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Korean Americans

On January 13, 2003, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of Korean Immigration to the United States. Korean Americans have played a vital role in the shaping of the United States in the twentieth century. In 2003, Senate Resolution 185 stated:

“For the past century, Korean immigrants and their descendants have helped build America's prosperity, strengthened America's communities, and defended America's freedoms. Through their service in World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and other wars, Korean Americans have served our Nation with honor and courage, upholding the values that make our country strong.”

The centennial celebration of the first wave of Korean immigration to the United States provided an opportunity to reflect on the unique history of the Korean people, their lives and experiences in this diverse country, and their important contributions. 

History of Korean Immigration to the United States

Although 1903 is generally believed to be the first year that Korean immigrants arrived on United States soil, Koreans began coming to the United States as early as the 1880s. Philip Jaisohn arrived in the U.S. in 1885 as a political exile, and became the first Korean to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. He was a medical doctor as well as a major figure in the fight for Korean Independence in the United States. It is believed that three Korean men came to the U.S. as political refugees around the same time, but little is known about them.

Mass Korean immigration to the United States can generally been broken down into three waves. The first wave of Korean Immigration began in the late nineteenth century shortly after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Chinese immigrants were now banned from entering the United States, and Korean immigrant labor filled the labor shortage in Hawaii. The first large immigration of Koreans to Hawaii occurred on January 13, 1903, when 101 Korean immigrants on the SS Gaelic arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. (1)

The majority of these early Korean immigrants who arrived between 1903 and 1905 were young, unmarried, and uneducated males who worked as semi- or unskilled workers when they arrived in the U.S. They left Korea for several reasons, one of which was that wages were too low, and at that time in Korea, “The laborer was worse off than the beggar.” (2) Many men planned to return to Korea after they saved up enough money to live comfortably. In addition, some of these young men had already converted to Christianity because of the presence of Christian missionaries in their homeland who encouraged them to travel to Hawaii to enjoy religious freedom. Between 1903 and 1905, about 7,200 Koreans arrived in the United States.

These early Korean immigrants often worked on sugar plantations in Hawaii, and were subjected to deplorable working conditions. They worked in dangerous environments, enduring extreme heat for very little pay. On average, a male who worked for ten hours on a plantation made only sixty-five cents a day in 1905. (3) Many Korean Americans chose to leave the harsh conditions in Hawaii and head for the mainland United States where some became successful small business owners and others worked on rice plantations. However, most Korean immigrants to Hawaii developed communal living situations and forged close relationships with their fellow Koreans. The first immigrants to Hawaii established a Christian Church to serve the community, which acted as both a religious and social center for Koreans.

In 1907, the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” allowed for wives to immigrate to the United States to join their husbands who were already here. This initiated the famous “Picture Bride” system. By exchanging photographs, Korean men and women arranged marriages, and Korean men in the United States could bring their new brides to Hawaii. Weddings would often be held on boats so that the new bride would be legally married to her husband when she stepped onto U.S. soil. Between 1910 and 1924, over 1,000 Korean women arrived in the United States as Picture Brides.

Second Wave of Immigration
From 1905 to 1945, Korea was ruled by the Japanese Empire. Between 1910 and 1918, 541 young Korean political activists fled from Japanese rule, and arrived in the United States to continue in the struggle for Korean independence. However in 1924, the United States passed federal legislation that banned all immigration from Asian nations. Between 1925 and 1940 only about 300 Koreans were admitted with Japanese-issued passports. They were students who were permitted to remain in the United States so long as they took classes. (4) The second wave of Korean immigration would not begin again until 1951 and was a direct consequence of the outbreak of the tragic Korean War in 1950. The majority of these immigrants were women who married American Servicemen while they served in Korea or war-orphans who were adopted by American families. During the 1970s and 1980s, an average of 4,000 Korean war brides immigrated to the United States every year. (5) Today, it is believed that one-fourth of all Korean-Americans have family members that arrived as either war brides or adopted children. (6)

Third Wave of Immigration
The impetus for the third and largest wave of Korean immigration to the United States was the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965. This Act reformed immigration laws by abolishing the quota system based on race. Entire families could now immigrate to the U.S. and be able to establish permanent residency. This Act also gave preferential treatment to the families of permanent residents or U.S. citizens, so that Koreans in the U.S. could be joined by their families. Thousands of students and professionals left Korea for the U.S. between 1965 and the late 1980s. Korea became the third largest source for immigrants in the United States, next to Mexico and the Philippines. (7) In more recent decades, Koreans have come to the United States in search of educational and employment opportunities.

Modern Immigration
In the late 1980s, South Korea experienced a significant economic boom. Since then, Korean immigration to the United States has slowed, but Korean Americans still constitute the fifth largest ethnic group of Asians in the U.S., with a total population of over one million. (8) The majority of Korean immigrants to the United States today come for educational and employment opportunities. College education in Korea is extremely competitive and expensive, and many parents send their children to the United States for a more affordable education and better career opportunities. 

Life in the United States

Throughout the century of Korean immigration to the U.S., Korean Americans have made lasting and important contributions to this nation, and have done so in the face of discrimination and prejudice. In the early twentieth century Korean immigrants and Korean Americans were subjected to discrimination in California, and accused of stealing jobs. In many parts of the nation, restaurants refused to serve Asian customers, and violent gangs often targeted Korean Americans. (9) Laws such as the Alien Land Laws and other employment and housing segregation laws affected Koreans as well as other Asian immigrant groups. This is why many Koreans engaged in tenant farming and tried to open their own small businesses in predominately Korean communities, so as to provide for themselves and try to escape the prejudiced areas.

However, the Korean-American population persevered and has played a vital role in the American economy. As early workers on sugar plantations in Hawaii and rice growers in California, the agricultural economy boomed in the early 1900s from the hard work of Korean immigrants. In modern times, Korean American small businesses have played an important role in the economy, and inner-city neighborhoods are often revitalized when small businesses are established.

Korean National Independence Movement
The majority of the early immigrants to the United States planned to return to their homeland after they had saved money from working on sugar plantations. However, their dreams of returning home to their families were crushed when Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire in 1910. As social and economic conditions worsened in Korea, political refugees fled to Hawaii and to the mainland, and Korean immigrants rallied behind the cause of Korean Independence. In 1909, the Korean National Association was formed in San Francisco to harbor support for Korean Independence. This movement fostered unity among Korean-American populations, and some of the most important figures in the Korean Independence Movement continued their work towards independence in the United States, including Syngman Rhee, who would go on to become the first President of South Korea.

The drive to emancipate Korea also encouraged many Korean Americans to actively participate in and support the United States in World War II. The Korean National Association in San Francisco asked all Korean Americans to stand behind the U.S. by serving in the Armed Forces, purchasing War Bonds, or acting as translators for the U.S. Military. (10)

Role of the Korean Ethnic Church
One of the most important institutions for a vast majority of the Korean-American population is the Korean Ethnic Church. For many Korean Americans, church participation is a way of life. Over 75% of Korean Americans are active church-goers. (11) The early Koreans who immigrated to Hawaii in the beginning of the twentieth century had already been exposed to Christianity through American missionaries. Once they arrived on Hawaii, they lived together in very small, isolated communities. Social life in these communities often centered on the Christian Churches they established. This tradition has continued among Korean-American populations today. The Korean Ethnic Church serves as the most stable, inclusive, and important social, cultural, and educational institution in Korea-American communities. The Church not only serves religious purposes, but acts as a “reception center” for newly arrived Korean immigrants. Even immigrants who are not Christian prior to arriving in the United States become active participants because Korean Ethnic Churches are so active in their communities. 

Koreans in New Mexico

According to the latest census information, New Mexico is home to nearly 2,000 persons of Korean descent. There are several cultural, religious, and social organizations for New Mexicans to visit to learn about the unique Korean culture. The Korean American Association of New Mexico and other Korean organizations work to ensure Korean immigrants have the support they need in a new country and preserve Korean culture.

In New Mexico, the tradition of the Korean Ethnic Church is very visible, and these churches serve as a wonderful place to learn about Korea and the Korean-American community. There are several Christian Churches in Albuquerque that serve Korean-American communities. Sandia Presbyterian Church is the home of the Korean Language Ministry and the Asian Young Adult Ministry. Albuquerque is also home to the Korean Presbyterian Galilee Church, Korean United Methodist Church, the Korean American Albuquerque Baptist Church, and the Albuquerque Korean Church.

Rebecca Kim
Rebecca Kim is a Minister to the Korean Community for Sandia Presbyterian Church, and is in charge of the Korean Language Ministry. After graduating from a seminary, Rebecca Kim decided to leave Korea and come to the United States for a better opportunity for ministry. She first arrived in California, and ran a clothing store. She then moved to Albuquerque to run a small business, and became Principal of the Korean Language School in Albuquerque. She is now Minister to the Korean Community and head of the Korean Language Ministry at Sandia Presbyterian Church. Her husband, Yong Kim, is a Grandmaster and Instructor at the U.S. Tae Kwon Do Center in Albuquerque and Los Lunas.

Upon arriving in the United States, Rebecca faced many of the same challenges that other Korean immigrants do, such as learning how to survive in Albuquerque and in the United States. She said, “As an immigrant, I experienced many toils such as adjusting to a different culture, customs, language, etc.” This is why institutions such as the Korean Ethnic Church and the Korean Language Ministry serve such an important role in Korean-American communities. She explains that when new Korean immigrants arrive to a new place, they often want to see other Koreans, experience the Korean culture, eat the food, and hear the language of Korea. At a Korean Church, they can do all of this. Sandia Presbyterian serves as a religious institution as well as a reception center for newly arrived immigrants. Some of these immigrants are not Christian, but come for the community experience and the information to help them survive in a new culture. The Korean Language Ministry that Rebecca runs helps new students arriving from Korea who are going to schools in New Mexico develop their language skills.

Rebecca says that Koreans are very proud of their manners and respectfulness, especially to their elders. Koreans have a deep respect for their ancestors and work very hard to instill these values in their children. She is most worried that the importance of respect for all people is diminishing in the younger Korean-American generations, and she hopes that parents and the entire Korean-American community will come together to ensure these values continue through for generations.

Cultural Celebrations

One of the most important celebrations among Korean Americans is the Chosuk, or Harvest Festival, that occurs in August. This is also known as Korean Thanksgiving, and Koreans take time to commemorate their ancestors and be with their families. Family members from across the globe often travel back to their ancestral homes, and prepare special rituals and meals with their families. Special food is prepared, such as “Songphyun,” which are rice cakes made of rice, beans, sesame seeds, and chestnuts. Chosuk is a time to be with family and be thankful. Entire families will visit the graves of their ancestors and pay respects by offering them food.

Korean New Year is another important holiday for Korean Americans, and Koreans celebrate the Lunar New Year. This usually falls in the month of February, and is celebrated by feasting with family members and making offerings to ancestors, in the hopes of ensuring good fortune. It is also a time to reconnect with family members.

The Veterans Memorial Park in Albuquerque is home to a Korean War Memorial Monument dedicated to all those who served in the defense of South Korea in the 1950s. For Korean Americans, it is important to remember the tragic Korean War and all those who served.

Tae Kwon Do
The traditional Korean martial art is very popular and practiced by people of all ages in Albuquerque. It is the national sport of Korea, and believed to have originated around 50 BC. (12) Tae Kwon Do emphasizes discipline, accuracy, and power. There are two U.S. Tae Kwon Do Centers in New Mexico, and one in Texas. The owner, Grandmaster Yong Kim, is a nationally renowned champion and ninth degree black belt. The study of Tae Kwon Do is beneficial physically, mentally, and emotionally and aims to give students the tools needed for a richer and more rewarding lifestyle.


1. Won Moo Hurh, The Korean Americans. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998) 31.
2. Hyung-chan Kim & Wayne Patterson, ed. The Koreans in America 1882-1974: A Chronology and Fact Book. (New York: Oceana Publications Inc. 1974) 107.
3. Hurh, 38.
4. National Association of Korean Americans:
5. National Association of Korean Americans:
6. Hurh, 36.
7. Pyong Gap Min, Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues, Second Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006) 232.
8. Gap Min, 230
9. Amy Nash, “Korean Americans” Multicultural America.
10. Kim & Patterson, 45
11. Gap Min, 244.
12. Yong Kim’s Tae Kwon Do:

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