Korean Americans: Religion, History & Culture

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
What caused Korean American immigration to the US, and what does the population look like now? This lesson focuses on the Korean American population, how they came to the US, what religion they practice and how their culture has survived.

A Brief History

Korean Americans are Americans who have Korean ancestry. Korea, known as Choson (Land of Morning Calm) to people native to the peninsula, is an area that has remained culturally isolated despite being subject to many different nations over its 6,000 year history. Sitting as an appendage to the mainland, it's surrounded by countries much larger and more militant. China is to the West, Japan to the East and the USSR (now Russia) is to the North. Thus, throughout its long history, Korea has faced invasion almost 1,000 times. This fact, along with frequent devastating droughts and food shortages, has caused the Korean people to migrate to other lands. As a matter of fact, the first Korean immigrants to the US were political dissidents.

Coming to America

Pre-World War II

Of course, Koreans originally emigrated from Korea to lands such as Japan, the Philippines and China that were closer at hand, but Koreans were eventually called to the United States. The first immigrants were political dissidents who opposed Japanese rule, but they were few in number. Eventually, Koreans came to the US for economic reasons.

Sugar cane was the largest cash crop in Hawaii, but maintaining and harvesting it was a brutal job: Hawaii has a notoriously hot, humid and tropical climate. Native Hawaiians, Chinese and Japanese migrants all worked in the sugar cane fields, but they all moved on to better jobs or went home.

In 1900, after Japanese and Chinese workers staged a strike, sugar farmers had to find another source of workers. They turned to Korea. The first wave of workers, over 100 of them, arrived in Hawaii in 1903, and within two years another 7,000 found their way to Hawaii. In 1907, Japan blocked further workers from going to the US, but they allowed workers' wives to emigrate. This brought about another 1,000 Koreans to Hawaii.

Post-World War II

Korean immigration to the United States slowed to a trickle following World War II because the US only allowed a very few people in, and South Korea discouraged emigration from Korea. However, after the Korean War, there were large numbers of military wives that were given permission to leave and many children were orphaned due to the war. Since the Korean War, over 100,000 Korean children have been adopted by US families.

Since that time, regulations have relaxed. America has welcomed Korean nationals, mainly those with skills, degrees and the financial means to enrich the US. The population of Korean Americans has swelled to approximately 1.7 million people since 1960.


Like many immigrants from other countries, the Korean population has largely concentrated in certain areas such as Hawaii, the West Coast, and New York City. The largest single concentration of Korean Americans is in Los Angeles County, where more than 300,000 Koreans live. People of Korean ancestry have generally been very successful in the US.

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