South Korea

El Salvador
South Korea

South Korea

by Rani Chandran

Context for Korean Immigration


History and Government

Known to its people as Choson ( Land of the Morning Calm), undivided Korea’s history stretches 5000 years back. The word Korea comes from the Koryo dynasty, which made great artistic, literary and scientific advancements during its 400-year rule from 936-1392 A.D. In the 16th and 17th centuries, frequent attacks by Japan left the country weakened. However, this was also the period when western scientific influences began to impact Korea through China. For two centuries, China and Japan fought to control Korea. The defeat of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 diluted Chinese dominance over Korea. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea.

During the 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, the country was modernized along western lines. But it was also subject to economic and cultural imperialism. Inevitably, discontent led to demonstrations against the Japanese government and a movement to free the nation began to take form. Korean nationalists living abroad supported guerrilla tactics against the Japanese. One of them, Syngman Rhee, living then in the United States, would later be chosen South Korea’s first President. During World War II, though Koreans were put to work on Japanese war efforts, the provisional government created by the nationalists declared war on Japan. The allied victory in 1945 ended Japanese colonialism, but the occupation of Pyongyang and other northern cities by the Soviet Union created a divided nation.

In 1948, with the support of the United States, the Republic of Korea was founded south of the 38th parallel. The period of trauma, however, was not over. In 1950, North Korea attacked the southern republic. A bitter and bloody war followed for three years until an armistice was signed in 1953. The peninsula continued to be divided into two nations – democratic South Korea and Communist North Korea. Thousands of families were separated. All attempts to re-unify the two nations have been unsuccessful. However, recent events have led Korea-watchers to be cautiously optimistic that a reunification will materialize. The Republic of Korea is currently headed by President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Lee Han Dong.



The war-torn economy was rebuilt with the help of the U.S. With a strong centralized executive, the nation since 1948 has moved from a predominantly rural to a highly sophisticated industrial economy. Its exports range from automobiles and ships to electronic goods. The economic crisis that hit Asian countries in the late 1990s severely affected South Korea too. Since 1999, however, the Republic has rallied significantly. With a GDP of $584.7 billion and a per capita income of about $ 12,000, the republic is one of the wealthiest economies on the Pacific Rim. However, economic problems persist due to a legacy of monopolistic control of major industries. The process of reform has been slow and painful.



Korean immigration to the U.S. can be traced to 1903 when Hawaiian sugar plantation owners offered employment to Korean nationals. Between 1907 and World War II, wives of the Korean immigrants, political refugees and students formed the bulk of the entrants. In the post World War years, restriction of emigration by the Korean government and the quota system created by the U.S Office of Immigration kept Korean inflow at very minimal levels. The Immigration Act of 1965, which replaced the quota system with a preference system where priority in immigration was given to immigrant family members and to professionals, allowed a wave of educated, skilled Korean professionals to enter the U.S. The largest number settled in California.


Social Characteristics of the Korean People


Ethnic & Religious Diversity

Koreans form a homogenous ethnic group. Shamanism is the country’s oldest religion. Today, around 48% are Christian, 48% Buddhist and the rest belong to faiths such as Confucianism and Chondogyo (religion of the Heavenly way).


Family Life

Extended families and tradition are pivotal to Koreans whose Confucian principles place elders in high regard and grant the male the role of a strong family head. The strong ties of kinship are reflected in the help accorded to family members in their immigration and settlement process as well in the care for elderly parents who often live with their children. Traditional Korean families displayed strong control over children and decisions regarding their future were often the domain of parental responsibility. Though this has changed considerably today, filial piety, or respect for one’s elders and obedience to their wishes, remains an important expectation in Korean families


Health Care Practices

While western medicine is undoubtedly the most widely practiced and accepted system, herbal therapies and acupuncture are also popular. Traditional Korean belief was that illness is caused by imbalance of hot and cold and by disharmony in nature and environment. The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs coordinated efforts with employers and insurance firms to achieve its goal of making medical security (medical insurance and medical aid) available to the entire population by 1991. For low-income groups, the Free and Subsidized Medical Aid Program was set up. Today all Koreans are covered by health insurance.


Educational System

Education is highly valued and providing higher education for children is a major goal for parents. The educational system in Korea has been influenced by the U.S. model and consists of universal six-year elementary school, three-year middle school, and three-year high school. The four-year college program is not universal but is highly desired. As a result of the standardization policy of the government, a single entrance examination is conducted for admission to institutions of higher education. However, competition for admissions to college is extremely intense and only a small percentage go on to college.


Koreans in Santa Clara County



A survey of Korean recipients of public benefits reveals interesting data on these Koreans in Santa Clara County. Almost 58% were residents of San Jose. The average age of the respondents was 57 years and the mean for the length of stay in the county was seven years. Approximately 27% had 15-16 years of schooling and the average household had three members. The total annual income of 83% of the survey respondents was $ 30,000 or less.


Social Customs


Interpersonal Communication

Like most Asians, Koreans treat elders with deference. Hence, tone alters when instructions are given to the old and to the young. It is also considered rude to direct the sole of one’s foot towards another person. Direct eye contact is avoided when speaking to strangers or superiors.


Emotional Support

Relationships with family and friends seem to be close. Around 40% of respondents stated that they would turn to a spouse or friend if they had an emotional problem. In households with children under 12 years of age, mothers appeared to be the primary caregiver (32%) followed by grandparents (21%).



Most Koreans today wear modern western clothes both in the U.S. and in their native country. But traditional holidays are times when Korean women wear a chi-ma and cho-gori, a long skirt and jacket. Men don long white coats and paji, or baggy trousers.



While some of the ingredients of Korean food such as tofu and soy sauce may be similar to those of Chinese and Japanese cuisines, the Korean palate demands greater seasoning with garlic, sesame, and pepper to balance the blander components such as noodles, rice and barley. Kimchi, the national dish, is a spicy pickle made of cabbages, turnips and radishes. A Korean meal is traditionally eaten with chopsticks.


Religious Traditions and Holidays

Koreans preserve their cultural identity through community gatherings at Korean churches and Korean language schools. Approximately 89% of respondents participate in religious organizations. The celebration of the Chinese New Year, called Sol, involves feasts, kite-flying and rituals to ward off evil spirits. Chusok is a time of Thanksgiving for plentiful harvests and a time to prepare kimchi for the coming winter. A child’s first birthday is also celebrated with great festivity. Korean Christians also observe major Christian holidays.


Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top five needs of public benefits respondents in order of priority were medical care (83%), dental care (71%), eye care (70%), learning more English (57%) and food (48%).

In the focus group discussion, the top five needs identified were health insurance, housing, language assistance, community activities targeted towards Korean youth and family, and the need for a community service center. Focus group participants stressed the need for more bilingual workers and for pamphlets and brochures to be translated into Korean.



Focus group participants indicated that they sometimes feel discriminated against because of their racial and cultural background.


Barriers to Services, Education, and Benefits

Around 79% of the respondents attributed their inadequate knowledge of English to their inability to obtain the services and benefits available in the county while 26% felt that they lacked information on these issues.


Employment & Working Conditions


Occupational Data and Barriers

Focus group members pointed out that their limited English skills proved to be an obstacle in securing jobs commensurate with their education and professional training. A suggestion offered was that the immigrant could be given a small allowance so that he/she can attend job training or language classes. Often even information on these classes becomes difficult to access since it is conveyed only in English.


Working Conditions

A large number seem to belong to single income families with the earning member working an average of 36 hours per week. Many work for a single employer and do not always receive employment benefits such as medical benefits, sick leave, paid vacation, retirement or pension plans.


Small Businesses

While Korean immigrants have traditionally taken to running small businesses, the major obstacles they face are inadequate knowledge of English, lack of translation of business material, and getting a loan.


Public Benefits in the Korean Community


Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

About one-third of all Korean respondents receiving public benefits knew the SSI requirements and most considered the benefit level to be adequate. In contrast, there was almost no awareness of requirements for CalWORKs. MediCal requirements were familiar to most respondents and the amount was considered adequate.


Culturally Competent Services

A large number considered that they were treated with respect by the county workers for CalWORKs (70%), MediCal (95%) and food stamps (50%). About 79% of respondents felt that MediCal agency staff communicated well with them. The corresponding figures for CalWORKs and food stamps were 50% and 55%, respectively. However, they indicated that agency staff for CalWORKs and food stamps did not always know about their cultural background. While written materials, phone calls and orientation sessions for MediCal used a language that they understood, this was not the case for food stamps and CalWORKs.


Educational Access in Santa Clara County


K-12 Education

Approximately 36% of those surveyed had children under 18 in school. They were evenly divided on the issue of whether their children should be taught in English and Korean, English and another language, or English only.



Developing linguistic skills in English is an acute need for most immigrants. The survey bore this out with 36% rating their English skills as poor and another 36% stating that they had no English skills. Respondents felt that English was particularly important for daily living situations (74%) while 37% felt that it was also critical for employment and being involved in the community.


Citizenship & Voter Participation

Of the respondents, 24% were naturalized U.S. citizens. With regards to services required for U.S. citizenship, 47% needed help filling out the application forms, another 47% wanted English literacy classes in Korean before learning English, and about 27% wanted disability waiver information.

In general, Koreans have more than doubled their voter participation in the last ten years in Santa Clara County. The 540 Korean voters in the November 1990 election increased to 1,300 Korean voters in the March 2000 election. As of December 2000, there were 4,937 registered Korean voters in Santa Clara County.


Communication & Outreach in the Korean Community

Most Korean homes have a TV (92%), a telephone (96%) and a VCR (79%). Not surprisingly, Korean TV was the source for important information for 54% of the respondents while 42% listed friends and newspapers in Korean and 33% listed family as significant sources.


Koreans in Action: Chong Moon Lee

To Koreans in the U.S., Chong Moon Lee is a legend in his own lifetime. This native of Seoul, South Korea is today a captain of the Bay Area’s high-tech industry, a committed philanthropist and a recognized leader of the Asian American Community. He is currently Chairman and CEO of AmBex Venture Group, LLC, and Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. His skillful stewardship of these organizations brought him the Cyril Business Leadership award from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and the Excellence 2000 award as Asian-American man of the year in 1995 from the Asian American Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C.

Lee has been an active participant and a philanthropist in the local community. He donated 1 million dollars in 1993 and another 15 million dollars in 1995 to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the largest Asian art museum outside Asia. The Los Angeles Times named him America’s 21st ranked philanthropist (December 25, 1996). He is actively involved in the DARE Program in Santa Clara County, while also serving as an honorary deputy sheriff for Santa Clara County. He is a Board member of the American Red Cross in Santa Clara. Lee is also a founding member and Board of Director of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. Lee took a pioneering role in organizing the inaugural U.S. and Asia/Pacific Information Technology Summit. The IT Summit has now become an annual event in the Silicon Valley.

Lee has received accolades for outstanding leadership in the business and civic areas, including the Key to the City of San Francisco. He is a Consulting Professor at the Asia Pacific Research Center of Stanford University and holds an Honorary Doctorate of Economics and Public Service from John F. Kennedy University, an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the University of Seoul, an MBA equivalent from Korea University in Seoul, an M.S. in Library Science from George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN., and an L.L.B. degree from the law school of Chung Ang University.

His life continues to be packed with activity. He is fond of saying, “there are 50-year old men and then there are 70-year young men”. He is living proof of the latter.