[Visual History of Korea] Celebrating Korean America, a land of welcome for future Koreans
Young Korean American girls wearing colorful hanboks dance and march while moving along the annual Korean Festival Parade in Los Angeles Koreatown on September 24. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
You can take Koreans out of Korea, but for some, you can’t take Korean Americans out of Korea. This is what leads to Korean America, a thriving overseas Korean culture that parallels the motherland.
Korean-language newspapers, radio, and television define Korean Americans as Koreans who live in the United States away from their homeland.
Canada and the United States are home to the largest number of Koreans outside Korea, combining some 3 million of the 7.3 million documented Koreans living in 193 foreign countries, according to South Korean government data.
“Korean Americans have always been a part of modern Korean history. They were directly engaged in the independence movement (at the beginning of the 20th century). Famous historical figures such as Syngman Rhee, Ahn Chang-ho and Seo Jae-pil were all Korean Americans,” said Edward Chang, a professor at the University of California, Riverside.
English-speaking Korean Americans have been at the forefront of Korean history since the 20th century.
“President Syngman Rhee was the most successful Korean American,” said Cho Kap-che, a veteran Korean journalist who has written about Rhee in depth.
The national flags of the United States and South Korea are held by a participant wearing a hanbok during the 49th annual Korean Festival Parade in Los Angeles Koreatown on September 24. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), who came to the United States in 1904, raised funds from Korean Americans to fight for the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule.
After Rhee returned to Korea after the fall of the Japanese colonial government in 1945, he was elected President of the Republic of Korea in 1948.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the Korean community in America was the foundation of Korea’s development,” Cho said.
After leaving the presidency in 1960 following mass protests against voter fraud, Rhee went into exile in Hawaii. He died there in 1965. Hawaii was where Rhee had decades of lasting relationships with friends he had spent many years together with earlier in the first half of the 20th century.
Seo Jae-pil (1864-1951), also known as Philip Jaisohn, came to the United States in 1885 and became the first naturalized Korean American citizen in 1890. Seo founded the Dongnip Sinmun, or Independent , Hangeul’s first newspaper which was also the first Korean-English bilingual newspaper.
While Korean Americans have greatly shaped modern Korea since the turn of the 20th century, not all Korean Americans become naturalized citizens of the United States or Canada, as others do. permanent residents of the United States and Canada who nevertheless enjoy many rights.
“The Korean diaspora in America refers to Koreans who reside in America for a relatively long period of time,” Chang told UC Riverside, which studies Korean Americans.
With the exception of a handful of intellectuals who traveled to the United States to further their education, the first migration of Koreans to the United States took place in 1902 when a group of laborers left Korea during the winter of 1902 to arrive in Hawaii on January 3, 1903.
The intersection of Vermont Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles Koreatown was named Dr. Gene Kim Square in 2014. The Los Angeles Koreatown sign was erected in 1982 after the area was officially designated as Koreatown on November 8, 1981. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
Dosan Ahn Chang-ho (1878-1938), who came to America in 1902 to study, became a social reformer, a leader of the independence movement, and the founder of America’s first Koreatown in Riverside, California in 1904.
Ahn led several grassroots organizations, including the Korean National Association, which linked Korean Americans during the darkest years of the motherland under colonial rule by Japan from 1910 to 1945.
The constitution of the Republic of Korea originated with Korean Americans, who originally funded the formation of the Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai, Republic of China, in 1919, following the independence movement of the 1st march.
Early Korean Americans, under the leadership of scholars such as Ahn Chang-ho and Syngman Rhee, raised funds in the United States to fund independence movements at home.
In 1920, Korean Americans in California formed the first Korea Air Corps, which was the foundation of the Republic of Korea Air Force.
After the 1950-1953 Korean War, hundreds of thousands of Korean War orphans and Korean women married to American servicemen constituted the second wave of migration of Koreans to the United States.
Thanks to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Immigration Act of 1965 opened immigration opportunities for more Koreans to settle in the United States.
The Korean Friendship Bell and Bell Pavilion, which South Korea presented to the American people on their 200th anniversary in 1976, is located at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro, California. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
In the 21st century, for Korean students seeking higher education and career opportunities in the United States, Korean America means more life choices.
“Korean Americans have the best of both worlds. They are pioneers who left their beloved home in Korea and have a unique culture that includes the best of both American and Korean cultures,” says Peter Pak, a journalist based in Los Angeles Koreatown for the past 33 years.
Korean culture is celebrated every year in most major American cities, but it all started with the creation of Los Angeles Koreatown by Dr. Gene Kim, 79, a successful businessman and founder of the Koreatown Development Association, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. He personally funded the development of the Los Angeles Koreatown Plan which the Los Angeles City Council approved on November 8, 1981.
Kim had laid the groundwork for Koreatown’s geographic designation in Los Angeles with the annual LA Korean Festival beginning in 1974.
“We had to concentrate Korean businesses in one area of Koreatown, to grow as a community,” recalls Kim, 79, who has a corner on Vermont Avenue and Olympic Boulevard dedicated to his name as LA founder Koreatown.
KW Lee, 94, a retired journalist who reported on the unjust imprisonment of Chol Soo Lee (right), is pictured at his home in Rancho Cordova, California on September 25. Lee was one of the first Asian American journalists to work in mainstream media in the United States in the 1950s. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
“The first Korean festival parade on Olympic Blvd. was held on Sunday, November 3, 1974. I applied for a permit for about 3,000 spectators,” Kim said.
The Los Angeles Police Department reported more than 30,000 spectators at the first Korean Festival parade in 1974.
“From the following year, local and national politicians wanted to join the Korean Festival Parade. In fact, United States Senator John V. Tunney (1934-2018) from California, who voluntarily participated in the Korean Festival Parade in 1975, didn’t sit in the dignitaries’ convertible. He walked the entire parade route shaking hands with as many Korean-Americans as he could,” Kim said.
“Korean America has always been very important in Korean history. Now, divided Korea and the reunification of Korea probably largely depends on Korean Americans. Korean Americans are in a position of influence in Washington D.C. on American politics,” said Chang of UC Riverside. .
By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])
Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.
By Korea Herald ([email protected])