C/O Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King Street

Seattle, Washington 98104

1903 – 2003: A Century of Korean Immigration

Korean American Historical Society presents

The Centennial of Korean Immigration to America

An exhibit of seventy-six select photos
from collections in Hawai’i and the Pacific Northwest.

May 27 – June 20, 2003

Alvord Board Room
Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park
1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle WA 98112 Museum Hours:
Wed. – Sun., 10am – 5pm; Thurs. 10am – 9pm Suggested admission $3 for adults

Koreans in the U.S.

Encounters between Koreans and Americans began as early as 1866 when an American ship, the S.S. General Sherman, plied through the Daedong River that flows through the center of the present capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. It allegedly went there for trade. Sixteen years later, America established formal diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Korea on May 22, 1882, by concluding the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the first unequal treaty Korea signed with any Western nation.

Although Koreans were allowed to immigrate to America under provisions made in the treaty, it took another twenty years before any Korean immigration took place. This year Korean Americans across this land are celebrating the centennial of their immigration to America, as the first shipload of 102 Korean immigrants to America aboard the S.S. Gaelic, arrived in Honolulu, Hawai’i on January 13, 1903. A total of 7,333 Koreans came to Hawai’i between 1903 and 1905 as laborers for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. In 1905 the Korean immigration to America ended because Japan took over Korea as its protectorate, thus usurping Korea’s rights for diplomacy with other countries.

In 1908, the Roosevelt administration entered into an agreement with Japan, known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement that allowed Japanese immigrant men in America to bring their wives in the U.S. Thus, the so-called picture-bride program started. Consequently, when Japan made Korea its colony in 1910, Korean men residing in America were allowed to bring their wives or picture-brides. Between 1910 and 1924, a total of 800 Korean women came to America to join their husband. Young Korean students came to America either to study or to work in the hope of helping their countrymen to regain their freedom. Included among them was Syngman Rhee, first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948.

With the enactment of the Nationality Origins Act in 1924, all persons born of Asian ancestry were excluded from the class of people allowed to immigrate to America because they were ruled ineligible to become American citizens. Generally speaking, persons of Korean and Japanese ancestry were not allowed to immigrate to America until after 1952. During that year Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, allowing Korea and Japan each an annual quota of 100 people who could immigrate to America. The law also allowed alien residents of Korean ancestry in America the right for naturalization, thus ending the discriminatory law of naturalization based on race and ethnic origin.

Korean immigration to America resumed in 1968, following the passage of the Immigration and Naturalizaiton act of 1965, which did away with any legal restrictions based on the origin of nationality, religion, ethnicity, or race. The McCarran-Walter Immigration Act that had favored European immigration was abolished by the 1965 law, and persons of Asian ancestry were allowed to come to America as immigrants. Many Koreans took advantage of the law, and the 2000 census report shows approximately 1.1 million persons of Korean ancestry in America.

Koreans in Washington State

The first Korean immigrants who came to Washington state in the early part of the 20th century were the tenant laborers who originally came to Hawai’i on labor contracts to work in sugar plantations. Some decided to move on to other places in the continental U.S. once their labor contracts in Hawai’i were completed. In addition to Washington, farms and other job sites in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana became their destinations. In Washington, the early Korean immigrants worked in farms in the Yakima Valley or joined crews of other Asians in the canneries of Alaska, or worked with them on railroad crews.

Between the passage of the restrictive 1924 immigration law and the late 1940s, only a handful of Koreans came to the United States. Beginning in the 1940s, students arrived at local colleges to study. These students and their families, along with faculty members who taught the Korean language or other subjects at the local colleges in the late 1940s, formed the nucleus of Korean community. Korean women married to American military personnel and Korean orphans adopted by American parents following the Korean War began to arrive in the 1950s.

It was not until the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Koreans could immigrate freely. The Korean community in Washington state was still relatively small in the 1970s but grew dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to 1965, Korean immigrants in Washington state numbered slightly more than 1,000. By 2000, Koreans in Washington state numbered 47,000 according to the U.S. Census that year.

Many immigrants who came after 1965 had college education and started their own small businesses upon arrival. Others had professional training and entered the professions such as medicine and engineering. During the 1970s and 80s, Korean men worked as welders and pipefitters in the Todd and Lockheed shipyards in addition to smaller construction and metalwork firms; as much as 17% of the labor force at the shipyards was Korean.

Today, Korean Americans are concentrated in the Puget Sound area in large cities such as Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Spokane but also in suburban cities such as Bellevue, Shoreline, Federal Way, and Lakewood. Thousands of Korean women married to American military personnel and Korean children adopted by American parents live in Washington state.

Many community organizations have been formed by immigrants, including the Korean Association, Korean Women’s Association, and Korean Community Counseling Center. Christian churches often function as centers of community life. Koreans maintain an adherence to strong family values and devote much attention to maintaining family bonds. Today, the Korean community contributes greatly to the vitality of local economy and participates actively in the local social, political, and cultural life.

–Text by Robert Kim, Airyang Park and Kun Hong Park

Additional Articles (courtesy of HistoryLink.org):

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