PERSPECTIVE ON KOREAN AMERICANS : An Emerging Minority Seeks Role in a Changing America : A community battles stereotypes as it embraces the ideals of its new land while retaining the soul of the old.

<i> Edward Taehan Chang is an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside</i>

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles civil unrest of 1992, Korean Americans have emerged as one of the most misunderstood ethnic groups in America. The image of Korean American merchants defending their stores with guns sent shock waves throughout the country. As a result, Korean Americans are often perceived as “gun-toting vigilantes.” Before the civil disturbances, Korean Americans were often stereotyped as being rude, disrespectful and greedy. During the 1980s, Korean American merchants in several cities were accused of exploiting and oppressing the African American communities in which their stores were located, and African American leaders often led boycotts of the stores. Distorted images and stereotypes were constantly projected and reinforced by the media. Merchant-customer disputes were made into race wars in the media. Thousands of Korean immigrants and Korean-owned shops became targets of racism, looting and vandalism.

Once regarded as indistinguishable from Chinese or Japanese Americans, Korean Americans are now having to refute negative and stereotypical images that have been attached to them. Until recently, no one ever bothered to ask about the history of this emerging community--67.6% of whom are American citizens by birth or naturalization. No one seemed to consider that Korean Americans have a unique history, a deep culture and an abiding faith in America.

Korean Americans are often called the “new urban immigrants” because the majority of the community arrived in America after 1965. However, Korean migration to the United States began at the turn of the century. Nearly 10,000 Koreans entered before the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. That legislation virtually halted all Asian immigration to the United States. From 1950s to 1965, about 20,000 Korean orphans, war brides, students and diplomats came to the United States.

A history of racial oppression, economic exploitation and political subjugation characterized the early Korean immigrant population. Many worked as contract-laborers earning low wages, facing harsh working and enduring difficult living conditions without the possibility of upward mobility. Like other Asian immigrants, Korean immigrants were designated as “aliens ineligible to become naturalized American citizens.” What is more important, the early Korean immigrants were vulnerable to the same racial and economic exploitation experienced by other non-European newcomers.


The early immigrants were mostly young, single, uneducated males from rural backgrounds. The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act not only dramatically increased the number of Korean Americans but also changed the characteristics of the community. The Korean American population exploded from 357,000 in 1980 to 798,849 in 1990. In the post-1965 wave of immigrants, the population tended to be highly educated, family-oriented, middle-class or urban professionals.

Language and cultural barriers, overt and covert racial discrimination in the labor market and a lack of transferable skills force many highly educated Korean immigrants to be self-employed. A 1989 survey conducted by Eui-Young Yu, a professor of sociology at Cal State Los Angeles, revealed that 69% of Korean male heads of households are college graduates and 40% of adult Korean males are self-employed. The survey found that only 10% of Korean American-owned businesses primarily service African American clientele. The majority of these businesses are located in white (48%) and Latino (17%) neighborhoods.

There is no preference to enter into these businesses and Korean Americans do not receive special loans from the U.S. government. Immigrants utilize ethclass (a term encompassing ethnic solidarity and a shared middle-class background) resources to establish businesses in America.

Korea is in some ways a homogeneous society whose unity is deeply rooted in a common language, culture, tradition, custom and history. Yet, Korea is divided into two separate and hostile parts: a communist state in the North and a capitalist state in the South.


Koreans feel that they share a “history of suffering,” having endured one of the most oppressive measures to wipe out their race and culture during Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). To understand Koreans and Korean Americans, one must grasp the concepts of Han and Jung. These are two parts of the Korean ethos that distinguish Koreans from other Asian groups.

Han has no established English translation. The deep meaning of Han can only begin to be understood in feelings of resentment, bitterness, grievance or regret. Elaine Kim, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, translated Han as the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression. Koreans and Korean Americans often express that “they lived life full of Han” and developed Hwabyong, a disease of frustration and rage following misfortune. To release Han, Korean Americans work hard to make the American dream come true.

K.W. Lee, a prominent Korean American journalist, attributes the phenomenal growth and success of Korean immigrants to their shared experiences of Korean War and Japanese colonial rule. “For Koreans and Korean Americans in their late 30s and older, they always look back Korean War as demarcation point. The Korean War and suffering of Koreans became a point of reference and a source of energy.” Unaware of the shameful history of racial oppression of nonwhite immigrants and other people of color in the United States, Korean immigrants want to believe in the ideas of American democracy and freedom.

Jung is also a difficult concept to translate. It refers to a combination of love, compassion, sympathy and sentiment. Because of Jung, many Korean immigrants succeed or fail in business, social relations and even family relationships. Jung between people can be positive or negative, strong or weak, without reference to the amount of time shared between them. Jung is probably responsible for the dramatic increase of Korean immigrants to the United States during the past two decades. It compels Korean immigrants to bring uncles, aunts and distant relatives to the United States.


In the Korean American community, churches are the most important social, cultural, and economic institution. More than 70% of Korean immigrants are believed to be regular church-goers. Church is the place where newcomers meet fellow immigrants. Through church activities, Korean immigrants attempt to cope with the overwhelming sense of alienation, frustration, anger and helplessness they feel in their newly adopted home. Korean American churches tend to be conservative and evangelical.

Obviously, these are only a few of the pieces of the puzzle that non-Koreans can begin to gather to learn more about one of America’s most visible yet misunderstood ethnic communities--an emerging presence in an emerging new America. Understanding each other’s culture, history and people is the first step toward a truly multicultural and multiracial society. Multicultural education is a form of resistance to oppression for it can serve as a basis for forging coalitions between racial and ethnic groups. We are being awakened to the realization that we have a tremendous stake in the outcome of things being planned for Los Angeles and other large urban centers across the nation. The Korean American community can play a pivotal role in the social change taking place.