Twenty-five years ago, Pongwon Kim turned his back on a successful life in Korea to bring his children to the United States. His greatest hope was that they would reap the rewards that their adopted country had to offer in business, academics, politics and culture.
Kim left behind a successful manufacturing company in Seoul, where his factories produced shoes and sponges, to open a mom-and-pop dry-cleaning business in Sepulveda, now known as North Hills.
At the time, the Kims were unaware that they had joined a steady stream of Korean families who were migrating to the northwest San Fernando Valley. But, 25 years later, the area has emerged as a significant population center for Koreans in Southern California.
About 1.4 million Koreans and Korean Americans live in the United States. The largest community, of about 350,000, is in Los Angeles County, where the population is centered in Mid-City’s Koreatown.
But as the Korean population has grown, mini-Koreatowns have sprung up throughout Southern California, in Hacienda Heights, Cerritos, Buena Park, Fullerton -- and the northwest Valley.
Koreans have changed the face of Valley neighborhoods such as Northridge, Granada Hills, Porter Ranch and Chatsworth, where signs in Korean and English announce the presence of churches, hair salons, restaurants and home-goods stores catering to Koreans.
Community leaders estimate 50,000 to 60,000 Koreans and Korean Americans live in the Valley. What’s more, the San Fernando Valley Korean Business Directory lists nearly 1,500 Korean-owned businesses in the area, including acupuncturists, liquor stores and doughnut shops.
“It’s a very popular area for Koreans because it’s not too far from downtown L.A., and housing, historically, has been relatively cheap,” said Charles Kim, former president of the Korean American Coalition, a national nonprofit based in L.A. “Of course, good education is one of the key factors.”
One of the surest signs that the northwest Valley has become a significant Korean hub came in 2004, when the popular Galleria Market in Koreatown opened a second store, in Northridge.
Today, customers from as far away as Palmdale, Valencia and Simi Valley visit the Northridge Galleria to purchase Korean food items such as kimchi -- a spicy pickled cabbage dish -- dried seaweed, herbal potions and sweet fruit sodas.
With the supermarket as the anchor, the busy strip mall at Reseda Boulevard and Devonshire Street also houses a hair salon with a mostly Korean clientele, a home-goods store that sells everything from rice cookers to sake sets, and a branch of a Korean bank that is based in Koreatown. A yogurt shop, gym, drugstore, Starbucks and other chain stores round out the shopping center.
Galleria officials said they opened their first store outside Koreatown after recognizing that the Korean population in the northwest Valley was booming.
“We heard there were lots of Koreans buying houses there and we thought it would be a good location,” said P.J. Kim, accounting manager for Galleria Market Northridge.
Although he declined to cite numbers, P.J. Kim said the sales volume of the new store has grown slowly but steadily over the years.
Joanne Chang, branch manager of Center Bank in the strip mall, said her company has been pleased so far with the local response to its services, including tellers and account managers who speak Korean.
When Center Bank officials were considering expanding to Northridge, they surveyed the local financial scene to assess the competition, she said. They learned that there were nearly 200 financial institutions, including mortgage lenders and national bank branches, in the vicinity. Still, the market was considered strong enough to open a branch, Chang said.
“There’s a lot of upper-middle-class Koreans and university graduates here,” she added. “We have a lot of confidence in this area. There’s a strong Korean community here. Having a Korean market in the area is a big part of the attraction.”
When Pongwon Kim’s family first immigrated to the United States, they lived in Koreatown for a year but moved to the Valley after a trusted family friend told them the area had good public schools. The family moved first to Arleta, then to Panorama City and then to Granada Hills.
The oldest child, Joseph, had already completed high school by the time he came to the U.S. at 19, but two of his sisters graduated from James Monroe High in North Hills and another graduated from Granada Hills High.
Historically, some of the highest-achieving schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have been in the West Valley, and that performance is fueled in part by Korean families’ focus on education, community leaders said.
For example, Granada Hills Charter High School, which has a large number of Korean students, earned an Academic Performance Index score of 816 last year, well ahead of statewide and district averages. The state index is considered a barometer of a school’s academic success.
“Koreans consider education their top priority,” Joseph Kim said. “They pursue education like there’s no tomorrow.”
Joseph Kim, now 43, has come a long way from those days as a teenager when he worked the large steam press in his father’s dry-cleaning shop.
A chiropractor with a thriving practice in Porter Ranch and Simi Valley, Kim also serves as an elder at the World Vision Church in Porter Ranch, whose 450 members are mostly Korean.
Joseph Kim, his wife and their three children share a home nearby with his parents in a multi-generation living arrangement common in Korea but less so among second-generation Korean Americans.
Joseph Kim said he likes living in Porter Ranch because it is racially and ethnically mixed. His neighbors are white, Korean, African American and Latino.
Community leaders said there is little tension and few race-related problems between Koreans and other ethnic groups in the Valley. “Everyone wants to pursue the American dream,” Joseph Kim said. “That’s why we’re all here.”