Korean Immigration

Korean Immigration into the United States

Evan Sterling, December 2018

The population of Korean Americans in the United States today is around 1.8 million citizens, making the Korean community the fifth largest Asian American subgroup in the US.  The second largest population of Korean immigrants resides here in the United States, with only the People’s Republic of China consisting of a larger base of Korean immigrants, which includes over 2 million Koreans. [1] We are going to examine the process and timeline of how Korean immigrants came to populate the United States, including what their roles were and how the Korean War had an impact on policies and Asian immigration to the US as a whole.

The very first wave of Korean immigrants entering the US occurred in the year of 1903. Aboard the S.S. Gaelic, 103 men, women, and children arrived in Honolulu Harbor as contract laborers. The reason for the first wave of these Korean immigrants occurred because both Chinese and Japanese laborers in Hawaii would occasionally strike and halt production, in addition to generally being uncooperative at times. [2]

Although many of these Asian immigrants had similarities in where they came from, the differences between the Korean immigrants and the Chinese and Japanese immigrants far outweighed the similarities, which led to the Koreans assimilating faster than any other ethnic group residing in Hawaii. There were three things Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants had in common when they first arrived in Hawaii. The first was that many of them had been impacted in some way by the poverty of their native countries at the time. The second thing is generally most of these immigrants suffered the same harsh plantation lifestyle after they began work in the fields. Lastly, although they came from different native countries, they were all treated as the same race. [3]

As previously stated, the differences between these groups of immigrants when they arrived led to a significant variance in the outcomes of their lives years after initially immigrating to the United States. When first recruited to immigrate into Hawaii, most of the Chinese and Japanese immigrants came from rural areas and in contrast, most of the first Korean immigrants were recruited from cities. Coming from a more urban background many Koreans had already adopted Christianity, which only helped them when it came to assimilating later in the US. Another difference we have seen is that a majority of these Koreans immigrants had intended on becoming permanent settlers, mostly due to the fact Japan had annexed Korea. Of course, many Korean immigrants kept away from the Japanese due to hostile relations and sometimes these Korean immigrants were even used to breakup strikes against the Japanese workers. In the following years about half of the Chinese and Japanese immigrants had returned to their native countries, and only a sixth of the Korean immigrants later returned to Korea. A combination of an urban background and a permanent settlers mindset eventually led to Koreans speaking better English than the Chinese and Japanese immigrants and an overall smoother transition to Asian-American life in the states in later years.  Looking back, the two things that these early Korean immigrants were most greatly involved in was the active support of the Korean Independence Movement, to oppose the recent Japanese annexation of Korea, and also their enthusiastic participation in ethnic churches. [4]

Immigration to the US would be a mutually beneficial opportunity for Hawaii and the immigrants who came to seek work and an overall better life by providing for their families back home. For those immigrants who do not have families, or moved to start a completely new life, these wage laborer roles would provide them with a chance to start fresh with a new life. In the following years up to 1907, an estimated 1,000 Korean immigrants would enter the US continent itself hailing from Hawaii and traveling through San Francisco. Because their entrance onto US mainland first occurred in California, many of them would spread out and settle around the Pacific Coast area. Looking for ways to make a living, many of these new immigrants found roles to fill which primarily consisted of farmers, miners, railroad workers, and any other wage laborer role. [5]

In the year of 1910 Korea had been annexed by Japan as they were attempting to expand their agricultural and economic opportunities. This annexation essentially led to Korean immigration ceasing at the time, as Japan made radical changes in an attempt to influence their Japanese culture on those in Korea. Japan even went as far as to rename Korea as Chosen. Some of these drastic attempts included burning historical Korean documents, forcing Koreans to take on Japanese names as well as speak the language, and also forced many Korean businesses and buildings to be taken control by the Japanese. The annexation of Korea by Japan would last from 1910 up until 1945. [6]

About fourteen years later the United States would sign into effect the Immigration Act of 1924, which would then set quotas on the amount of immigrants that were allowed to enter the US at the time. This act was primarily aimed to reduce the amount of immigrants from European countries but it also banned essentially all types of Asians from immigrating into the United States. At this point Chinese immigrants and laborers were already barred from entering the United States due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. [7]

Following Japan’s surrender of WWII in 1945, Cold War tensions still remained as Korea had been divided at the 38th parallel. As North and South Korea both considered themselves the rightful government of the nation, conflicts around the border would lead to the start of the Korean War. [8] On June 25th, 1950 North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, officially marking the start of the Korean War. With the North Korean communistic approach, combined with support from other communist countries like Russia and China, South Korea gained support and troops from the United Nations backing their independence. [9] Of course, the real focus of the United Nations at the time was to do anything they could in order to prevent communism from spreading into other countries. The war itself did not last very long, involving back and forth fights between sides, which forced each other over the 38th parallel multiple times. In March of 1951, the forces of the United Nations leading to a stalemate finally liberated the city of Seoul, and two years later an armistice was finally reached. [10]

One of the most important and impactful acts came during the Korean War in 1952. Officially titled the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, this policy was also named after the men who created it, nicknamed the McCarran-Walter Act. First, this act ended any previous racial restrictions found in older US naturalization and immigration bills. Secondly the McCarran-Walter Act established a newer quota system, based on not only nationality but also religion. Lastly this act incorporated a specific preference system, mainly based off of emphasizing labor qualifications. [11] This Immigration and Nationality Act also sorted immigrants into three different categories: immigrants with high qualifying labor skills and/or relatives in the United States; typical or average immigrants that were not to exceed over 270,000 per year; and lastly refugees. One of the most significant outcomes of this act was that it finally allowed those of Asian descent to not only immigrate but also become an official United States citizen. This directly overruled the previous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as well as the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. [12]

Many people have pointed out how Cold War politics have had their own influence on the way immigrants, especially Asians, were perceived on immigrating into the US. At the time those who considered themselves anticommunist were encouraged to stay in the United States, and several acts would later pass to help refugees enter the US. The first is known as the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which granted about 200,000 different Europeans the right to immigrate into the United States. This act was soon followed up, and expanded, by the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. The Refugee Relief At of 1953 would additionally admit another 200,000 refugees from European, communistic countries at the time. [13]

There are two other pieces of legislation that primarily had influenced Asian immigration into the US. The most impactful piece of legislation on Korean immigration came when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act did not only repeal the National Origins Act of 1924 but also set a new immigration policy, which enabled more Asian immigrants to enter the United States. It took only eleven years after this act was signed for the population of Korean immigrants to exceed 30,000 in the United States. This led to the first Koreatowns being established, located in Los Angeles and Chicago. The second piece of impactful legislation was the War Brides Act of 1946. [14] This act allowed for alien spouses, natural children, and any adopted children of members of the US Army to enter the US in a non-quota based manner. Initially this act mainly benefited the Chinese immigrants until an amendment was made to the act in 1947, which then allowed for Korean and Japanese wives of servicemen to also immigrate into the United States. Additionally, the Alien Fiancées and Fiancés Act of 1946 had also extended those same privileges to Fiancés of war veterans. [15]

Since the first boat of Korean immigrants arrived in 1903 in Honolulu Harbor, many Koreans soon followed in attempt to evade the recent Japanese annexation of Korea in search of a new beginning. Coming from a more urban background than other types of Asian immigrants, in addition to being previously exposed to Christianity and bringing with them a more permanent settlers mindset, Korean immigrants had an easier time finding their fit in American culture in later years. Thanks to many different pieces of legislation and amendments, the population of Korean Americans continues to rise today.


[1]“History and Waves of Immigration.” Chinese Americans : Asian-Nation :: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues. Accessed November 19, 2018.

[2]Mune, Christina. “Korean Immigration Timeline.” LinkedIn SlideShare. April 07, 2010. Accessed November 19, 2018.

[3]Patterson, Wayne. Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii,1896-1910. Honolulu: Univ Of Hawaii Press, 1994.


[5]Images of Dissent: Transformations in Korean Minjung Art. Accessed November 19, 2018.


[7]“”Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Statement by the President Upon …” Accessed November 19, 2018

[8]History.com. Accessed November 19, 2018.



[11]U.S. Immigration Legislation: Public Law 78 – Extension of the Bracero Program. Accessed November 19, 2018.



[14]U.S. Immigration Legislation: Public Law 78 – Extension of the Bracero Program. Accessed November 19, 2018.


Further Reading:

Patterson, Wayne. First-Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawaii 1903-1973

Kim, Richard S. The Quest for Statehood: Korean Immigrant Nationalism and Sovereignty, 1905-1945.

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