Korean Americans

Korean Americans
한국계 미국인
Hanguk-gye Miguk-in
Total population
0.5% of the US population (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Los Angeles metropolitan area, New York City metropolitan area, Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and other major American metropolitan areas.
English, Korean
61% Protestantism, 23% Unaffiliated,
10% Roman Catholicism, 6% Buddhism[2][3]
Korean Americans
Hangul 한국계 미국인
Hanja 韓國系美國人
Revised Romanization Hangukgye Migukin
McCune–Reischauer Han'gukkye Migugin

Korean Americans Je-mi-gyo-po(Korean: 한국계 미국인, Hanja: 韓國系美國人, Hangukgye Migukin) are Americans of Korean heritage or descent, mostly from South Korea, with a very small minority from North Korea. The Korean American community comprises about 0.6% of the United States population, or about 1.7 million people, and is the fifth largest Asian American subgroup, after the Chinese American, Filipino American, Indian American, and Vietnamese American communities.[1][4] The U.S. is home to the second largest Korean diaspora community in the world after the People's Republic of China.[5]


Historical population

According to the 2010 Census, there were approximately 1.7 million people of Korean descent residing in the United States, making it the country with the second largest Korean population living outside Korea (after the People's Republic of China). The ten states with the largest estimated Korean American populations were California (452,000; 1.2%), New York (141,000, 0.7%), New Jersey (94,000, 1.1%), Virginia (71,000, 0.9%), Texas (68,000, 0.3%), Washington (62,400, 0.9%), Illinois (61,500, 0.5%), Georgia (52,500, 0.5%), Maryland (49,000, 0.8%), and Pennsylvania (41,000, 0.3%). Hawaii was the state with the highest concentration of Korean Americans, at 1.8%, or 23,200 people.

Korean Americans have achieved a high demographic profile in some U.S. cities, including New York City.

The two metropolitan areas with the highest Korean American populations as per the 2010 Census were the Greater Los Angeles Combined Statistical Area (334,329)[6] and the Greater New York Combined Statistical Area (218,764).[7] The Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area ranks third, with approximately 93,000 Korean Americans clustered in Howard and Montgomery Counties in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia.[8] Southern California and the New York City metropolitan area[9] have the largest populations of Koreans outside of the Korean Peninsula.[10] Among Korean Americans born in Korea, the Los Angeles metropolitan area had 226,000 as of 2012; New York (including Northern New Jersey) had 153,000 Korean-born Korean Americans; and Washington had 60,000.[11]

The percentage of Korean Americans in Bergen County, New Jersey, in the New York City Metropolitan Area, 6.3% by the 2010 United States Census[12][13] (increased to 6.9% by the 2011 American Community Survey),[14] is the highest of any county in the United States.[13] All of the nation's top ten municipalities by percentage of Korean population as per the 2010 Census are located within Bergen County,[15] while the concentration of Korean Americans in Palisades Park, New Jersey, in Bergen County, is the highest of any municipality in the United States,[16] at 52% of the population.[12] Between 1990 and 2000, Georgia was home to the fastest-growing Korean community in the U.S., growing at a rate of 88.2% over that decade.[17] There is a significant Korean American population in the Atlanta metropolitan area, mainly in Gwinnett County (2.7% Korean), and Fulton County (1.0% Korean).[6]

According to the statistics of the Overseas Korean Foundation and the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 107,145 South Korean children were adopted into the United States between 1953-2007.[18]

In a 2005 United States Census Bureau survey, an estimated 432,907 ethnic Koreans in the U.S. were native-born Americans, and 973,780 were foreign-born. Korean Americans that were naturalized citizens numbered at 530,100, while 443,680 Koreans in the U.S. were not American citizens.[19]

While people living in North Korea cannot—except under rare circumstances—leave their country, there are many people of North Korean origin living in the U.S., a substantial portion who fled to the south during the Korean War and later emigrated to the United States. Since the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 allowed North Korean defectors to be admitted as refugees, about 130 have settled in the U.S. under that status.[20][21]


One of the first Korean Americans was Seo Jae-pil, or Philip Jaisohn, who came to America shortly after participating in an abortive coup with other progressives to institute political reform in 1884. He became a citizen in 1890 and earned a medical degree in 1892 from what is now George Washington University. Throughout his life, he strove to educate Koreans in the ideals of freedom and democracy, and pressed the U.S. government for Korean independence. He died during the Korean War. His home is now a museum, cared for by a social services organization founded in his name in 1975.

A prominent figure among the Korean immigrant community is Ahn Chang Ho, pen name Dosan, a Protestant social activist. He came to the United States in 1902 for education. He founded the Friendship Society in 1903 and the Mutual Assistance Society. He was also a political activist during the Japanese occupation of Korea. There is a memorial built in his honor in downtown Riverside, California and his family home on 36th Place in Los Angeles has been restored by University of Southern California. The City of Los Angeles has also declared the nearby intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Van Buren Place to be "Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Square" in his honor. The Taekwondo pattern Do-san was named after him.

Korean-American football player in Chicago, 1918

Another prominent figure among the Korean immigrant community was Syngman Rhee (이승만), a Methodist. He came to the United States in 1904 and earned a bachelor's degree at George Washington University in 1907, a master's degree at Harvard University, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. In 1910, he returned to Korea and became a political activist. He later became the first president of the Republic of Korea.

In 1903, the first group of Korean laborers came to Hawaii on January 13, now known annually as Korean-American Day,[22] to fill in gaps created by problems with Chinese and Japanese laborers. Between 1904 and 1907 about 1,000 Koreans entered the mainland from Hawaii through San Francisco.[23] Many Koreans dispersed along the Pacific Coast as farm workers or as wage laborers in mining companies and as section hands on the railroads. Picture brides became a common practice for marriage to Korean men.

After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, Korean migration to the United States was virtually halted. The Immigration Act of 1924 or sometimes referred to as the Oriental Exclusion Act was part of a measured system excluding Korean immigrants into the US. In 1952 with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, opportunities were more open to Asian Americans, enabling Korean Americans to move out of enclaves into middle-class neighborhoods. When the Korean War ended in 1953, small numbers of students and professionals entered the United States. A larger group of immigrants included Western princesses married with U.S. servicemen. With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Koreans became one of the fastest growing Asian groups in the United States, surpassed only by Filipinos.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system that had restricted the numbers of Asians allowed to enter the United States. Large numbers of Koreans, including some from North Korea who had come via South Korea, have been immigrating ever since, putting Korea in the top six countries of origin of immigrants to the United States[24] since 1975. The reasons for immigration are many including the desire for increased freedom and the hope for better economic opportunities.

A wide range of Korean Americans

In the 1980s and 1990s Koreans became noted not only for starting small businesses such as dry cleaners or convenience stores, but also for diligently planting churches. They would venture into abandoned cities and start up businesses which happened to be predominantly African American in demographics. This would sometimes lead to publicized tensions with customers as dramatized in movies such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, and the Los Angeles riots of April 1992.

Their children, along with those of other Asian Americans, would also be noted in headlines and magazine covers in the 1980s for their numbers in prestigious universities and highly skilled white collar professions. Favorable socioeconomic status and education have led to the painting of Asian groups such as the Koreans as a "model minority". Throughout the 1980s until today, Korean Americans and other East Asian groups continue to attend prestigious universities in high numbers and make up a large percentage of the professional white collar work force including such fields as medicine, law, computer science, finance, and investment banking.

Los Angeles has emerged as a major center of the Korean American community. It experienced rapid transition in the 1990s, with heavy investment by Korean banks and corporations, and the arrival of tens of thousands of Koreans, as well as even larger numbers of Hispanics.[25][26] Many entrepreneurs opened small businesses, and were hard hit by the 1992 Los Angeles riots.[27] More recently, L.A.'s Koreatown has been perceived to have experienced declining political power secondary to re-districting[28] and an increased crime rate,[29] prompting an exodus of Koreans from the area. Furthermore, the aftermath of the 1992 riots witnessed a large number of Koreans from Southern California moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and opening businesses and buying property near downtown Oakland, furthering the growth of that city's Koreatown until the early 2000s,[30] although this Oakland neighborhood has also subsequently witnessed a decline in its Korean population, created by an exodus to other parts of the Bay Area.

According to Park (1998) the violence against Korean Americans in 1992 stimulated a new wave of political activism among Korean Americans, but it also split them into two main camps. The "liberals" sought to unite with other minorities in Los Angeles to fight against racial oppression and scapegoating. The "conservatives," emphasized law and order and generally favored the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. The conservatives tended to emphasize the political differences between Koreans and other minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics.[31] Abelmann and Lie, (1997) report that the most profound result was the politicization of Korean Americans, all across the U.S. The younger generation especially realized they had been too uninvolved in American politics, and the riot shifted their political attention from South Korea to conditions in the United States.[32]

A substantial number of affluent Korean American professionals have settled in Bergen County, New Jersey since the early 2000s (decade) and have founded various academically and communally supportive organizations, including the Korean Parent Partnership Organization at the Bergen County Academies magnet high school[33] and The Korean-American Association of New Jersey.[34] Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, within Bergen County, has undertaken an ambitious effort to provide comprehensive health care services to underinsured and uninsured Korean patients from a wide area with its growing Korean Medical Program, drawing over 1,500 Korean American patients to its annual health festival.[35][36][37][38] Bergen County's Broad Avenue Koreatown in Palisades Park[39] has emerged as a dominant nexus of Korean American culture,[40] and its Senior Citizens Center provides a popular gathering place where even Korean grandmothers were noted to follow the dance trend of the worldwide viral hit Gangnam Style by South Korean "K-pop" rapper Psy in September 2012;[41] while the nearby Fort Lee Koreatown is also emerging as such. The Chusok Korean Thanksgiving harvest festival has become an annual tradition in Bergen County, attended by several tens of thousands.[42]

Bergen County's growing Korean community[43][44][45][46] was cited by county executive Kathleen Donovan in the context of Hackensack, New Jersey attorney Jae Y. Kim's appointment to Central Municipal Court judgeship in January 2011.[47] Subsequently in January 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie nominated attorney Phillip Kwon of Bergen County for New Jersey Supreme Court justice,[48][49][50] although this nomination was rejected by the state's Senate Judiciary Committee,[51] and in July 2012, Kwon was appointed instead as deputy general counsel of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.[52] According to The Record of Bergen County, the U.S. Census Bureau has determined the county’s Korean American population – 2010 census figures put it at 56,773[53][54] (increasing to 63,247 by the 2011 American Community Survey)[55] - has grown enough to warrant language assistance during elections,[12] and Bergen County's Koreans have earned significant political respect.[56][57][58] As of May 2014, Korean Americans had garnered at least four borough council seats in Bergen County.[59]

Flatbush boycott

In 1990, Korean-American owned shops were boycotted in the Flatbush section of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. The boycott started by Black Nationalist, Sonny Carson, lasted for six months and became known as the Flatbush boycott.

Comfort women controversy

In May 2012, officials in Bergen County's borough of Palisades Park, New Jersey rejected requests by two diplomatic delegations from Japan to remove a small monument from a public park, a brass plaque on a block of stone, dedicated in 2010 to the memory of comfort women, thousands of women, many Korean, who were forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers during World War II.[43][60] Days later, a South Korean delegation endorsed the borough's decision.[61] However, in neighboring Fort Lee, various Korean American groups could not reach consensus on the design and wording for such a monument as of early April 2013.[62][63] In October 2012, a similar memorial was announced in nearby Hackensack, to be raised behind the Bergen County Courthouse, alongside memorials to the Holocaust, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Armenian Genocide,[57] and was unveiled in March 2013.[64][65] An apology and monetary compensation of roughly US$8 million by Japan to South Korea in December 2015 for these transgressions largely fell flat in Bergen County, where the first U.S. monument to pay respects to comfort women was erected.[66]

East Sea controversy

According to The Record, the Korean-American Association of New Jersey petitioned Bergen County school officials in 2013 to use textbooks that refer to the Sea of Japan as the East Sea as well.[67] In February 2014, Bergen County lawmakers announced legislative efforts to include the name East Sea in future New Jersey school textbooks.[68][69] In April 2014, a bill to recognize references to the Sea of Japan also as the East Sea in Virginia textbooks was signed into law.[70]

Sewol ferry tragedy memorial in the United States

In May 2014, the Palisades Park Public Library in New Jersey created a memorial dedicated to the victims of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry off the South Korean coast on April 16, 2014.[71]

Nail salon abuse

According to an investigation by The New York Times in 2015, abuse by Korean nail salon owners in New York City and Long Island was rampant, with 70 to 80% of nail salon owners in New York being Korean, per the Korean American Nail Salon Association; with the growth and concentration in the number of salons in New York City far outstripping the remainder of the United States since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Abuses routinely included underpayment and non-payment to employees for services rendered, exacting poor working conditions, and stratifying pay scales and working conditions for Korean employees above non-Koreans.[72]


Korean Americans can speak a combination of English and Korean depending on where they were born and when they immigrated to the United States. New immigrants often use a mixture of Korean and English, a practice also known as "code switching".[73]

Memorials and celebrities

A number of U.S. states have declared January 13 as Korean American Day in order to recognize Korean Americans' impact and contributions. Celebrities are named at List of Korean Americans.


In a poll from the Asia Times before the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, Korean Americans narrowly favored Republican candidate George W. Bush by a 41% to 38% margin over Democrat John Kerry, with the remaining 19% undecided or voting for other candidates.[74] However, according to a poll done by the AALDEF the majority of Korean Americans that voted in the 2004 Presidential Election favored Democrat John Kerry by a 66% to 33% margin over Republican candidate George W. Bush.[75] And another poll done by the AALDEF suggest the majority of Korean Americans that voted in the 2008 Presidential Election favored Democrat Barack Obama by a 64% to 35% margin over Republican John McCain[75] In the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, Korean Americans favored Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, around 59% to 41%.[76] However, there are still more registered Republican Korean Americans than registered Democrats. Korean-Americans, due to their Republican and Christian leanings, overwhelmingly supported California's constitutional gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.[77] According to a Multilingual Exit poll from the 2012 Election, 77% of Korean Americans voted for Democrat Barack Obama while only 20% voted for Republican Mitt Romney[78] The poll also showed that 60% of Korean Americans identify themselves as being Democrats, while only 14% of Korean Americans identify themselves as being Republican.[78]

On 12 May 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye apologized to a Korean American female intern and Korean community about Yoon Chang-jung US sex scandal during her first trip to the United States as a newly elected president.[79][80]


Korean Americans have historically had a very strong Christian - particularly Protestant - heritage. Between 70% and 80% identify as Christian; 40% of those consist of immigrants who were not Christians at the time of their arrival in the United States. There are about 4,000 Korean Christian churches in the United States. The Korean Presbyterian churches represent a large religious bodies, the Korean-American Presbyterian Church, the Korean Presbyterian Church in America,[81] the Korean Presbyterian Church in America (Koshin) (part of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Koshin)).[82] But the majority of Korean Presbyterians are members of the PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America, both have several Korean language Presbyteries across the country.[83]

There are only 89 Korean Buddhist temples in the United States; the largest such temple, Los Angeles' Sa Chal Temple, was established in 1974.[84] A small minority, about 2 to 10% of Korean Americans are Buddhist.[85] Reasons given for the conversion of immigrant Korean families to Christianity include the responsiveness of Christian churches to immigrant needs as well as their communal nature, whereas Buddhist temples foster individual spirituality and practice and provide fewer social networking and business opportunities, as well as social pressure from other Koreans to convert.[86] Most Korean American Christians do not practice traditional Confucian ancestral rites practiced in Korea (in Korea, most Catholics, Buddhists, and nonbelievers practice these rites).[85][87]


"Korean American cuisine" can be described as a fusion of traditional Korean cuisine with American culture and tastes.[88] Dishes such as "Korean tacos" have emerged from the contacts between Korean bodega owners and their Mexican workers in the Los Angeles area, spreading from one food truck (Kogi Korean BBQ) in November 2008 to the national stage eighteen months later.[89]

According to Chef Roy Choi (of Kogi Korean BBQ fame), sundubu jjigae was a dish developed by Korean immigrants in Los Angeles.

Often, chefs borrow from Korean flavors and preparation techniques that they will integrate it into the style they are most comfortable with (whether it be Tex-Mex, Chinese, or purely American). Even a classic staple of the American diet, the hamburger, is available with a Korean twist – bulgogi (Korean BBQ) burgers.

With the popularity of cooking and culinary sampling, chefs, housewives, food junkies, and culinary aficionados have been bolder in their choices, favoring more inventive, specialty, and ethnic dishes. Already popular in its subset populations peppered throughout the United States, Korean food debuted in the many Koreatowns found in metropolitan areas including in Los Angeles; Queens and Manhattan in New York City; Palisades Park[90] and Fort Lee[91][92] in Bergen County, New Jersey; Annandale, Virginia; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Dallas; and Chicago. Korean cuisine has unique and bold flavors, colors, and styles; these include spicy oddities (kimchi, kaktugi, sam jang), long fermented pastes (gochujang, ganjang, doenjang), noodle dishes (ramen and naengmyun), and fish cakes and raw seafood concoctions (raw octopus tentacles in spicy sauce, freshly halved sea urchin).

Broad Avenue in Bergen County's Palisades Park Koreatown in New Jersey has evolved into a Korean dessert destination as well;[93][94] while a five-mile long "Kimchi Belt" has emerged in the Long Island Koreatown.[95]

Korean coffeehouse chain Caffe Bene, also serving misugaru, has attracted Korean American entrepreneurs as franchisees to launch its initial expansion into the United States, starting with Bergen County, New Jersey and the New York City Metropolitan Area.[96]

Illegal immigration

In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that there were two hundred and thirty thousand (230,000) "unauthorized immigrants" born in South Korea; they are the seventh largest nationality of illegal immigrants behind those from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines, and India.[97]

Notable Americans of Korean descent

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