Korean Americans in King County

  • By Carey Giudici
  • Posted 5/31/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3251
See Additional Media

Korean Americans may be our least visible Asian American ethnic community. Yet this fast-growing population may also be one of the Puget Sound's most resourceful, energetic, and culturally rich immigrant groups. In three waves, beginning in 1885, Korean laborers, war brides, students, and professionals have gradually come to the United States. During the 1950s, Korean Americans became an economic force in the Pacific Northwest, with one-third of Washington's convenience store operators now of Korean descent. As of 2000, Washington was home to 46,880 Koreans. Many live in Federal Way, in Seattle's University District, in Shoreline, and in Tacoma's Fern Hill neighborhood. What they've brought with them to our region makes for a fascinating story that parallels their homeland's turbulent modern history.

A Rich Cultural Heritage

"..I am very glad for the sake of our country that we were pioneers in ... bringing the last of the exclusive countries within the pale of Western civilization."
--Commodore Robert W. Schufeldt, principal U.S. negotiator of the May 1882 Treaty of Amity and Commerce.

Proud of peacefully planting the American flag before a Korean tent at Chemulp'o [Inch'on], the good Commodore may have been the first American to underestimate the resourcefulness, tenacity, and independent spirit of Korean people. He wouldn't be the last. As Brian Lehrer writes in The Korean Americans, "Korean Americans have been virtually unknown in the United States for most of this century ... finally it seemed that each airliner arriving from Seoul brought another immigrant family."

Despite these new arrivals, and despite the presence of many Korean American citizens, Korean culture and values are a mystery to most King County residents, even those who do business with Korean merchants every day. Most have no idea of the richness of Korean cultural heritage.

National History

The first Korean kingdom, Choson, was established around 2300 B.C. Korea has an art tradition going back to Neolithic times, especially unsurpassed in pottery, which developed through several eras into the present day. Korean architecture was influenced by Buddhism that was introduced in the sixth century. Metallurgy became highly developed and took the form of gilt bronze statues depicting Buddhist deities, as well as burial crowns for kings. Later Confucianism had a strong influence. Korean language arts were highly developed and long before Gutenberg came out with his Bible, Korea had the world's first typesetter -- a Korean artisan who invented movable type. Christianity was introduced from China in 1784 and covertly propagated in the 1800s by French Roman Catholic missionaries.

Despite such an advanced civilization, the Korean peninsula may be, like Poland, more notable as a bridge for conquest than for its advanced culture. Residents of what Commodore Schufeldt called "the Hermit Kingdom" have had centuries of experience making the best of tough situations and hostile rulers. Korean records provide the first written mention of Japanese, while its coastal "kamikaze" winds generated powerful waves that sank a medieval Chinese navy's full-scale invasion of Japan. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945, which was bitterly resisted by Koreans.

Korean Americans: First Wave

Three waves of Korean immigrants have washed onto America's shores over the past century. Immigration trends reflect some of the personal, political, professional, and economic "winds" in Korea and America that have given our region an important and fast-growing Asian ethnic group.

In 1888, Philip Jaisohn was the first Korean to become an American citizen; four years later he was the first to receive an American medical degree. He lived and worked in Pennsylvania.

Soon after the turn of the century, the American Ambassador to Seoul, Horace Allen, suggested that Hawaiian growers use Korean tenant laborers to replace Chinese (unavailable after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), Japanese, and non-Asian workers. American brokers in Korea recruited the first group of some 100 laborers, each eager to discover the American dream for himself.

That first group arrived in Honolulu on January 19, 1903. During the next two years about 11,000 Koreans followed them. But it didn't take long for them to tire of backbreaking field work, and about 2,000 returned to Korea. Others came to the mainland, to Yakima, Washington, or found jobs at Puget Sound canneries.

But at that time, there were only a few Koreans living in King County. The 1910 Census listed one Korean living in Seattle, and this number had grown to 37 by the 1920 Census.

After Japan consolidated control over Korea in 1910 by calling Korea a protectorate, Korean independence became a rallying cry on both sides of the Pacific. Until 1916, Park Youngman established military academies in California, Hawaii, and several other states to start preparing for a military overthrow of Japan's colonial government. That same year, Japan tried to repair its international image by allowing 1,000 wives and "picture brides" to immigrate to America.

New organizations, such as the San Francisco-based Korea National Association, worked in parallel with Korean reformers who wanted more closeness between Korea's government and citizens.

By 1920 there were 20 Korean-owned hotels in operation around the United States.

Then in 1924, the U.S. Oriental Exclusion Act slammed the door on all Asian immigrants; it stayed mostly shut for about 40 years. Census figures counted 15 Korean Seattleites in 1930, and among 33 of "All Other Races" in 1940.

World War II: Koreans vs. Japanese

The Exclusion Act ended the first wave of Korean immigration. But Korean Americans continued to be active. Resentment of Japanese occupation boiled over during World War II. Under the 1940 Alien Registration Act, Japan's occupation of their homeland meant Korean Americans were forced to identify themselves as "enemy aliens" and Japanese subjects. For self-protection, many wore signs proclaiming, "I'm No Jap."

Eager to support America's war against Japan, they worked in the U.S. military as soldiers -- in 1943, Colonel Young Oak Kim, a highly decorated officer, was the first Asian American to command a combat battalion -- as well as translators and propagandists. They bought $239,000 worth of Defense Bonds. The Sino-Korean People's League even lobbied for the forced evacuation of West Coast Japanese.

Beginning in 1945, a decade of wartime upheaval triggered the second wave of Korean immigration. Thousands of North Korean Christians escaped communism by fleeing to Seoul when Russia invaded the north -- and many didn't stop until they'd reached America.

The Korean War lasted from June 1950 to July 1953. It began as a war between South Korea (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and quickly escalated into a limited international war, part of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Between 1951 and 1964, the majority of Korean immigrants included wives of servicemen, some of the 100,000 children orphaned by the war, and students. They looked for support to many local groups and churches. Immigrants in King County invested any earnings and profits into small community "banks" that offered micro-loans to newcomers.

Second Wave: 1952-1964

The McCarran-Walter Act amendments of 1952 allowed Korean-born immigrants to apply for citizenship, if only 100 per year. Yet more than 28,000 Koreans came to live in the U.S. between 1951 and 1964.

In 1952, Dr. Sammy Lee was the first male athlete to win two Olympic gold medals in platform diving.

In 1950, non-immigrant Korean residents of Seattle outnumbered immigrants 30 to 1; but 10 years later there were about 1,500 of each. About 3,000 war orphans were adopted by Washington families. And Washington colleges drew Korean students.

The Korean Church

Since the first Korean laborers disembarked in Honolulu in 1903, Christianity has helped Korean Americans stay connected. Korean Methodists in Hawaii soon opened the first church outside of Korea. Seattle's first Korean church was founded in 1962 by Chang Hei Lee (also first president of Seattle-Washington Korean Association). In 1987 -- 17 years after arriving with her husband and two children -- Rev. Jean Kim established "The Church of Mary Magdalene" to serve Seattle's homeless.

Even most "Americanized" youth today see their Korean church as a critical support system. As Shoreline high school student Esther Yu explained it, "The Korean church community connects more as a family than just a church. You don't just belong to a church, you belong to the whole interconnection."

Third Wave: 1965-present

By 1970, Washington's Korean American population was the nation's 12th largest, 769 of whom were living in King County. Ten years later, our state population had become the nation's seventh largest; 5,125 Korean Americans lived in King County and 2,199 in Seattle.

This third wave of Korean immigrants tended to be professionals advancing their careers, rather than individuals seeking decent wages or a new family. For example, in the late 1960s, Dan T. Lee became the first Korean licensed as a medical doctor in Seattle or Tacoma. Since 1984, Chang Mook Sohn has been executive director of the state's Economic Forecast Council and, according to former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, "a tremendous asset to our foreign trade efforts."

In 1965, Congress recognized America's need for skilled professionals and lifted national immigration quotas. Independent nations outside the western hemisphere were allowed to send up to 20,000 emigrants to join their families in United States per year.

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that President Johnson signed into law in October of that year was actually intended to limit immigration. Co-author Congressman Emanuel Celler (NY) stated: "Since the people of ... Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries, because they have no family ties in the U.S."

Immigration figures show that Congressman Celler hadn't looked closely at America's Asian population. In the year his bill passed, only 2,165 Koreans were admitted to the U.S. But between 1965 and 1980, 299,000 Koreans had emigrated. Between 1970-1980, the national Korean population increased by 412 percent; in King county the growth was 566 percent. Almost three out of four of these were men.

In 1971, Herbert Choy became the first Asian American appointed as judge to a federal court; he was also the first lawyer of Korean descent to practice law in the U.S.

Martha Choe (b. 1955), the daughter of Korean immigrants, became the first Korean American to sit on the Seattle City Council. She chaired its Finance and Budget Committee for four years and the Transportation Committee for two. In September 1999, Governor Locke appointed Choe to head the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

A 1980 community directory listed names and addresses of 1,110 Korean American Seattle residents. By the end of the decade, they would support about three-dozen churches.

Some Korean Americans got into trouble with the law as well. A 1974 Tacoma News-Tribune article reported the arrests of sauna owners on prostitution charges, including several with Korean names.

But most new arrivals were professionals who tended to buy homes in Seattle's outlying residential neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of choice in 1982 included West Seattle, Olympic Hills, Pinehurst, and the University neighborhood. Since then, Shoreline has developed into the major Korean residential area.

Not everyone stayed. A 1986 report by the International District Preservation and Development Association states that almost 30 percent of the area's Korean Americans have moved from here to California, and 10 percent have moved to New York.

Even with a strong community support system, Korean Americans were turning to outside service providers for help. Unfortunately, few professionals spoke Korean. In 1989, the International District's Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) served a total of 1,845 Korean Americans -- their second-highest client population. The agency cited the stress of these third-wave immigrants' unique experience.

In its Fall 1990 newsletter, ACRS states that about 40,000 Korean Americans lived in Seattle and King County (more than 80 percent of them foreign born) and noted their contributions to our region. "Most Koreans arrived here with money, education, job experience and a tremendous determination to succeed. Koreans have almost single-handedly revitalized neighborhood grocery stores and dominated such trades as dry cleaning, sauna and shoe repair."

ACRS mental health counselor Yoon Joo Han said she treated individuals of all ages, with problems from schizophrenia and major depression to marital conflicts and behavior problems in school.

Han said mental health professionals had to overcome the stigma Koreans attach to mental illness, seeing it as a sign of extreme physical weakness or as "the work of Satan."

Johsel Namkung

A Seattle nativeĀ from 1947, Korean American Johsel Namkung (1919-2013) had two very successful careers -- one as a singer of classical music, and another as photographer.

He was born in Kwangju, South Korea, in 1919, the son of a Princeton University graduate and first Korean professor at Pyongyang Theological Seminary. Since he grew up in a very international community, it's not surprising that Namkung gained a strong early interest in Western arts. He became a serious musician while still in high school. At age 16, he won first prize in singing at All Korea High School Concours, and at 21 the All Japan Music Concours.

In 1940, Namkung joined his family in self-exile from Japanese occupation in Shanghai. He was joined a year later by his Japanese fiancee Mineko. After the war, anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea prompted the couple to move to Seattle, where he enrolled in the University of Washington graduate school as the first student of the new Ethnomusicology Department while working as a scientific photographer at the university.

In the 1950s he embarked on a successful career as nature photographer, exhibiting at galleries around the world, in public spaces around Seattle, and at Seattle's 2001 Folklife Festival Korean art exhibit.

Youngsu "Rocky" Kim

On October 30, 2000, the Korean American community suffered the loss of one of its brightest lights, popular business owner and community leader Yongsu "Rocky" Kim, aged 50. He was found shot to death in his West Seattle gas station and mini-mart, like many of his countrymen doing more than he had to in supporting his family and community.

"He knew what it meant for his own kid (to see) barriers broken. So much of what he did focused on this generation," Martha Choe told The Seattle Times. Kim had been a tireless supporter of Choe's 1991 campaign for Seattle City Council.

Kim nicknamed himself "Rocky" proudly, because of the name's association with someone who survives and never gives up. Born and raised in South Korea, Kim went to Los Angeles in 1972 and moved to this state nine years later. The Northwest Asian Weekly named him the 1993 "Korean-American Man of the Year" and the Korean American Professionals Society gave him their "pioneer award" in 1996.

Kim helped found the Korean American Grocers Association of Washington in 1988 and served as its president several times. He later set up the Washington Association of Korean American Convenience Stores, both to advocate for Korean merchants' concerns.

Kim was the kind of active, visionary leader his community needs, focusing not only between Koreans and Korean Americans but among all communities, according to friends like long-time community leader Kun Hong Park. Kim served on the boards of numerous social-service and cultural agencies such as the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and the Korean American Professional Society.

A Thriving Community

Puget Sound has two Korean daily newspapers, Korea Central Daily (Joong-Ang-llbo) and Korea Times (Hankook llbo), founded in Seattle around 1980. They each have a daily circulation of 5,000 to 7,000. Koreans have opened many businesses in King County such as grocery stores, restaurants, and service shops, and have established numerous Christian churches. A nightly TV program broadcast on KOAM-TV from Federal Way provides Korean language soap operas and local news.

Koreans in Seattle and King County contribute to the area's economy and rich cultural tapestry -- a "minority within a minority." They may be more familiar as owners of dry cleaners or convenience stores than as bridge builders and artists. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the resourcefulness, tenacity and independent spirit of Korean Americans -- or their value as partners in community building.


"Countdown," Seattle City Light Demographic Profile of Asian and Pacific Islanders in WA, 1982; Demonstration Project for Asian Americans: Korean Demographic Profile for Seattle City Light, 1985; Brian Lehrer, The Korean Americans (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, c1996, 1988); Korean Culture Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 2 (July 1982); News Tribune (Tacoma) September 10, 1974, p. A-3; Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) Newsletter, Fall 1990; "Choe Won't Seek Re-election to Seattle City Council," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1999; Carol N. Vu, "Rocky Kim's Violent Death Shocks Asian Community," Northwest Asian Weekly November 2, 2000 (www.nwasianweekly.com); Keiko Morris and Florangela Davila, "Local Korean Leader Shot Dead," The Seattle Times, October 31, 2000 (www.seattletimes.com); Phuong Cat Le, "Spreading the News to Thriving Korean Community," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 2001; "Korea," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia 1983 Edition, s.v.
Note: This essay was revised, updated, and expanded on July 27, 2013.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You