Korean immigration to the United States has been shaped by multiple factors, including militarization, colonialism, and war. While Koreans migrated to the American-occupied islands of Hawai’i in the early 20th century as sugar plantation laborers, Japanese imperial rule (1910–1945) and racially exclusive immigration policy curtailed Korean migration to the United States until the end of World War II. Since then, Korean immigration has been shaped by racialized, gendered, and sexualized conditions related to the Korean War and American military occupation. Although existing social science literature dominantly frames Korean immigration through the paradigm of migration “waves,” these periodizations are arbitrary to the degree that they centralize perceived US policy changes or “breaks” within a linear historical timeline. In contrast, emphasizing the continuing role of peninsular instability and militarized division points to the accumulative effects of the Korean War that continue to impact Korean immigration.
With the beginning of the American military occupation of Korea in 1945 and warfare erupting in 1950, Koreans experienced familial separations and displacements. Following the signing of the Korean armistice in 1953, which halted armed fighting without formally ending the war, the American military remained in the southern half of the Peninsula. The presence of the US military in South Korea had immediate repercussions among civilians, as American occupation engendered sexual intimacies between Korean women and US soldiers. Eventually, a multiracial population emerged as children were born to Korean women and American soldiers. Given the racial exclusivity of American immigration policy at the time, the US government established legislative “loopholes” to facilitate the migrations of Korean spouses of US soldiers and multiracial children adopted by American families. Between 1951 and 1964 over 90 percent of the 14,027 Koreans who entered the United States were Korean “war brides” and transnational adoptees. Since 1965, Korean spouses of American servicemen have played key roles in supporting the migration of family members through visa sponsorship.
Legal provisions that affected the arrivals of Korean women and children to the United States provided a precedent for US immigration reform after 1950. For instance, the 1952 and 1965 Immigration and Nationality Acts integrated core elements of these emergency orders, including privileging heterosexual relationships within immigration preferences. Simultaneously, while the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act “opened” the doors of American immigration to millions of people, South Korean military dictatorial rule and the imminent threat of rekindled warfare also influenced Korean emigration. As a result, official US immigration categories do not necessarily capture the complex conditions informing Koreans’ decisions to migrate to the United States.
Finally, in light of the national surge of anti-immigrant sentiments that have crystallized since the American presidential election of Donald Trump in November 2016, immigration rights advocates have highlighted the need to address the prevalence of undocumented immigrant status among Korean Americans. While definitive statistics do not exist, emergent data suggests that at least 10 percent of the Korean American population is undocumented. Given this significant number, the undocumented status of Korean Americans is a critical site of study that warrants further research.