The Event: Unresolved military conflict between North and South Korea that drew the United States and communist China into the fighting
Date: June 25, 1950-July 27, 1953
Location: Korean Peninsula
Significance: The Korean War caused a massive displacement of people in both North and South Korea that left many thousands of Koreans in need of new homes. The close military, political, and economic ties between the United States and South Korea’s government during and after the war facilitated the immigration of large numbers of Korean war refugees, war brides, and war orphans to America.
From the early twentieth century until the end of World War II in 1945, Japan ruled Korea as a colony. Japan’s defeat in the war ended its control over Korea, but the Korean Peninsula was then politically divided at the thirty-eighth parallel. The northern portion of the peninsula was occupied by the communist Soviet Union, and the southern portion was occupied by the United States. In 1948, each part of Korea established its own independent government: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south. Vast differences in the political ideology of the communist north and the Westernleaning south generated friction that eventually escalated into a full-scale war that would involve both the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
The Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea launched a surprise attack across the thirty-eighth parallel in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under its rule. Under United Nations (U.N.) auspices, the United States sent combat troops and military assistance to South Korea. Despite massive American and Chinese involvement, the conflict became a stalemate, and the United States eventually played a leading role in negotiating an armistice that ended the fighting on July 27, 1953. The settlement reestablished the thirty-eighth parallel as the border between North and South Korea. With the war technically never officially ended, the so-called demilitarized zone surrounding the border was heavily guarded by both sides and remained tense into the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, the war itself had a devastating impact on the peoples of both North and South Korea. Particularly hard hit were large numbers of women and children who lost their families and were left without any means to support themselves.
Both during and after the war, many people fled from both North and South Korea to other countries, including China and the United States. The close military and political ties between South Korea and the United States led the majority of emigrants to choose America. Even North Korean refugees who lacked strong family or regional ties in South Korea generally preferred to go to the United States. A small number of Korean prisoners of war, who refused to be repatriated to either North or South Korea were sent to the United States as well. In fact, the war opened opportunities to all Koreans to emigrate to America. Wives of American servicemen and orphans represented the largest groups of Korean immigrants during and immediately after the war.
The military relations between the United States and South Korea created a new group of immigrants: war brides. After the war, the United States continued to station large numbers of American troops throughout South Korea. Many American service personnel married Korean women. U.S. immigrant quotas based on national origin remained in force, but the Korean wives of American servicemen could enter the United States legally as nonquota immigrants under the termof the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act) of 1952.
From 1953 until 1960, about 500 Korean war brides arrived in the United States annually. In Korea, these women were ostracized by their relatives and neighbors for marrying non-Koreans. After they reached the United States, many of them encountered prejudice from Americans who stereotyped them as prostitutes and barmaids. Married to white and black Americans, most of these women had little contact with other Korean immigrants. Out of touch with fellow Koreans and handicapped by limited English-language skills and unfamiliarity with American culture, they led culturally isolated lives. Consequently, many of their marriages did not last long. Because many of them came from lower-class backgrounds and had limited educations and few professional skills, they generally found it hard to support themselves and their children after their marriages failed. Nevertheless, most of these war brides became American citizens, and they would later sponsor the immigration of other Korean family members under the terms of the family reunification preferences of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
Other products of the Korean War were the births of thousands of so-called G.I. babies fathered by U.S. service personnel and the orphaning of thousands of Korean children. During the 1950’s, these children became another major category of Korean immigrants to the United States. They also formed the first wave of Korean adoptees in America. G.I. babies and war orphans included children of both white and black American fathers and Korean mothers and orphans of Korean fathers and mothers. Despite the popular images of Korean War orphans at the time, many of the children adopted by American parents were not actually orphans. Most were given up by their natural parents for various reasons. Some were abandoned because of Korean racial prejudice against mixedrace babies. Others were give up by unwed mothers and by families too poor to care for them.
The number of Korean children needing parents was so great that the South Korean government created a special agency to place them for overseas adoption. This effort gained wide publicity when Harry and Bertha Holt, American evangelists in Oregon, adopted eight Korean children in 1955 and started their own international adoption service. Between 1955 and 1977, 13,000 Korean children were adopted by American families.
The Korean immigrants who came to America after the Korean War were noted for their remarkable heterogeneity. However, most Korean immigrants from that period were directly or indirectly connected with the U.S. military and American economic involvement in the Korean War. For many Americans, the KoreanWar was a quickly forgotten war, but it left a lasting imprint on both American and Korean society.
Bergquist, Kathleen Ja Sook, et al., eds. International Korean Adoption: A Fifty-Year History of Policy and Practice. New York: Haworth Press, 2007. Collection of multidisciplinary essays on Korean adoption with several articles on Korean adoptees in the United States.
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950- 1953. New York: Times Books, 1987. Wellresearched and comprehensive examination of the origins and conduct of the Korean War.
Edwards, Paul M. The KoreanWar.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Part of Greenwood’s Daily Life Through History series, this book by a Korean War veteran and prolific scholar details the experiences of the individual troops fighting in Korea.
Hastings, Max. The Korean War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Detailed examination of military operations of the nations involved in the Korean War, from a British military historian. Includes a chronology of the war.
Hurh, Won Moo. The Korean Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Historical, cultural, and socioeconomic study of Korean Americans.
Keller, Nora Okja. Fox Girl. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Novel about a group of Korean children abandoned after the Korean War and their coming-of-age experiences near American military bases in Korea.
Oh, Arissa. "A New Kind of Missionary Work: Christians, Christian Americans, and the Adoption of Korean G.I. Babies, 1955-1961.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, nos. 3-4 (2005): 161-188. History of Korean adoption in America that examines adoption as a new missionary work shared by Christians and Christian Americanists.
Yuh, Ji-Yeon. Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America. New York: New York University Press, 2002. First detailed study of Korean military brides in the United States and their oral histories.
See also: Amerasian children; Korean immigrants; McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950; Vietnam War; War brides; War Brides Act of 1945; Women immigrants; World War II.