the Japanese government if they returned to Korea. Many of them participated in organizations and demonstrations for Korean independence. Female immigrants, though small in number, also took part in the efforts. As many of the early Korean immigrants were Christians, churches became important gathering places for them and helped fulfill not only their religious but also political and social needs.
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 Syngman Rhee. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union helped set up a communist government in the north.
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 communism in Asia. South Korea also depended heavily on U.S. aid to finance its postwar reconstruction.
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, war orphans, and professional workers and students. These people differed from earlier Korean immigrants in many ways, especially in the proportion of women immigrants. The earlier wave of Korean immigration had a ratio of about ten men to every woman. After the arrival of "picture brides” during the 1910’s and 1920’s, the Korean immigrant population became 66 percent male during the 1930’s. During the second wave of Korean immigration, however, women accounted for more than 70 percent of all Korean immigrants to the United States.
The U.S. War Brides Act of 1945 allowed wives of American soldiers to enter the United States as nonquota immigrants. Korean war brides began to arrive in the United States during the Korean War and continued to come afterward as nonquota immigrants. Every year from 1953 until the end of the decade, about 500 Korean war brides were admitted to the United States. Passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 repealed racial exclusion and relaxed the national quota criteria. Although the law was not fully liberalized, it opened a window of opportunity for many Koreans to come to the United States. Along with the wives of American servicemen, babies of servicemen and war orphans entered the United States as nonquota immigrants. Direct products of the KoreanWar, these typically forlorn-looking people dominated popular images of Korea in the United States during the 1950’s. In 1955, Harry and Bertha Holt, American evangelists from Oregon, popularized the adoption of Korean orphans and the abandoned babies of American servicemen. Between 1955 and 1977, American families adopted about 13,000 Korean orphans. Every year during the 1980’s, Americans adopted 7,000 to 8,000 Korean children. In contrast to popular images of Korean war orphans, many of the adoptees were not true orphans at all but were children who had been given up for adoption because of Korean racial prejudice against mixed-race babies or because their unwed or impoverished mothers could not afford to raise them.
Along with the military brides and adoptees who came to the United States fromKorea were students and professional workers. Between 1945 and 1965, about 6,000 Korean students came to the United States to seek higher education at colleges and universities. After completing their studies some returned to South Korea to work as academicians and professionals, but many became permanent residents in the United States. This period of Korean immigration provided a steppingstone for the third wave of Korean immigrants. Many of the Koreans who immigrated to the United States before 1965 were naturalized as American citizens and were thus able to sponsor relatives who followed them under the family reunification preferences of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act) eliminated national origins quotas and gave priority to immigrants with skills. In addition, the law allowed the spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens to enter as nonquota immigrants. With the passage of the 1965 law, the third and largest wave of Korean immigration began. While early immigrants were mostly farmers, most post-1965 immigrants have come from urban, middle-class backgrounds and have exhibited considerable diversity in their occupations and social classes.
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, remittances from the immigrants have played a significant role in the growing Korean economy. The close military, political, and economic ties between the United States and South Korea have favored America as the primary destination for many Koreans.
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 frompracticing 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.
Korean immigrants have done well as small merchants throughout the United States. During the 1980’s, they began winning praise as a hardworking, law-abiding "model minority.” However, their economic success and educational attainments did not always reflect the reality of their lives, and tended to conceal mounting troubles within their Korean American communities. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, tensions between Korean merchants and the largely black and Hispanic clientele of their innercity stores began rising. In New York City,Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago, African Americans launched protest demonstrations and boycotts against Korean businesses, which they believed were exploiting their communities. These tensions reached an exploding point in Los Angeles in April, 1992, when much of the city erupted into rioting after the white police officers who had savagely beaten the black motorist Rodney King were acquitted of wrongdoing. The devastating riots exposed racial and economic hostilities between African Americans and Korean immigrants. During three days of violent rioting, fiftyeight people were killed and more than one billion dollars in property damage was done. A disproportionately large number of Korean stores were destroyed during the rioting, and the media brought to the fore tension and conflicts between Korean immigrants and African Americans.
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.
See also: Alaska; Amerasian children; Chinese immigrants; Gentlemen’s Agreement; Hawaii; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Japanese immigrants; KoreanWar; Missionaries; "Model minorities”; Pushpull factors.