After the War With North Korea, Thousands of Koreans Moved to the U.S. and Made It Home

Stephen Miller on U.S. Immigration Policy
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller discusses U.S. immigration policy at the daily press briefing at the White House. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "The Pioneers" on May 26, 1975. In light of recent news regarding North Korea, Newsweek is republishing the story.

It's called Koreatown, a 2-mile stretch along Los Angeles's busy Olympic Boulevard, where 45,000 Korean immigrants have settled into new lives during the last five years. What used to be Mexican-American, Japanese and Jewish stores and businesses are now mostly Korean, with giant Oriental letters spread across their own-slung storefronts. Packed into the houses and apartments just off Olympic is a completed Oriental society driven by a mix of aspirations as American as Coca-Cola. Here dozens of Asian visions of the American dream are being played out, and here too may be some clues as to what will ultimately happen to the newest Americans, the Vietnamese refugees.

They are separate Asian peoples, but for years Koreans and Vietnamese have shared the business of being American clients. Both have sprung from societies fiercely and sometimes grotesquely imitative of the U.S. entrepreneurial drive. Both groups are heavily laced with professionally trained people: doctors, nurses, teachers, pharmacists.

Golden hopes

The Koreans came quietly—without helicopter lifts, lost gold and wrenched families. They had been trickling in ever since the Korean War. But a loosening of immigration quotas in 1965, unstable political and economic conditions at home and visions of golden streets and horns of plenty in America sent thousands to the visa offices. A total of 200,000 have come, with the biggest concentration settling in Los Angeles.

Slowly at first, then with a great rush, they marked out their community. Today, there are about 1,400 Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles, including gas stations, insurance agencies and travel companies. There are 58 restaurants serving Korean food, 150 grocery stores, 26 martial-arts schools, two Korean hospitals, exchange banks, nightclubs, academies that teach traditional Korean dance, and the Korean Philharmonic Orchestra. The community has five newspapers, two radio stations and even two UHF television stations that operate on weekends.

All that would seem to prove the Korean experience here a success and to be a hopeful sign for the Vietnamese. And Koreatown does abound with Horatio Alger success stories. Hi Duk Lee, 35, a university graduate unable to find work in his homeland, arrived in California with $50. Now he owns the most popular Korean restaurant and nightclub, complete with imported roof tiles and Korean paintings. When one Korean gets a job somewhere, it is often not long before the boss asks him to send around his friends too. Like Boy Scouts, Koreans are thought to be thrifty, clean and above all, patriotic.

Dark truths

But there is another, darker, side to it, one that Vietnamese will have to deal with, too. The Koreans have faced coldness and subtle discrimination, not only from white Americans but from ethnic minorities in the area. In terms of jobs, only one Korean, as far as is known, has ever filed a complaint with authorities. But that could be the result of Oriental face-saving.

The real crunch has come among the well-educated. Success has been achieved against the grain, by pluck or luck, and almost never in the field the person was trained for. Many who came with preferential visas as professionals needed in the United States found horrendous barriers when they finally got here. Many failed license examinations because of language problems and schooling differences. The California Pharmacy Board for instance, has yet to even set standards for Korean educational requirements.

Such problems, in fact, seem so insurmountable that many professionals have given up. Kong Mook Lee, a drugstore owner in Korea and now the still nonlicensed vice president of the 300 member Korean Pharmacists Association, finally quit his job as a lowly hospital lab assistant to sink what little savings he had into an iffy garment factory. "The only thing my wife knows in this country is sewing," he said in his drab but spotless fourth-floor factory in downtown Los Angeles. "The only thing I know is pharmacy. Pharmacy is impossible, so sewing is the only way."