Korean americans

by Amy Nash


Known to its people as Choson (Land of Morning Calm), Korea occupies a mountainous peninsula in eastern Asia. Stretching southward from Manchuria and Siberia for close to 600 miles (966 kilometers), it extends down to the Korea Strait. China lies to Korea's west, separated from the peninsula by the Yellow Sea. Japan lies to its east on the other side of the Sea of Japan.

Western societies have traditionally viewed the Korean peninsula as a remote region of the world. They have often referred to it as "The Hermit Kingdom" because it remained isolated from the western world until the nineteenth century. Yet it actually holds a central position on the globe, neighboring three major world powers—the former Soviet Union, China, and Japan.

At the end of World War II in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula along the 38th Parallel into two zones of occupation—a Soviet controlled region in the north and an American controlled one in the south. In 1948, North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and South Korea (the Republic of Korea) were officially established. North Korea is run by a Communist government, with Pyongyang as its capital city. South Korea's government is an emergent democracy, and Seoul—Korea's largest city—is its capital.

An estimated 67 million people live on the Korean peninsula, with a population of approximately 43.9 million in South Korea and another 23.1 million residing in North Korea. Together they are racially and linguistically homogeneous. They are the ethnic descendants of a Tungusic branch of the Ural-Altaic family. Their spoken language, Korean, is a Uralic language with similarities to Japanese, Mongolian, Hungarian, and Finnish.


In its 5,000-year history, Korea has suffered over 900 invasions from outside peoples. Accordingly, the Korean people have found it necessary to defend fiercely their identity as a separate culture. Tungusic tribes from the Altai mountain region in central Asia made the peninsula their home during the Neolithic period around 4000 B.C. These tribes brought with them primitive religious and cultural practices, such as the east Asian religion of shamanism. By the fourth century B.C. several wall-town states throughout the peninsula were large enough to be recognized by China. The most advanced of these, Old Choson, was located in the basin of the Liao and Taedong rivers, where Pyongyang is situated today. China invaded Choson in the third century B.C. and maintained a strong cultural influence over the peninsula for the next 400 years.

Historians commonly refer to the first period of recorded Korean history (53 B.C. -668 A.D. ) as the Period of the Three Kingdoms. These kingdoms were Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. Toward the end of the seventh century A.D. Silla conquered Koguryo and Paekche and united the peninsula under the Silla dynasty. This period saw many advancements in literature, art, and science. Buddhism, which had reached Korea by way of China, was practiced by virtually all of Silla society. By the mid-eighth century the Silla people began using woodblock printing to reproduce sutras and Confucian writings.

In 900, the three kingdoms divided again. Within 36 years the Koguryo kingdom took control and its leader, General Wang Kon, established the Koryo dynasty. The word Korea comes from this dynastic name. During Koryo's 400-year reign, artistic, scientific, and literary achievements advanced further. Improving upon earlier Chinese printing methods, Korea became the first country in the world to use movable cast metal type in 1234. Medical knowledge also developed during the thirteenth century. Evolving out of local Korean folk remedies and Chinese practices, Korean medical science was recorded in books such as Emergency Remedies of Folk Medicine and Folk Remedies of Samhwaja.

Mongolian forces invaded Koryo in 1231 and occupied the kingdom until 1368. The Chinese Ming dynasty forced the Mongols back to the far north. This struggle eventually led to the fall of Koryo in 1392, when General Yi Song-Gye revolted against the king and founded the Yi dynasty. In control until the early twentieth century, it proved to be Korea's longest reigning dynasty and one of the most enduring regimes in history. The increasingly militant Buddhist state of the former Koryo dynasty yielded to the thinking of the new Choson kingdom, which was ruled by civilians who devotedly followed Confucian principles. Confucianism is not a religion but a philosophy of life and ethics that stresses an individual's sense of duty to family members and society as a whole. The Yi regime emphasized hierarchical relationships, with highest respect given to family elders, the monarch, and China as the older, more established country.

The Yi dynasty remained peaceful until 1592, when Japan invaded the peninsula. Chinese soldiers helped Korea seize control over its land from the Japanese armies. Japan attacked again in 1597, but Korea was able to force its withdrawal by the end of the year. Still, the country was left in tatters from the war. Korea suffered more attacks in 1627 and 1636, this time at the hands of the Manchus, who later conquered China. Western scientific, technological, and religious influences began to make their way to Korea during this period, by way of China. France, Great Britain, and the United States had already begun to dominate areas within China and other Asian countries. Calling Korea "The Hermit Kingdom" because of its closed-door policy toward non-Chinese foreigners, Western countries became interested in the peninsula in the nineteenth century.

In 1832 an English merchant ship landed off the coast of Chungchong province, and in 1846 three French warships landed in the same area. Eight years later two armed Russian ships sailed along the Hamgyong coast and killed a few Korean civilians before leaving the region. In 1866 the U.S.S. General Sherman sailed up the Taedong River to Pyongyang. The crew's goal of drawing up a trade agreement was thwarted by an enraged mob of Koreans who set fire to the ship, killing everyone aboard. Five U.S. warships appeared near the Korean island of Kanghwa the following year and also were fought off. Korean animosity toward Western countries stemmed largely from their awareness of China's troubles with these same nations, particularly Great Britain, which had devastated China during the First Opium War of 1839-1842. Despite Korean resistance, Japan forced the country to open to trade in 1876. In 1882 Korea reluctantly agreed to trade with the United States.

For two centuries China and Japan fought for control over Asia. China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) greatly weakened Chinese dominance. After this victory Japan invaded the Korean peninsula. Korean students from American-founded schools resented this invasion. These schools had become a place to learn about democracy and national liberation. The Japanese army despised the American missionaries who had established these schools but knew better than to confront citizens of the powerful U.S. government. Instead, they took advantage of Korean citizens and outlawed Korean customs. Korea turned to Russia for financial support and protection. What followed was a ten-year struggle between Russia and Japan for control over the Korean peninsula. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 ended in another Japanese victory. U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt mediated the treaty agreement and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the Treaty of Portsmouth. Korea became a protectorate of Japan, and Japan officially annexed the country in 1910.


During its 35 years as a Japanese colony, Korea experienced major economic and social developments, such as soil improvement, updated methods of farming, and industrialization in the north. Japan modernized the country along Western lines, but Korea did not reap the benefits. Japan used half of the Korean rice crop for its own industry. Most Korean farmers were forced off their land. All Korean schools and temples were controlled by the Japanese. By the 1930s Koreans were forced to worship at Shinto shrines, speak Japanese in schools, and adopt Japanese names. Japan also prevented them from publishing Korean newspapers and organizing their own intellectual and political groups.

Thousands of Koreans participated in demonstrations against the Japanese government. These marches were mostly peaceful, but some led to violence. On March 1, 1919, a group of 33 prominent Koreans in Seoul issued a proclamation of independence. Close to 500,000 Koreans, including students, teachers, and members of religious groups, organized demonstrations in the streets, protesting against Japanese rule. This mass demonstration, which became known as the March First Movement, lasted two months until the Japanese government suppressed it and expanded the size of its police force in Korea by 10,000. According to conservative estimates from Japanese reports, the Japanese police killed 7,509 Koreans, wounded 15,961, and imprisoned another 46,948 in the process of quelling the movement.

Japan sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. The Japanese government put Koreans to work in munitions plants, airplane factories, and coal mines in Japan. Before the war, Korean nationalists living outside of the country (in Siberia, Manchuria, China, and the United States) organized independence efforts, often using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese. One of these nationalists residing in the United States, Syngman Rhee, went on to become the first president of South Korea. Another Korean who was making a name for himself as a rebel was Kim Song-Je. Born in 1912 near Pyongyang, Kim spent most of his childhood in Manchuria and took the pseudonym Kim Il Sung in 1930. He organized one of the first anti-Japanese guerrilla units in Antu, Manchuria, on April 25, 1932, and became North Korea's first president. North Koreans still celebrate April 25 as the founding date of the Korean People's Army.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II, the Korean provisional government created by such nationalists as Syngman Rhee finally had an opportunity to take a stand against Japan. On December 8, this provisional government declared war on Japan and formed the Restoration Army to fight alongside the Allies in the Pacific theater.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945, ending the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans took to the streets in celebration of the end of 36 years under oppressive rule. But the freedom they expected did not follow. The Soviet Union immediately occupied Pyongyang, Hamhung, and other major northern cities. The United States followed by stationing troops in southern Korea. This division, which was supposed to have been a temporary measure, remained a source of turbulence and tragedy for Koreans at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In the months that followed the end of World War II, postwar international decisions were made without the consent of the Korean people. The Soviet Union set up a provisional Communist government in northern Korea, and the United States created a provisional republican government in the South. In 1948 the Republic of Korea was founded south of the 38th Parallel, followed by the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north. Both governments claimed authority over the entire peninsula and tempted fate by crossing the border at various points along the 38th Parallel.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea, beginning a costly, bloody, three-year struggle known as the Korean War. It was perhaps the most tragic period in modern history for the Korean people. In the end, neither side achieved victory. On July 27, 1953, in the town of Panmunjom, the two sides signed an armistice designating a cease-fire line along the 38th Parallel and establishing a surrounding 2.5-mile-wide (four-kilometer-wide) demilitarized zone, which remains the boundary between the two Koreas. The war left the peninsula a wasteland. An estimated four million soldiers were killed or wounded, and approximately 1 million civilians died.

Both Koreas moved swiftly to rebuild after the war and have emerged into modern, industrialized nations. North Korea, which was more industrialized than South Korea before the war, restored the production of goods to prewar levels within three years. North Korea's economy and industry suffered, however, as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union, one of its major trading partners. South Korea has evolved from a rural to post-industrial society since the 1960s. It has become an important exporter of products such as Hyundai cars, GoldStar televisions, and Samsung VCRs. In the late 1980s the United States was the second largest exporter to South Korea, after Japan. In 1989, South Korea was the seventh largest exporter country to the United States.

Kim Il Sung ruled as a Communist dictator in North Korea for more than four decades, until his death in July 1994. South Korea, on the other hand, has undergone several political upheavals since the Korean War. South Koreans have become increasingly dissatisfied with the U.S.-South Korea alliance and with the presence of U.S. troops in the country. Corruption in the government and the lack of free elections have caused many student uprisings. President Kim Young-Sam, who took office in February 1993, has instituted economic reforms and an aggressive anti-corruption campaign. As of 1995, it was too soon to tell if his programs would bring the country closer to a true democracy.

All measures introduced to reunify the Korean peninsula have ended in a stalemate. U.S. concern over North Korea's nuclear weapons program during the 1990s has threatened to increase tensions between the two Koreas. North Korea's refusal to allow full international inspection of its nuclear facilities brought the United States close to proposing a resolution for a United Nations economic embargo against North Korea in June 1994. Before sanctions were implemented, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with the North Korean government and reported back that the country would be willing to freeze all activity that produces fuel for nuclear weapons if Washington would initiate high-level talks. In the past, planned meetings between the two Korean governments have broken down. Officials were cautiously hopeful that this time would be different, until Kim Il Sung's death once again put negotiations between the two countries on hold. Reunification remains the most pressing issue on the minds of virtually all Koreans.


The first recorded emigration of Koreans from their homeland occurred in the eighth century, when thousands moved to Japan. Korean communities also existed in China as early as the ninth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Yenpien section of Manchuria and the Maritime provinces of Russia became home to many Koreans escaping famine on the peninsula. Emigration was illegal in Korea, but by the end of the century, 23,000 Koreans were living in the Maritime provinces. Natural disasters, poverty, high taxes, and government oppression were given as their reasons for leaving. As Japanese control over the peninsula began to spread, so did Korean discontent. The United States became a refuge for a small number of Koreans at the end of the nineteenth century. Three Korean political refugees moved to America in 1885. Five more arrived in 1899 but were mistaken for Chinese. Between 1890-1905, 64 Koreans had traveled to Hawaii to attend Christian mission schools. Most of these students returned to Korea after completing their studies.


The first major wave of Korean immigrants to the United States began in 1903, when Hawaiian sugar plantation owners offered Koreans the opportunity to work on their plantations. By 1835 sugar had become the main crop produced on the Hawaiian Islands, largely due to the prolific yield of the Koloa Plantation on the island of Kauai. Initially the sugar planters hired native Hawaiians to work as contract laborers on the plantations. By 1850 the native population had declined, the laborers became increasingly dissatisfied with the hard work, and the demand for sugar continued to grow. The resulting labor shortage forced the planters to form the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society to recruit outside sources of labor. Hawaii was not yet a part of the United States, and contract labor was therefore still legal. In 1852, the first immigrant laborers arrived in Hawaii from China. By the time the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, 50,000 Chinese immigrants lived in Hawaii. Low wages, long work days, and poor treatment caused many Chinese laborers to leave the plantations in order to find work in the cities. The sugar planters then began to recruit Japanese immigrants to supplement the work force on the plantations.

In 1900 Hawaii became an official U.S. territory, making it legal for the Chinese and Japanese workers to go on strike. Many of them did. America's Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration of Chinese people to the United States. When Hawaii became a U.S. territory, Chinese workers were not allowed to immigrate to Hawaii. To offset another labor shortage and weaken the unions, Hawaiian sugar planters turned to Korea. In 1902 growers sent a representative to San Francisco to meet with Horace Allen, the American ambassador to Korea. Allen began recruiting Koreans to work on the plantations with the help of David William Deshler, an American businessman living in Korea. Deshler owned a steamship service that operated between Korea and Japan. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association paid Deshler 55 dollars for each Korean recruited. The Deshler Bank, set up in the Korean seaside town of Inchon, provided loans of 100 dollars to each immigrant for transportation.

With conditions worsening in their homeland, the offer appealed to a great number of Koreans. They would be paid a monthly wage of 16 dollars; receive free housing, health care, and English lessons; and would enjoy a warmer climate. Newspaper advertisements and posters promoted Hawaii as paradise and America as a land of gold and dreams. Recruiters used the slogan Kaeguk chinch wi ("the country is open, go forward") to encourage potential recruits. American missionaries also helped persuade Koreans with stories of how life in the West would make them better Christians. Reverend George Heber Jones of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Inchon was one of the more well-known American preachers who encouraged Koreans to go to Hawaii.

In December 1902, 121 Koreans left their homeland aboard the U.S.S. Gaelic, and all but 19 of the recruits (who failed their medical examinations in Japan) arrived in Honolulu on January 13, 1903. This original group included 56 men, 21 women, and 25 children. Over 7,000 Korean immigrants joined them on the Hawaiian sugar plantations within two years. Most of these immigrants were bachelors or had left their families behind. They hoped to save their wages and return to Korea to share the wealth with their families. With the higher cost of living in Hawaii, only about 2,000 Koreans were able to return to Korea. By 1905 the Japanese government banned emigration from the peninsula because so many Koreans were leaving to avoid Japanese oppression.

The next wave of Korean immigration to the United States occurred when Japan issued the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907. This pact forbade further immigration of Japanese and Korean workers but included a clause that allowed wives to rejoin their husbands already in the United States. This law initiated the "picture bride" system, enabling immigrant men to have wives and families in America. Of the 7,296 Korean immigrants in Hawaii, only 613 of them were women. To improve the male/female ratio, Korean village matchmakers and the groom's family selected the women to contact. The men exchanged photographs with the prospective brides, and when a match was agreed upon, the groom's family would write the bride's name into the family register to legalize the union. The bride would then travel to the United States by boat and meet her new husband. Marriage ceremonies were often performed on the boat, so that the women could touch American soil as legal wives of the immigrants. Between 1910 and 1924, over 1,000 Korean picture brides came to the United States, mostly to Hawaii. These women were motivated to become picture brides by the opportunities for education and wealth they heard existed in America. Traditional Korean society placed many restrictions on women. Education, travel, and careers were not open to them at home.

The picture brides, however, did not find America paved with gold. Many discovered that their husbands were much older than they looked in the pictures. In fact, an alarming number of these women became widows at a very young age. They faced hard work and long hours, leaving little free time to learn English. In her introduction to Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989; p. 9), Sucheta Mazumdar recounts Anna Choi's description of her life in Hawaii as a picture bride: "I arose at four o'clock in the morning, and we took a truck to the sugar cane fields, eating breakfast on the way. Work in the sugar plantations was back breaking. It involved cutting canes, watering, and pulling out weeds.... The sugar cane fields were end less and twice the height of myself. Now that I look back, I thank goodness for the height for if I had seen how far the fields stretched I probably would have fainted from knowing how much work was ahead."

In the years between 1907 and World War II, a few Korean political refugees and students also came to the United States. Some were members of a secret Korean patriotic society called Sinmin-hoe (New People's Society). To escape persecution by the Japanese government, they crossed the Yalu River and took trains to Shanghai. From there, they made their way to America. By 1924, 541 Koreans living in America claimed to be political refugees. Among the political activists residing in the United States at this time were Ahn Chang Ho, Pak Yong-Man, and Syngman Rhee, the future first president of South Korea. Rhee immigrated to the United States as a student and earned a doctorate from Princeton University in 1910. He returned to Korea to organize a protest against the Japanese. He then came back to the United States to avoid arrest and remained there until the end of World War II. During his years in America, he founded one of the major Korean independence movements.

Korean emigration was discouraged by the South Korean government after World War II, and North Korea forbade any kind of emigration. Most of the Koreans who did immigrate to the United States after the war were women. The quota system created by the United States Office of Immigration in the 1940s allowed between 105 and 150 immigrants from each of the Asian nations into the country. This law favored immigrants with post-secondary education, technical training, and specialized skills. Most of the Koreans allowed to immigrate were women with nursing training. The War Brides Act of 1945 also helped women and children obtain papers to immigrate.

More women who had married American soldiers were allowed into the United States after the Korean War. By this time, Koreans and all Asians in America were able to acquire citizenship through naturalization as a result of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Foreign adoption of Korean babies also began at the end of the Korean War. The war had left thousands of children orphaned in Korea. Over 100,000 South Korean children have been adopted abroad since the war, and roughly two-thirds of these children have been adopted by American families. An estimated 10,000 Korean children have been adopted by Minnesota families alone. Criticized by other countries for running a "baby mill," the South Korean government began to phase out the practice in the 1990s. Although adopting children is traditionally frowned upon in Korean society, social workers are attempting to encourage domestic adoption.


In 1965 the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act. The quota system was replaced with a preference system that gave priority to immigration applications from relatives of U.S. citizens and from professionals with skills needed by the United States. Thousands of South Korean doctors and nurses took advantage of the new law. They moved to America and took jobs in understaffed, inner-city hospitals. Koreans with science and technological backgrounds also were encouraged to immigrate. These new immigrants came from middle-class and upper-class families, unlike the earlier immigrants. The portion of the law informally known as the "Brothers and Sisters Act" has also been a factor in the dramatic increase in the Korean American population. In 1960, 10,000 Koreans were living in the United States. By 1985 the number had increased to 500,000. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's 1990 Census of Population, 836,987 Korean Americans had settled in the United States. The 1991 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service states that 26,518 Koreans were admitted to the United States in 1991, making up 1.5 percent of the total immigrants arriving in America that year.


Virtually all of the first Koreans who immigrated to the United States settled in Hawaii and the West Coast. As Korean immigrants working on the Hawaiian sugar plantations became increasingly frustrated by the harsh conditions, they moved to cities and opened restaurants, vegetable stands, and small stores, or worked as carpenters and tailors. Some returned to Korea if they could save the money for transportation. Approximately 1,000 Korean plantation workers remigrated to the U.S. mainland by 1907. They settled in San Francisco or moved farther inland to Utah to work in the copper mines, to Colorado and Wyoming to work in the coal mines, and to Arizona to work on the railroads. Some Koreans moved as far north as Alaska and found jobs in the salmon fisheries. The majority of those who remigrated, however, settled in California.

Recent Korean immigrants have settled in concentrated areas around the country. In 1970 the highest percentage of Korean Americans lived in California, followed by Hawaii, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington. In 1990 the U.S. Census reported 260,822 Korean Americans in California, 93,145 Korean immigrants in New York, 42,167 in Illinois, 38,087 in New Jersey, 35,281 in Texas, 32,918 in Washington, and 32,362 in Virginia. Maryland, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania each have over 25,000 Korean American residents. Every state has at least a small population of Korean Americans. Most Koreans who settle in the United States reside in large cities where jobs are available and Korean communities have been established. Koreatowns have developed in areas such as the Olympic Boulevard neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles, where over 150,000 Korean Americans live. The Flushing, Woodside, and Jackson Heights neighborhoods within the New York City borough of Queens also have substantial Korean American populations. Unlike the early immigrants, later immigrants generally traveled to America to take up permanent residence. Korean American professionals who can afford it have begun moving to the suburbs.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Like all immigrants arriving in the United States, Koreans have had to make major adjustments to live in a country that is vastly different from their homeland. Coming from a traditional society greatly influenced by the Confucian principle of placing elders, family, and community before the individual, Korean immigrants struggle to make sense of the American concept of individual freedom. Since the first immigrants arrived in Hawaii, Korean Americans have preserved their identity by creating organizations, such as Korean Christian churches and Korean schools. The Korean word han, used to describe an anguished feeling of being far from what you want, accurately conveys the longing that accompanies most Koreans to America. Korean American organizations provide a sense of community for new immigrants and a way to alleviate this longing.


Korean immigrants bring with them a culture that incorporates aspects of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Western cultures. These influences have filtered into Korean society throughout its long history. Yet Koreans have also maintained native elements of their literature, art, music, and way of life. The result is a wonderful collage of elements, both foreign and indigenous to the peninsula. Korean Americans tend to maintain aspects of their culture, while also adopting elements of mainstream America.


Korean literature draws from Chinese and Japanese roots but has its own distinctive features. Poems, romances, and short stories represent only a portion of the breadth of the Korean literary tradition. This tradition includes both folk and highly advanced literary writings and works written in Chinese, as well as Korean. Korean poems, called hyangga, dating back to the sixth century, were written in Chinese characters. Hyangga were sung by Buddhist

Groups of immigrants often found themselves settling in neighborhoods together. These neighborhoods then took on characteristics of that particular group, as is shown here in Koreatown in New York.
Groups of immigrants often found themselves settling in neighborhoods together. These neighborhoods then took on characteristics of that particular group, as is shown here in Koreatown in New York.
monks for religious purposes. Korean myths and legends were first recorded in Chinese in the thirteenth century. The first literary work written in the Korean alphabet, hangul, was the Songs of Flying Dragons, a multi-volume account written between 1445 and 1447 by King Sejong's father during the Yi dynasty. Novels began to appear in the seventeenth century. Among the best known are Ho Kyun's Life of Hong Kiltong and Spring Fragrance, written anonymously in the eighteenth century.

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art forms have many similarities, but Korea has also preserved its own creative elements in this field. Korean art is characterized by simple forms, subdued colors, humor, and natural images. Korea is known for its ceramics, especially the celadon. This highly sophisticated form of pottery was first introduced during the Koryo dynasty.

Korean music incorporates Confucian rituals, court music, Buddhist chants, and folk music. Ancient instruments used for court music include zithers, flutes, reed instruments, and percussion. Folk music, which usually includes dancing, is played with a chango (a drum shaped like an hourglass) and a loud trumpet-like oboe. P'ansori, stories first sung by wandering bards in the late Choson dynasty, are an early form of Korean folk music. Modern Korean composers often draw from Western classical music. Korean American musicians, like Jin Hi Kim, use traditional Korean elements in their compositions. Kim is a komungo harpist who came to the United States in her twenties. She incorporates traditional Korean musical styles with other non-Western styles. Kim is one of the leaders in the No World Improvisations movement, which promotes the performance and composition of new improvisational music.


Several sports native to Korea have become popular around the world. For instance, tae kwon do, a method of self-defense that originated in Korea more than 2,000 years ago, has now become a commonly taught form of karate in the United States. It involves more sharp, quick kicking than the Japanese style of karate. It was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.


The importance placed on family in Korean society is apparent from the way special events in family members' lives are celebrated. Traditionally parents—with the help of a marriage broker or gobetween—chose their children's marriage partners. The parents also planned and prepared the wedding ceremony. Female relatives spent days preparing special dishes for the wedding feast and making the wedding clothes. The picture bride system used to increase the population of Korean American females in Hawaii is one example of how this traditional system was maintained in America. While still common in rural areas of Korea, these customs are no longer standard practice in cities. Similarly, Korean Americans, who generally come from urban areas, usually allow their children to choose their own spouses. As members of Christian churches, most modern Korean Americans have Western-style wedding ceremonies and wear Western-style bridal gowns and formal suits. Another event that Koreans traditionally celebrate with great flourish is a baby's first birthday. The child is dressed in a traditional costume and seated amidst rice cakes, cookies, and fruits. Friends and relatives offer the child objects, each one symbolizing a different career. A pen represents a writing career, and a coin signifies a career in finance. The first object the child picks up is said to indicate his or her future profession.


Korean culture is maintained within Korean American communities through church organizations, Korean schools, and Korean-culture camps. Since the beginning of this century, Korean Protestant churches have offered classes in Korean culture and language. In 1990 an estimated 490 Korean-language schools operated in the United States. Approximately 31,000 students attend these schools, which are run by 3,700 teachers. Classes are held during the week and sometimes on the weekends. The April/May 1994 issue of The U.S.-Korea Review lists 19 summer Korean-culture camps across the country. Located predominantly in California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, these camps offer Korean American children, usually adoptees, an opportunity to learn about their heritage with other Korean American children.


Korean cooking is similar to other Asian cuisines. Like the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans eat with chopsticks. Common ingredients in Korean food, such as tofu, soy sauce, rice, and a wide variety of vegetables, are also staples in other far eastern cuisines. But Korean food is also distinct in many ways. It is often highly seasoned, including combinations of garlic, ginger, red or black pepper, scallions, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Blander grain dishes such as rice, barley, or noodles offset the heat of the spices. Red meat is scarce in both North and South Korea and typically is reserved for special occasions. Koreans do not usually designate certain foods as breakfast, lunch, or dinner dishes. A standard meal consists of rice, soup, kimchi (a spicy Korean pickle), vegetables, and broiled or grilled meat or fish. Fresh fruit is usually served at the end of a meal. Kimchi is considered the national dish and is served at virtually every meal. Made from cabbage, turnips, radishes, or cucumber, kimchi can be prepared many ways, from mild to very spicy. Korean cuisine includes many different kinds of namul (salads). A common type of namul is sukju namul, or bean sprout salad. Made with bean sprouts, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, black pepper, and other ingredients, it is easy to make and serve. A common soup served at breakfast is kamja guk (potato soup). It is often spiced with chopped onion and chunks of tofu. Koreans serve mandu (Korean dumplings) at winter celebrations. They are deep-fried wonton skins, usually filled with beef, cabbage, bean sprouts, onions, and other ingredients. Another common Korean dish is chap ch'ae (mixed vegetables with noodles). This popular stir-fry dish features cellophane noodles, which are made from mung beans and prepared with vegetables in a wok.


Traditional Korean clothing is rarely worn in either the United States or in Korea on a daily basis. Modern Western-style clothes are standard attire in most of South Korea, with the exception of some rural areas. During holidays, however, Koreans in both the United States and Korea often wear traditional costumes. Women may wear a chi-ma (a long skirt, usually pleated and full) and cho-gori (a short jacket top worn over a skirt) during New Year's celebrations. Traditional attire for men includes long white overcoats and horsehair hats or colorful silk baggy trousers known as paji.


Koreans in both the United States and Korea celebrate several important days throughout the year. Following Buddhist and Confucian traditions, Koreans begin the new year with an elaborate three-day celebration called Sol. Family members dress in traditional clothing and pay homage to the oldest members of the family. The festivities include several feasts, kite-flying, board games, and various rituals intended to ward off evil spirits.

The first full moon is also an ancient day of worship. Torches are kept burning all night, and often people set off firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. Yadu Nal (Shampoo Day) is celebrated on June 15. Families bathe in streams or waterfalls to protect them from fevers. Chusok (Thanksgiving Harvest) is celebrated in autumn to give thanks for the harvest. Kimchi is also prepared for the winter at this time. Other traditional holidays observed in many Korean American households include Buddha's birthday on April 8, Korean Memorial Day on June 6, Father's Day on June 15, Constitution Day in South Korea on July 17, and Korean National Foundation Day on October 3. Korean American Christians also observe major religious holidays such as Easter and Christmas.


Anti-Asian prejudice first erupted in the United States when Chinese and Japanese immigrants began arriving in the nineteenth century. Early Korean immigrants suffered discrimination but were not specifically targeted until they became a significant percentage of the population. Americans generally knew nothing about Korea when Koreans first came to the United States. What little information they could find was written by non-Asians and claimed Western superiority over Asian cultures. William Griffis' Corea: The Hermit Kingdom, Alexis Krausse's The Far East, and Isabella Bird Bishop's Korea and Her Neighbors are examples of books that perpetuated the myth of Western superiority. American writer Jack London was also responsible for giving Americans

Many different ethnic groups display their pride in their diversity through annual parades.
Many different ethnic groups display their pride in their diversity through annual parades.
an unfavorable view of Korea. As a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese conflict in 1904, London voiced his opinions in dispatches that appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country. In an article entitled "The Yellow Peril" ( San Francisco Examiner, September 25, 1904; p. 44), London wrote that "the Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency—of utter worthlessness."

Anti-Asian sentiments grew during the early twentieth century when San Francisco workers accused Koreans, along with Japanese and Chinese immigrants, of stealing jobs because the immigrants would work for lower wages. Restaurants refused to serve Asian customers, and Asians were often forced to sit in segregated corners of movie theaters. Violent white gangs harassed Korean Americans in California, and the government did nothing to help the victims. In fact, California laws in the first few decades of the twentieth century supported anti-Asian attitudes. Asian students were banned from attending public schools in white districts in 1906. The 1913 Webb-Heney Land Law prohibited Asians from owning property, and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 banned all Asian immigration to the United States for close to 30 years.

Korean Americans continue to be discriminated against in the job market, often receiving lower pay and having fewer opportunities for promotion than non-Asian co-workers. The view of Korean Americans as "super immigrants" has also caused discord. Korean American success stories in business and education have led to resentment from outside groups. These stories are often exaggerated. Rumors that the U.S. government gives Korean immigrants money when they arrive are untrue. Only refugees receive aid from the U.S. government, and very few Korean immigrants qualify as refugees. Also, statistics that show the mean income of Korean American families to be higher than that of the general public are misleading because most Korean Americans live in large cities where the cost of living is much higher. These stereotypes have led to boycotts of Korean greengrocers in Brooklyn, Chicago, and elsewhere. In the April 1992 Los Angeles uprising that followed the verdict in the trial of African American assault victim Rodney King's attackers, black rioters targeted Korean grocers, destroying countless Korean American businesses. Korean immigrants refer to this tragic episode as the Sa-i-kup'ok-dong (April 28 riots). Korean Americans have come to represent wealth, greed, materialism, and arrogance because they have started businesses in inner-city neighborhoods that have been abandoned by corporations. The people still living in these neighborhoods often use the Korean small businessperson as a scapegoat for their anger against corporate America. Organizations such as the Korea Society in New York and the Korean Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles have begun to address these issues.


Korean Americans hold a prominent position in the field of medical science. The proportionally large number of Korean American doctors and nurses attest to this fact. Data on the status of the health of Korean Americans is limited. Asian Americans in general have a longer life expectancy than Americans as a whole. Job-related stress and other factors have contributed to mental health problems within the Korean American community. Most Korean Americans receive health insurance through their employers. New immigrants and the elderly, however, often do not have access to medical care because of language barriers. Organizations such as the Korean Health Education Information and Referral in Los Angeles address this problem.


Virtually every citizen in North and South Korea is an ethnic Korean and speaks Korean. Spoken for over 5,000 years, the Korean language was first written in the mid-fifteenth century when King Sejong invented the phonetically-based alphabet known as hangul ("the great writing"). The King created the alphabet so that all Korean people, not just the aristocracy who knew Chinese characters, could learn to read and write. As a result both North and South Korea have among the highest literacy rates in the world.

While most second- and third-generation Korean immigrants speak English exclusively, new immigrants often know little or no English. As time goes by, they begin to learn necessary English phrases. The earliest Korean immigrants in Hawaii learned a form of English known as pidgin English, which incorporated phrases in English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese—all languages spoken by the different ethnic groups working on the plantations. Learning English is crucial for new immigrants who hope to become successful members of the larger American community. Yet most Korean American parents also hope to preserve their heritage by sending their American-born children to Korean-language schools.

Several American universities offer undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs in Korean language and Korean studies. These universities include Brigham Young University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard University, the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and the University of Washington, Seattle.


The following greetings are translated phonetically from the hangul alphabet according to the McCune-Reischauer System of Romanization: Annyonghasipnigga —Hello (formal greeting); Yoboseyo —Hello (informal greeting); Annyonghi kasipsio —Good-bye (staying); Annyonghi kyeshipsio —Good-bye (leaving); Put'akhamnida —Please; Komapsumnida — Thank you; Ch'onmaneyo —You're welcome; Sillyehamnida —Excuse me; Ye —Yes; Aniyo —No; Sehae e pok mani padu sipsiyo! —Happy New Year!; Man sei !—Hurrah! Long live our country! Ten thousand years!; Kuh reh !—That is so! True!

Family and Community Dynamics

Historically, the family-kinship system was an extremely integral part of Korean society. The male head of a household played a dominant role, as did the oldest members of the family. Parents practiced control over their children's lives, arranging their marriages and choosing their careers. The eldest son was responsible for taking care of parents in their old age. Inheritances also went to the son. These systems have changed in modern Korea, particularly in cities, but the family remains very important to Koreans in

The basic Korean alphabet
The basic Korean alphabet
their homeland and in America. Parents still pressure their children to marry someone who has a good relationship with the family. Children—both male and female—usually are responsible for the care of elderly parents, although the government has begun to carry some of the financial burden. Tight family bonds continue to exist among Korean Americans. The current U.S. immigration laws encourage these bonds by favoring family reunions. Korean Americans who invite relatives to come to the United States have a responsibility to help the new immigrants adjust to their new home. Korean American families often include extended family members. The average Korean American household consists of more members than the average American family. The 1980 U.S. Census Bureau reported an average of 4.3 members in the Korean American household, compared to an average of 2.7 persons in the American household at large. The family ties also extend to strong networks of support within Korean American communities.


Because of the well-defined familial structure in Korean society, Koreans traditionally rely less on public assistance. Receiving welfare is often considered to be disgraceful. Family support, however, began to break down in the 1980s and 1990s. Larger numbers of recent Korean immigrants, particularly the elderly, are in need of assistance. Organizations within the Korean community have begun to address this problem. The Korean Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles offers numerous programs and activities for children and their families who have recently immigrated or are economically disadvantaged. Services include employment assistance and placement, family and youth counseling, and education and tutorial programs.


In Korean American communities, the marriage bond has in some ways become stronger than filial piety. While honoring one's parents remains important, physical distance and cultural barriers between Korean Americans and their parents have shifted priorities. Korean Americans are less likely to have arranged marriages than their ancestors, because marrying outside of the Korean community has also become increasingly common. Recent surveys show that Korean American women in college are expressing a preference for mates from other ethnic groups.

Traditionally Koreans have frowned upon divorce. Even with the marriages arranged through the picture bride system in Hawaii, few ended in divorce. Recent statistics suggest that the stigma against divorce no longer exists. The divorce rate among Korean Americans has reached and is possibly surpassing the national average. Exhaustion due to working extremely long hours in order to survive contributes to failed marriages. Women in particular suffer from stress. They often work long hours in garment factories or managing small businesses and are also responsible for running their households. Again, Korean American community organizations attempt to address these problems in order to make life in America more fulfilling.


Koreans have always valued education, and Korean Americans place a strong emphasis on academic achievement. Employment in the civil service, which required passing extremely difficult qualifying examinations, was considered to be the most successful career path to take. Koreans take great pride in their educational achievements. Recent immigrants are strongly motivated to perform well in school and come to the United States better educated than the general population in Korea. Korean American parents pressure their children to perform well. In 1980, 78.1 percent of Korean Americans over the age of 25 had at least a high school education, compared with 66.5 percent of Americans overall. While 33.7 percent of Korean Americans had four or more years of college education, only 16.2 percent of the general U.S. population did.

Korean society gives priority to the education of males. Many of the Korean women who chose to come to the United States as picture brides hoped to find more educational opportunities than they were offered in their home country. In the United States, the bias in favor of educating males persists. Of all Korean American males over 25, 90 percent were high school graduates in 1980. Only 70.6 percent of Korean American women had high school educations. In 1980, 52.4 percent of Korean American males had attended four or more years of college, compared with 22 percent of Korean American females. It is a common stereotype that Korean Americans excel in math and science. Although this is often true, they tend to perform well in all subjects.


Korean husbands traditionally work outside the home, while their wives take full-time responsibility for the children and household. Living in a modern industrialized nation, South Korean women do have full-time jobs today, especially in urban areas. Still, the majority of full-time female employees in South Korea are unmarried. In the United States, economic needs often require both parents to work. Running the household, however, usually remains solely the responsibility of the woman. Second-, third-, and fourth-generation Korean American women face conflicts between traditional familial values and mainstream American culture. These women have more opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers. Some of them have careers as lawyers, doctors, teachers, and businesswomen, but most have behind-the-scenes positions or are clerks, typists, and cashiers. Korean American women, like American women in general, are still discriminated against in the job market. Korean immigrant women often come to the United States with professional skills but are forced to work in garment factories or as store clerks because of the language barrier.

The view that Korean American women are passive also persists. Contrary to popular perceptions, Korean American women have a long history of political activism. Unfortunately their work has gone largely unrecorded. Korean female immigrants played a significant role in organizing protests against Japanese occupation both in Korea and America. They established organizations like the Korean Women's Patriotic League, wrote for Korean newspapers, and raised $200,000 for the cause by working on plantations, doing needlework, and selling candies. They also participated in labor strikes on the Hawaiian plantations. Korean American women of the 1990s joined other Asian American women in fighting unfair work practices in the hotel, garment, and food-packaging industries. Korean American women also participate fully in efforts to reunify Korea.


Throughout Korea's long history, religion has played a prominent role in the lives of the its citizens. A variety of faiths have been practiced on the peninsula, the most common being shamanism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Shamanism, the country's oldest religion, involves the worship of nature; the sun, mountains, rocks, and trees each hold sacred positions. Based on a belief in good and evil spirits that can only be appeased by priests or medicine men called shamans, early shamanism incorporated pottery making and dances such as the muchon, which was performed as part of a ceremony to worship the heavens.

China brought Buddhism to Korea sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. This religion, based on the teachings of the ancient Indian philosopher Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), has as its premise that suffering in life is inherent and that one can be freed from it by mental and moral self-purification.

Christianity first reached Korea in the seventeenth century, again by way of China where Portuguese missionaries came to promote Catholicism. American Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in the nineteenth century. The Korean government persecuted these missionaries because the laws of Christianity went against Confucian social order. By the mid-1990s, the majority of South Koreans were still Buddhists, but an estimated 30 percent of the population practiced some type of Christianity.


Of the original 7,000 Korean immigrants in the United States, only 400 were Christian. Those 400 immediately formed congregations in Hawaii, and by 1918 close to 40 percent of the Korean immigrants had converted to Christianity. Koreans immigrants relied heavily on their churches as community centers. After Sunday service, immigrants spoke Korean, socialized, discussed problems of immigrant life, and organized political rallies for Korean independence. The churches also served as educational centers, providing classes in writing and reading Korean. They remain an integral part of the Korean immigrant community. In 1990 there were an estimated 2,000 Korean Protestant churches in the United States. Most Korean Protestants are evangelical Christians, who study the Bible extensively and follow the word of the gospel closely. In large cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, Korean Protestants have their own buildings and hold several services a week. The Oriental Mission Church and Youngnak Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles are two of the largest Korean Protestant churches in America with 5,000 members each. Most Koreans in the United States today practice Protestantism.

Over two million Catholics live in South Korea. The Korean American Catholic Community was established by Korean immigrants in the 1960s. The first Korean Catholic center opened in Orange County, California, in 1977. As of 1995, an estimated 35,000 Korean Americans practiced Catholicism. Most Korean American Catholic parishes are part of larger American Catholic parishes.

There are about 100 Korean American Catholic communities in the United States, most of which are headed by priests from Korea, who usually serve four-year periods. Many speak little English and are perceived as being ignorant of contemporary American life, insensitive to the problems of Korean Americans, and more loyal to the their dioceses in Korea than to their Korean American congregations. Some have been accused of having affairs with married women and of financial misdealing. To address these problems by providing a forum for open discussion of them, Korean immigrant Kye Song Lee founded the newspaper Catholic 21 in 1996. He felt that the two official Catholic newspapers for Koreans—both published in Korea—did not adequately address the problems. Catholic 21 has been controversial since its inception, with some welcoming its perspective and others labeling it divise, offensive, and even anti-Catholic.


Although Buddhism has undergone many upheavals on the Korean peninsula, nearly 14 million South Koreans practice Buddhism today. A Buddhist monk named Soh Kyongbo founded Korean Buddhism in the United States in 1964. Most Korean American Buddhists belong to the Chogye sect. Prominent Buddhist organizations in the United States include the Zen Lotus Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Korean Buddhist Temple Association, the Young Buddhist Union in Los Angeles, the Buddhists Concerned with Social Justice and World Peace, the Western Buddhist Monk's Association, the Southern California Buddhist Temples Association, and several Son and Dharma centers across the country. According to the Korean Buddhist Temple Association's reports, there were 60 temples in the United States and Canada in 1990. The Young Buddhist Union holds an annual arts festival where Buddhist monks dance, sing, read Son poetry, and perform comedy sketches, plays, and piano recitals. Still, Buddhism has not become widespread in the United States and is often viewed as a cult.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Early Korean immigrants living on the West Coast were restricted from many types of employment. Discriminatory laws prohibited Asian immigrants from applying for citizenship, which meant that they were ineligible for positions in most professional fields. They took jobs with low pay and little advancement potential, working as busboys, waiters, gardeners, janitors, and domestic help in cities. Outside the cities, they worked on farms and in railroad "gangs." Many Korean immigrants opened restaurants, laundries, barbershops, grocery stores, tobacco shops, bakeries, and other retail shops. With the changes in immigration laws after World War II, Korean immigrants have been able to move into more professional fields such as medicine, dentistry, architecture, and science. Recent immigrants, those who have come to America since 1965, are mostly college-educated, with professional skills. The language barrier, however, often prevents new immigrants from finding jobs within their fields. Korean doctors often work as orderlies and nurses' assistants. In 1978, only 35 percent of Korean teachers, administrators, and other professionals were working in their respective fields in Los Angeles.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Asian and Pacific Islander Population in the United States: 1980 Report, the average Korean American household income was $22,500, which was higher than the average household income for Americans overall ($20,300). However, Korean Americans have, on the average, more persons living in each household and, as noted earlier, tend to live in urban areas where the cost of living is higher. The same report indicates that 13.1 percent of Korean American families had incomes below the poverty level, which is higher than the 9.6 percent reported for the total U.S. population. Asian American adults have lower unemployment rates than the U.S. adult population overall. In 1980 the U.S. Census Bureau also reported that 24 percent of Korean Americans age 16 or older held managerial or professional positions; 26 percent had technical, sales, or administrative jobs; 16 percent worked in service fields; nine percent held precision production, crafts, or repair jobs; 19 percent were laborers or operators; and six percent were unemployed.


Out of economic need, large numbers of recent Korean immigrants start their own businesses. Most of these immigrants did not run small businesses in Korea. In 1977, 33 percent of Korean American families owned small businesses, such as vegetable stands, grocery stores, service stations, and liquor stores. As a whole, they have a high success rate. In the 1980s an estimated 95 percent of all dry-cleaning stores in Chicago were owned by Korean immigrants. By 1990, 15,500 Korean-owned stores were in operation in New York City alone. Since then, a recession and internal competition has slowed the growth. New Korean immigrants are opening businesses in cities other than New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the competition is less fierce.


Support within Korean communities has contributed to the success of small businesses. Recent immigrants still use the ancient Korean loan system, based on the kye, a sum of money shared by a group of business owners. A new grocer, for instance, will be allowed to use the money for one year and keep the profits. The kye is then passed to the next person who needs it. Organizations like the Korean Produce Association in New York and the Koryo Village Center in Oakland, California, are another source of support for new immigrants hoping to set up their own businesses.

Politics and Government

Koreans have a general distrust of central governments. Historically, individual citizens have had little power in Korea and have suffered through scores of tragic episodes at the hands of other governments controlling the peninsula. As a result, most Korean immigrants come to America unaccustomed to participation in the democratic process. Discriminatory laws against Asian Americans on the West Coast have contributed to this distrust. Korean American communities have traditionally isolated themselves, relying on their family and neighborhood networks. Korean American participation in these grass-roots organizations and in U.S. government politics in general is growing and evolving slowly.


From the church meetings on Hawaiian plantations in the early 1900s to the efforts of the Black-Korean Alliance in the 1990s, Korean immigrants have created settings to voice their opinions. Racial tensions within Korean American communities have led to the establishment of several grass-roots organizations. The Black-Korean Alliance in Los Angeles and the Korea Society in New York have set up programs to educate the two ethnic groups about each other's cultures. In 1993, the Korea Society launched its Kids to Korea program. Designed to improve the strained relationship between the Korean and African American communities, the program enabled 16 African American high school students from New York City and Los Angeles to travel to South Korea in order to learn about its people, culture, and history. This successful program has been expanded to include students from other cities. The Korea Society also sponsors a program called Project Bridge in Washington, D.C., which offers classes in both Korean and African American cultures.


While research experts have studied extensively the economic development and work patterns of Korean American professionals and entrepreneurs, the general American public knows little about Korean immigrant laborers. Yet since the beginning of the twentieth century, American industries have employed Koreans. By the 1990s, Korean Americans had begun to join forces with other Asian Americans to educate themselves about labor unions and their rights. Founded in 1983, the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) organizes Chinese and Vietnamese garment workers and Korean hotel maids and electronics assemblers in the Oakland, California area. They have staged demonstrations and rallies to draw attention to the unfair labor practices within the garment, hotel management, and electronics industries. The Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates (KIWA) in Los Angeles is another group that is bringing labor issues to the forefront. The KIWA is unique among Asian American organizations in Los Angeles because most of the members of its board of directors are workers themselves.


Studies have shown that voter participation among Korean Americans is low. Historically, Korean immigrants have rarely been active in election campaigns and have seldom made financial contributions to individual candidates. Groups such as the Coalition for Korean American Voters (CKAV) in New York are working hard to address this problem. In just three years CKAV has registered 3,000 voters and sponsored programs that educate Korean immigrants about local and national government. The Coalition's efforts include airing public service announcements on Korean American television channels, establishing a college internship program to foster community service and leadership skills in students, and joining forces with other Asian American organizations to increase Asian American involvement in government.


In his book Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Ronald Takaki describes the plight of a Korean immigrant named Easurk Emsen Charr. He was drafted and served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Afterward he argued in court that as a U.S. military veteran, he should be entitled to citizenship and the opportunity to own land in California. The court ruled that the military should not have drafted him because he was Asian and therefore ineligible for American citizenship. Despite such discriminatory treatment, Korean Americans were eager to volunteer for military service during World War II. Doing so gave them a chance to support the American effort to curtail Japanese imperialism. Some Korean Americans served as language teachers and translators, and 100 Korean immigrants joined the California Home Guard in Los Angeles. They also participated in Red Cross relief operations. The American government, however, was somewhat suspicious of Korean-immigrant support because Koreans were technically still part of the Japanese empire. In Hawaii, Korean immigrants were referred to as "enemy aliens" and banned from working on military bases. Today, many Korean American men and women hold positions in the military.


Since Koreans first began immigrating to the United States, they have remained active in the politics of their homeland. Studies have shown that Korean Americans are generally more actively involved in the politics of Korea than in that of their new home. The lives of early Korean immigrants revolved around the Korean independence movement. In the 1960s Korean Americans staged mass demonstrations and relief efforts in response to the massacre of civilians by the South Korean dictatorship in Kwangju, the capital of South Cholla province. Today virtually every Korean American organization supports reunification of the peninsula. Groups such as the Korea Church Coalition for Peace, Justice, and Reunification were formed specifically for this purpose. Other American-based organizations, including the Council for Democracy in Korea, seek to educate the public about the political affairs of Korea.

Individual and Group Contributions


Margaret K. Pai (1916–) taught English at Kailua, Roosevelt, and Farrington high schools on the Hawaiian island of Oahu for many years. Her father, Do In Kwon, immigrated to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations in the early 1900s. Her mother, Hee Kyung Lee, was a picture bride and met and married her husband in Hawaii at age 18. Since retiring, Margaret Pai has been writing short Hawaiian legends, poems, and personal reminiscences, including The Dreams of Two Yi-Men (1989), a vivid account of her parents' experiences as early Korean immigrants in America.

Elaine H. Kim (1943– ) is a professor of Asian American studies and faculty assistant for the status of women at the University of California-Berkeley. Kim is also president of the Association for Asian American Studies and founder of the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates and Asian Women United of California. She is the author of Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and their Social Context.


Peter Hyun (1906– ) worked in the American theater for many years. He was a stage manager for Eva LeGallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, director of the Children's Theatre of the New York Federal Theater, and organizer and director of the Studio Players in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During World War II, he served as a language specialist in the U.S. Army. After settling in Oxnard, California, he taught English to immigrant students from Asia. He is the author of Man Sei!: The Making of a Korean American (1986), a personal account of growing up as the son of a leader in the Korean independence movement.

Nam June Paik (1932– ) has built a worldwide reputation as a composer of electronic music and producer of avant-garde "action concerts." He grew up in Seoul and earned a degree in aesthetics at the University of Tokyo before meeting American composer John Cage in Germany. His interest in American electronic music brought him to the United States. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Kitchen Museum, all in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum in Tokyo, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Among his video credits are TV Buddha (1974) and Video Fish (1975). He also produced a program called Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, which was broadcast live simultaneously in San Francisco, New York, and Paris on New Year's Day 1984 as a tribute to George Orwell's novel 1984.

Myung-Whun Chung (1953– ) was born in Seoul into a family of talented musicians. He made his piano debut at age seven with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and then moved with his family to the United States five years later. He studied piano at the Mannes School of Music and conducting at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. He has served as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, music director and principal conductor for the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Saarbrucken, Germany, and principal guest conductor of the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Italy. He is now music director and conductor for the Opera de la Bastille, located in the legendary French prison.

Margaret Cho (1968– ) is a second-generation comedian who has broken barriers and stereotypes with her numerous television and film appearances. In 1994 Cho became the first Asian American to star in her own television show, the ABC-sitcom All-American Family, which centered on a Korean American family.


Herbert Y. C. Choy (1916– ) became the first Asian American to be appointed to the federal bench in 1971. Educated at the University of Hawaii and Harvard University, he practiced law in Honolulu for 25 years. He served as attorney general of the Territory of Hawaii in 1957 and 1958 and continued his law practice until President Richard Nixon appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Grace Lyu-Volckhausen comes from a family of female activists. Her mother and grandmother were members of organizations supporting women's needs in Korea. Moving to New York in the late 1950s to study international and human relations at New York University, Lyu-Volckhausen established an outreach center for women at a YWCA in Queens in the 1960s. The program now offers sewing classes, after-school recreation for children, counseling for battered women, and discussion groups. She has served on the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, on the Mayor's Ethnic Council, and on Governor Mario Cuomo's Garment Advisory Council. Still chairperson of her YWCA youth committee in the mid-1990s, she also worked with the New York mortgage agency to provide affordable housing for minorities.


Kim Hyung-Soon (1884-1968) immigrated to the United States in 1914 and started a small produce and nursery wholesale business in California with his friend Kim Ho. The Kim Brothers Company developed into a huge orchard, nursery, and fruitpacking shed business. Kim is credited with having developed new varieties of peaches known as "fuzzless peaches," or "Le Grand" and "Sun Grand." He also crossed the peach with the plum and developed the nectarine. Kim helped establish the Korean Community Center in Los Angeles and the Korean Foundation, a fund that offers scholarships to students of Korean ancestry.


Younghill Kang (1903-1972) was one of the first Korean writers to offer Americans a firsthand, English-language account of growing up in occupied Korea. He wrote his first novel, The Grass Roof (1931), after spending many years struggling to survive as an immigrant living in San Francisco and New York. He later taught comparative literature at New York University and devoted the rest of his life to fighting racism in the United States and political oppression in his homeland.

Kim Young Ik (1920– ) is the author of several novels and stories for children and adults. His books have won numerous awards and have been translated into many languages. They include The Happy Days (1960), The Divine Gourd (1962), Love in Winter (1962), Blue in the Seed (1964), and The Wedding Shoes (1984).

Marie G. Lee (1964– ) is at the forefront of the current boom in children's literature being written by and about Korean Americans. Raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, she graduated from Brown University and lives in New York City. She is the author of the young adult novel Finding My Voice (1992), which won the 1993 Friends of American Writers Award. Her other young adult novels include If It Hadn't Been for Yoon Jun (1993) and Saying Goodbye (1994). Her work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and the Asian/Pacific American Journal, as well as several anthologies. She is president of the Board of Directors of the Asian American Writers' Workshop and a member of PEN and the Asian American Arts Alliance.


Dr. Sammy Lee (1920– ) has made a name for himself in both sports and medicine. He won the gold medal for ten-meter platform diving in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and again in the 1952 Games in Helsinki, along with a bronze medal in three-meter springboard diving. He received his M.D. in 1947 and practiced medicine in Korea as part of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Lee was named outstanding American athlete in 1953 by the Amateur Athletic Union and inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968. He served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 1971 to 1980 and coached the U.S. diving team for the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He has also been named Outstanding American of Korean Ancestry twice—by the American Korean Society in 1967 and the League of Korean Americans in 1986. After retiring from sports, he ran a private practice in Orange, California, for many years.



Korean Culture.

Published quarterly by the Korean Cultural Center of the Korean Consulate General in Los Angeles.

Contact: Robert E. Buswell, Jr., Editor in Chief.

Address: 5505 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90036.

Telephone: (323) 936-7141.

Fax: (323) 936-5712.

E-mail: kcc@pdc.net.

Korean Studies.

Journal addressing a broad range of topics through interdisciplinary and multicultural articles, book reviews and scholarly essays.

Contact: Edward J. Shultz, Editor.

Address: Journals Department, Hawaii 96822.

Telephone: (808) 956-8833.

Fax: (808) 988-6052.

E-mail: uhpjourn@hawaii.edu.

The New Korea.

A bilingual magazine published weekly for the Korean American community.

Contact: Woon-Ha Kim, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 141 South New Hampshire Avenue, California 90004-5805.

Telephone: (213) 382-9345.

Fax: (213) 382-1678.

The U.S.-Korea Review.

The bimonthly newsletter of the Korea Society, it is designed to improve the depth and breadth of information, news, and analysis in U.S.-Korea relations. It features chronologies of current affairs and trends in trade and business. It also includes literary excerpts and reviews.

Contact: David L. Kim, Editor.

Address: 412 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003.

Telephone: (202) 863-2963.

Fax: (202) 863-2965.



News programs broadcast in both Korean and English. Affiliated with Korean Times and KTAN-TV.

Address: 129 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90004.

Telephone: (213) 389-1000.

Fax: (213) 487-8206.


Contact: Jung Hyun Chai.

Address: 42-22 27th Street, Long Island City, New York 11101.

Telephone: (718) 482-1111.

Fax: (718) 643-0479.

KBLA-AM (1580).

Korean broadcasts around the clock, seven days a week.

Contact: Ron Thompson.

Address: 1700 North Alvarado Street, Los Angeles, California 90026.

Telephone: (213) 665-1580.

Fax: (213) 660-1507.

Korean-American Radio (AM 1400).

Contact: Mr. Chin P. Kim.

Address: 475 El Camino Real, Suite 202, Millbrae, California 94030.

Telephone: (415) 259-1400.

Fax: (415) 259-1401.

Radio Korea NY (AM 1480).

Contact: Byung Woo Kim.

Address: 44 East 32nd Street, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 685-1480.

Fax: (212) 685-6947.

Radio Seoul (106.9 FM).

Contact: Ms. Rae Park.

Address: 1255 Post Street, Suite 315, San Francisco, California 94109.

Telephone: (415) 567-3585.

Fax: (415) 567-0909.


KBC-TV (Channel 28).

Contact: Dave Kang.

Address: 5225 N. Kedzie Ave., #200, Chicago, Illinois 60625.

Telephone: (800) 236-0510; or (773) 588-0070.

Fax: (773) 588-8750.

Korean Broadcasting Corporation (Channel 53).

First East Coast television company owned and operated by Koreans.

Contact: Priscilla Ahn.

Address: 42-22 27th Street, Long Island City, New York 11101.

Telephone: (718) 426-5665.

Fax: (718) 937-0162.

Korean Cultural Television.

Contact: Seung Ho Ha.

Address: 111 West 30th Street, New York, New York 10001.

Telephone: (212) 971-0212.

Fax: (212) 629-0982.

KTAN-TV (Channel 62).

Diverse programming in Korean.

Contact: Ms. Kyung Chung.

Address: 4525 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90010.

Telephone: (213) 964-0101.

Fax: (213) 964-0102.


Exclusive distributor for Korean Broadcasting System's programming.

Contact: Mr. Cha Kon Kim.

Address: 625 South Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, California 90005.

Telephone: (213) 382-6700.

Fax: (213) 382-4265.

Organizations and Associations

M. Y. Han at Duke University has an extensive list of links to Korean and Korean American interest websites ( http://www.duke.edu/~myhan/C_KAWWW.html ), including organizations and media.

Coalition for Korean American Voters, Inc.

Founded in 1991, this nonprofit, nonpartisan, volunteer organization promotes voter registration and education of Korean Americans in the New York City metropolitan area.

Contact: Johnny Im, Coordinator.

Address: 38 West 32nd Street, Suite 904, New York, New York 10002.

Telephone: (212) 967-8428.

Fax: (212) 967-8652.

The Korean American Coalition.

Founded in 1983, this organization seeks to bring together Korean communities within the United States through fundraising and educational programs. It also sponsors programs designed to educate non-Koreans about Korean culture. The Coalition publishes a monthly newsletter called the KAC Newsletter.

Contact: Charles J. Kim, Executive Director.

Address: 610 South Harvard Street, Suite 111, Los Angeles, California 90005.

Telephone: (213) 380-6175.

Fax: (213) 380-7990.

E-mail: kaclal983@aol.com.

Korean National Association (KNA).

Contact: Woon-Ha Kim, President.

Address: 141 South New Hampshire Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90004-5805.

Telephone: (213) 382-9345.

Fax: (213) 382-1678.

The Korea Society (U.S.-Korea Society).

The Korea Society is the result of the 1993 merger of the work and programs of the New York-based Korea Society and the U.S.-Korea Foundation based in Washington, D.C. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to strengthening the bonds of awareness, understanding, and cooperation between the United States and Korea, and among Koreans, Korean Americans, and all other Americans. The Society's efforts extend to education, public policy, business, the arts, and the media. Its Washington branch publishes The U.S.-Korea Review.

Contact: Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, President.

Address: 950 Third Avenue, Eighth Floor, New York, New York 10022.

Telephone: (888) 355-7066; or (212) 759-7525.

Fax: (212) 759-7530.

E-mail: korea.ny@koreasociety.org.

Online: http://www.koreasociety.org .

National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA).

Individuals of Korean descent living in the United States. Seeks to safeguard the human and civil rights of Korean Americans; promotes friendly relations between Korean Americans and other racial and ethnic groups. Conducts educational programs.

Contact: John H. Kim, General Secretary.

Address: 276 Fifth Avenue, #806, New York, New York 10001.

Telephone: (212) 679-3482.

Fax: (212) 481-9569.

E-mail: nakausa@naka.org.

Museums and Research Centers

Many major universities have a "Centers for Korean Studies," including: Columbia University, State University of New York at Stony Brook, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Association for Korean Studies.

University professors and other scholars interested in the promotion of research in Korean studies. Sponsors six to eight seminars a year which are open to the public, featuring distinguished speakers. Presently inactive.

Contact: John Song, President.

Address: 30104 Avenue, Tranquila, Rancho Palos Verdes, California 90275.

Korean Cultural Center.

Founded in 1980, this cultural center offers programs that introduce Korean culture, society, history, and arts to the American public. It organizes exhibitions, lectures, symposiums, and multicultural festivals. The Center houses a 10,000-volume library and an art museum and gallery. Korean Culture Magazine is published by the Center.

Contact: Joon Ho Lee, Director.

Address: 5505 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90036.

Telephone: (213) 936-7141.

Fax: (213) 936-5172.


Online: http://www.kccla.org/ .

The Korea Economic Institute of America.

Founded in 1982, this educational group includes politicians, academics, trade organizations, banks, and other Americans concerned with the Korean economy. The Institute publishes a quarterly update on economic issues in Korea.

Contact: W. Robert Warne, President.

Address: 1101 Vermont Avenue, N.W., Suite 401, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 371-0690.

Fax: (202) 371-0692.

E-mail: rbw@keia.com.

Online: http://www.keia.com/ .

Korean Institute of Minnesota.

Founded in 1973, this nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving Korean language and culture. It brings together Korean American and adoptive families with a variety of classes and social opportunities for all ages.

Contact: Yoonju Park, Director.

Address: 1794 Walnut Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55113.

Telephone: (612) 644-3251.

E-mail: lschulte@wavefront.com.

Sources for Additional Study

The Korean American Community: Present and Future, edited by Tae-Hwan Kwak and Seong Hyong Lee. Seoul: Kyungnam University Press, 1991.

Lehrer, Brian. The Korean Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Mangiafico, Luciano. Contemporary American Immigrants: Patterns of Filipino, Korean, and Chinese Settlement in the United States. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988.

Patterson, Wayne. The Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii, 1896-1910. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Patterson, Wayne, and Hyung-Chan Kim. Koreans in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992.

The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, edited by Karin Aguilar-San Juan. Boston: South End Press, 1994.

Takaki, Ronald. From the Land of Morning Calm: The Koreans in America. Adapted by Rebecca Stefoff. New York: Chelsey House Publishers, 1994.

——. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

Won Moo Hurh. The Korean Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

User Contributions:

hi i want to learn the korean alphabet and also the chinese alphabet
Thanks for this wonderful site. I have learned many things from it.
this is really amazing and highly useful site...thanks
I love korean.,.........


hwang jini and daejanggeum movies.....

Levi Jimenez
Simply excellent information!!! Thank you for this great job.

Levi Jimenez
As a result of a graduate class assignment, I read your website prior to socializing with Korean Americans in order to become familiar with their culture. Your website was extremely helpful. Thanks!
larry clemenson
you must include the two newbery award or newbery honor winners linda sue park, daughter of korean immigrants, and an na, born in korea. park has written A Single Shard and much more. Na has writtn A Step From Heaven and several more. the two together write about teens growing up in korean american cultures and struggling with the issues they knew as a child. both have websites and are among the best the asian community has produced.
Lorenzo Thompson
Hey this was realy good to read I learned a lot. I wanted to know about Korea's alphabet but this let me know more about Aisia. I hope that Noth and South Korea live in peace and build their contry and people rather than to pull down each other. I feel the suffering of ancestors yearning for peace in the new generation. In my mind if Korea were to unite they woul be better.
great article thank you, I had the chance of going to Korea and its amazing country and people.
Thank you, I live in Hawaii and this website really helped me with my research paper. I got a lot of information and gained a ton of knowledge. It helped me learn about their home life which is perfect for my project.. Mahalo!
thanks for this website!! it's very useful..

I love korean movies...

I also love moon geun young!!!
Ouk Hee Huynh

This is great info on Korean and Korean-American culture. But, please do not use the term "Sea of Japan". It is also "East Sea". So, please use "East Sea/Sea of Japan".
Miguel G
Excellent info published here. Very encouraging to use the Korean perseverance, discipline and fellowship as an example I can get inspired and learn from.
Hi, I just wanted to add that the first organized Korean Catholic community in the United States was initiated in Los Angeles, CA. The community joined with a pre-existing parish called St. Agnes (on Vermont and Adams) in 1967. This was the first Korean-American Catholic community that had a parish to belong to. The community still exists today, and some of the elders can remember when the official community began.
Potato soup is literally translated into kamja guk... but its not called that... its called kamja tang.
and also
also i dont think its actually 'shampoo day' i think its more along the lines of 'cleansing day'
also namul i dont believe is salad.
what you are talking about is 'panchan' or side dishes that take bean sprouts and mix it with such ingredients. Sukju namul is just a type of sprout. If you go to the store, the signs dont say sukju cuz thats just the type of bean. Sukuju namul is mung bean. bean sprout is actually kong namul. Kong meaning bean and namul meaning sprout. signs at the the store dont say 'mung' or 'bean'.
My Grandfather registered for legal status in Hawaii in 1901. Legal documents filed.
He and another slave working on a steam ship jumped ship while anchored outside of Honolulu Hawaii, exact location unknown tho I believe it to be outside today's Pearl Harbor.
Status of other Korean slave unknown and documents I can not find. Note Koreans at that time were servants of the Empire of Japan.
This is such an amazing source of information. I'm wanting to write a character of Korean-American descent and currently researching to make it accurate as possible (especially since his grandmother is of South Korean descent and much of his family members follow traditions).

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