The History of Korean American Immigrants
Education "the Main Thing"
Koreans in Hawaii seized educational opportunities with a passion extraordinary even by Asian standards. Most Korean children were enrolled in school immediately, and within a few years, over half attended private schools, eventually including a Korean boarding school. One youngster enrolled in Mills Institute in Honolulu in 1910, thanks in part to the twenty four dollars and fifty cents raised by Korean workers at Kohala, on the island of Hawaii. Another young student exalted education as a force for Korean independence as follows: "It is our duty to study hard, and one day we will set our country free."
The education of girls was valued on a par with that of boys.
The feeling was, "To regain our independence, we've got to educate people. Education is the main thing. We have to produce more educated people, more leaders."
The Korean National Association (Kuh Min Hur)
To maintain their identity and resist Japan, Koreans in Hawaii joined with Koreans on the United States mainland to organize Kuh Min Hur, the Korean National Association.
The Korean National Association took its own census. It issued certificates of membership. It collected contributions monthly that were called not dues, but "duty."
Building a Community
Through marriages arranged by exchanging pictures, the number of Korean women in the new settlement more than doubled. Many of the picture brides from Korea knew about Japanese oppression at first hand and zealously supported the Korean independence movement.
Helen Kim Griffin recalled: "My mother didn't get here until about 1915. And she had those early years of her life, where the Japanese had taken over. And they had to learn Japanese. And she had to bow to them, she had to be polite to them. For her and her family, these were invaders who had come and taken their land. And for years, anything Japanese was anathema."
Patriotic fervor created an ever-widening base of literate Koreans, resulting in no fewer than twenty Korean newspapers in the first wave of immigration.
Military Arm of the Korean Independence Movement
A bitter debate raged among Koreans over how to get the country back. Should they watch and wait? Or should they confront the Japanese with arms? The Korean community of Oahu created two camps to train soldiers who would, on some mythical day, fight Japan. Koreans also trained as soldiers in Nebraska and as combat pilots on Western states air strips. The largest military camp was at Kahuku on the north shore of the island of Oahu.
Armed resistance was promoted by a now-obscure figure named Pak Young Man, a solder who wrote as follows: "A person can survive an abduction by a tiger, and a defeated nation may not remain extinct forever, as long as its people keep alive their spirit of independence."
In his youth, Pak Young Man had been jailed as a dissident in Korea. There he took an oath of brotherhood with a fellow prisoner who was to become a major actor on the world stage, Syngman Rhee.
A Controversial Figure: Syngman Rhee
From jail, Rhee studied the history of the West, organized a library, and converted several dozen inmates to Christianity. He witnessed torture and death. He wrote a book called "The Spirit of Independence," which Pak Young Man smuggled to publishers in America. The book conveyed Rhee's steely determination: "If I look back to see if anyone is following me, it shows that I do not have a firm resolve - to die if necessary. If everyone thinks of their duties , nothing will then be impossible."
Freed after five years from his jail cell in Korea, Syngman Rhee quickly made his way to America. He earned an undergraduate degree from Georgetown, a master's degree from Harvard, and a doctorate degree from Princeton - all within five years.
He quickly settled in Hawaii to become a part of the largest Korean settlement in America. Dr. Yong Ho Cho'e, who researched Rhee's time in Hawaii, told this story: "Syngman Rhee would stand up and make a speech, you know, asking the crowd, "Do you want Korea to become independent?" They would shout, "Yes!" Then he would say, "It is I who will give you independence. If you follow my instructions, I will give you the Korean independence."
Another historian, Dr. Harold Sunoo recalls: "(Rhee was) Very arrogant. It had to be his way, or no other way."
Rhee watched and waited. He cultivated influential Americans, and systematically undermined those who differed with his viewpoint, including his "sworn brother" Pak Young Man, who left Hawaii in frustration in search of a fight in Asia. For many years the Korean community in Hawaii was divided between the followers of Rhee and Pak Young Man.
Patriot and Educator: Ahn Chang Ho
Meanwhile, despite America's crackdown on Japanese subjects moving to the West Coast, about two thousand Koreans had transmigrated to the United States mainland. They were organized around a towering figure of the independence movement, Ahn Chang Ho.
As in Hawaii, hard work and the pursuit of education blended seamlessly in the Korean enclaves of mainland America. Ahn Chan Ho set an example by enrolling in the second grade of American school, to learn English. He elevated laborers in the central valley of California to soaring heights of patriotic sacrifice telling them over and over: "To pick one orange with care in an American orchard will help our country."
The March 1, 1919 Non-Violent Protest
Change was in the air. As the result of World War I, the American president Woodrow Wilson raised his voice on behalf of the rights of all people and nations: "We are glad to fight for the ultimate peace of the world, for the liberation of its peoples, for the rights of nations great and small, and the privileges of men everywhere to choose their way of life .... The world must be made safe for democracy!"
Encouraged by Wilson's advocacy for the self determination of nations, an underground movement of religious leaders began organizing a non-violent nationalist movement in Korea. One was the Rev. Soon Hyun of Hawaii. The occasion for action came with the death of the deposed emperor of Korea, Kojong. On March 1, 1919, Koreans rose up in a massive nonviolent resistance to their Japanese colonizers.
Soon Hyun's son Peter was twelve that year, and eventually wrote what he saw in the streets of Seoul: "The chant of the crowd still rings in my ears , Man Sei! Man Sei! Long Live Korea! ... Out of nowhere the forbidden Korean flags appeared over the heads of the crowd as they roared, Man Sei!, again and again. At the risk of his life, a man stepped forward to read the declaration: 'We hereby declare that Korea is an independent state and that Koreans are a self-governing people. The spirits of thousands of generations of our ancestors protect us. The rising tide of world consciousness shall assist us. Once started, we shall surely succeed.'
"At first, the Japanese seemed stunned, but in the midst of our demonstration, I heard the bloodcurdling shrieks of the Japanese mounted marines, swinging their sabers, chopping people down like overgrown weeds.
"Screams of the falling and the felled pierced the air.
"I ran for my life."
In support of the demonstration, Korean immigrants in America converged on Philadelphia, where America's founding fathers had written their Declaration of Independence. The Korean "congress" was called together by Philip Jaisohn, the doctor who, long before, had founded the Independence Club in Korea. Independence rallies were staged by Korean communities in California, and in Hawaii as well. Syngman Rhee attempted to attend the Versailles conference, where world leaders debated President Wilson's new world order, but Rhee was rebuffed.
The great protest of 1919 was reduced to a government-in-exile in a Victorian house in Shanghai, China. Koreans wept, but the world did not.
Korean National Character
How did long-time suffering affect Koreans? Here are two views of Korean national character.
Church, Business and School
Ethnic churches played a key role in maintaining the Korean community in America. Churches sprang up everywhere Koreans had settled, from rural Hawaii to New York City.
The early settlers were quick to start businesses. Entrepreneurs gained a sense of autonomy and made profits that supported the Korean movement.
The Korean Language Withers in Korea, Lives in America
A Korean American baseball team returned to the Methodist Church at Inchon, igniting Korea's fascination with America's sport. To the astonishment of the visitors, they sometimes could speak the Korean language better than the Koreans themselves.
A student from Korea who stopped over in Hawaii wrote in his diary of seeing a Korean flag, not knowing that Korea had a flag: "When we told them that speaking of the mother tongue and native customs, including traditional clothes, were prohibited (in Korea), they wept."
Like other students of his time in Korea, Dr. Harold Sunoo was forced to learn Japanese. When he joined with other students in the underground Korean resistance, the Japanese police began watching their home. For his safety, his mother insisted that Sunoo migrate to America.
The Government in Exile
After the 1919 demonstrations, overseas patriots formed a government in exile in Shanghai, China. There patriots of many stripes - advocates of democracy, Marxists, guerrilla fighters, assassins - mingled with one another, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes vying for influence. Syngman Rhee was elected president of this Korean Provisional Government, but came and went from Shanghai in an atmosphere of conflict. He then settled down indefinitely in America, mainly in Hawaii. The revolutionary Pak Young Man was assassinated in China at age 47 as he was attempting to organize an armed force.
On one particularly bleak day in their Shanghai exile, the Rev. Soon Hyun's children were reduced to sharing a single bowl of noodles. They returned to Hawaii, where Rev. Hyun preached a gospel of salvation and Korean nationalism.
Rhee founded his own church in Hawaii, constructed in the shape of the Palace gate in Seoul.
In contrast to the divided opinions about Syngman Rhee, Ahn Chang Ho came to be seen as almost saintly. He was the prime organizer of Koreans in distant places around the globe. He last visited his family in California in 1926, before returning to Asia in service to the government-in-exile. He was captured by Japanese security police and tortured in the infamous Sodaemun prison in Seoul. His captors asked if he were released, would he still promote Korean independence? "Yes," he replied. "I consider eating an act of independence, and sleeping also an act of independence. As long as I live, there will be no change."
Ahn died in occupied Korea in 1938, comforted by his belief that Japan's aggression against others would be its downfall.
With Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, hopes rose among Koreans and Korean Americans that Japan would be driven out of Korea. On August 29, 1942, on the anniversary of Japan's annexation of Korea, Korean Americans organized a patriotic ceremony at the Los Angeles city hall honoring the Korean flag.
Although initially treated as "enemy aliens" from the Japanese Empire, Korean Americans were reclassified as draft-eligible by 1943.
During the war, the American government issued a stamp acknowledging Korea as a submerged nation, but in truth America had no clear policy regarding a post-war Korea. In the wake of victory in World War II, most Americans were still in the dark not only about Korean Americans, but about Korea itself. American troops rushed into the Korean peninsula to check the advance of America's erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.
The Cold War and the Korean War
The framework of events was all too apparent: The beginning of the Cold War that was to dominate American life for the next half century. As a result, Koreans who had dreamed of working out their own destiny were again dominated - by the United States in what became South Korea, and by the Soviet Union in North Korea.
Syngman Rhee, then 70 years old, was elected president of the South, and the American army withdrew. Misjudging America's resolve, North Korea attacked in the summer of 1950 and nearly overran the South. Korean Americans sent food and clothing, but for most people in America the Korean War was little understood, despite the spilling of American blood. The war devastated Korea and caused millions of deaths, ending on the 38th Parallel where it began.
The writer K.W. Lee described the magnitude of the tragedy: "I am the only one of my class who went to America before this holocaust happened. I returned to Korea in 1973, and my classmates held a reunion for me. And you know, sixty out of one hundred vanished. They died or vanished, fighting for both sides. And I felt so overwhelmed by a sense of sorrow. I was reminded of the American Civil War, brothers fighting brothers."
From the rubble, South Korea rebuilt in an amazingly short time and became one of the dozen or so largest national economies on earth.
President Syngman Rhee
Rhee continued to preside over South Korea, to the dismay of many of the old patriots of the Korean Independence Movement in America.
Having struggled from youth against Korea's authoritarian tradition, having preached "The Spirit of Independence," Rhee's regime nonetheless became increasingly repressive and dictatorial. Forced into exile in 1960, he returned to Hawaii.
Forty-seven years after his original exile in Hawaii, Syngman Rhee died at Maunalani Hospital in Honolulu, beneath a blanket that his wife had re-stitched. He was ninety years old.
Asian American Naturalization
In the climate of a Cold War often focused on Asia, Korean and other Asian immigrants were at last allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens in 1952. Lacking strength in numbers, even in Hawaii, Korean Americans progressed on the strength of education and hard work. By the 1960s, the Korean Americans of Hawaii, as the most identifiable descendants of the Korean pioneers, had become the most affluent ethnic group in Hawaii.
In 1965, the U.S. immigration law was made colorblind, setting off a tide of renewed migration from Korea to the United States.