Brief Historical Background of the Korean Diaspora

The first Korean immigrants to America landed in Hawaii as early as 1903. Although the first wave of immigrants were plantation workers in Hawaii, from 1906-1920, a number of privileged young intellectuals came to the mainland to study—the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, was one such example, earning a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. Many from this group went back to Korea and became leaders of the independence movement against Japanese occupation.

The 1924 Immigration Act after WWI severely limited Asian immigration for the next few decades. But with Japanese defeat in WWII, Korea finally gained its independence. During the period of fledgling democracy in South Korea, another wave of students came to America. The initial foundation of this movement was a result of American Christian missions that had established educational institutions in Korea as well as churches that provided scholarships for promising Korean students to continue their studies in the States. In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53), as U.S. and South Korean geopolitical ties became stronger, new, secular sources of funding expanded opportunities for Korean students to study in America. For example, in 1953, the Yenching Institute, an independent foundation at Harvard University dedicated to promoting higher education in Asian studies, began offering fellowships to Korean post-doctoral scholars. Between 1945 and 1965, approximately 6,000 Korean students came to study in U.S. colleges and universities. In 1965, a sea change in American immigration law opened the door to a new wave of Korean immigration to the United States, consisting mostly of nuclear families with a long-term view of residency. Since then, sizable Korean communities have developed in America’s major cities. One 2010 estimate puts the Korean population at over 1.8 million.[1]

Korean Diaspora in Boston: 1950-1964
Korean intellectuals who came to study in Boston during this period lived through a time of great change both in the United States and Korea. Following World War II, both the United States and Korea emerged to new positions in the world and struggled with internal conflicts that reflected their changed geopolitical roles. The United States became a dominant world power and constructed a new international order designed to contain and oppose Communist regimes around the world. Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation to become not one, but two new countries, infamously divided along the 38th parallel. Although most Americans saw their new role in the world to be promoters of freedom and democracy, the United States struggled with these very issues domestically as African Americans fought to secure rights of access to public accommodations and political participation. Those often violent conflicts for civil rights, however, paled in comparison to conflicts in Korea at the time. From 1950 to 1953, a proxy war raged in Korea between the United States, its South Korean and international allies and North Korea and its Communist allies of the Soviet Union and China. Even after active fighting stopped, South Koreans continued to live under the domestic turmoil of autocratic regimes, student uprisings, and military rule.

Research into Korean students in Boston provides invaluable insights into the dynamics between cross-cultural identity and socio-political history. Specifically, the project is meaningful for a number of reasons. First, the impact that this group had both in America and Korea cannot be understated. Faced with the ravages of the Korean War and the reconstruction of their country many of these individuals stayed in the U.S. as professionals such as professors, doctors, and engineers. Those who returned to Korea often played important roles in the development of Korean society. Second, war and political turbulence at home and social marginalization in the United States prompted these expatriates to form the foundations of Korean Studies in America. For instance, the Korea Institute of Boston was founded in 1953 to promote positive images of Korean culture and Korean identity to both Koreans and Americans. In time, the Korea Institute would move to New Haven, Connecticut, to become the East Rock Institute. Third, the stories from this immigrant community offer an absorbing narrative of cultural adaptation, adversity, and success. They initiated and built a network of relationships that would prove to be long-lasting and far-reaching. For example, in 1953, a group started the area’s first Korean church at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel to address the spiritual and practical needs of the Korean community. Not only did the church become a center for dealing with life issues, such as illnesses, injury and financial struggles, but it also facilitated the formation of friendships, marriages, and families. Consistent with many Korean Diaspora communities, the church would come to serve as a crucial bridge to help new immigrants assimilate and cope with issues related to cross-cultural adjustments.

The research is categorized roughly into three sections: individuals, institutions, and issues. Key themes the site will address include: historical background and the birth of the Korean diaspora community in Boston; cultural engagement of the first Koreans in Boston (unearthing important events, episodes and news material relating to the period); important institutional developments of the Korean community; and key people and their influence on the Korean diaspora community.

“Family and friends of Dr. Hesung C. Koh gathered to celebrate Dr. Koh’s 60th birthday in front of 251 Dwight Street, New Haven, home of the East Rock Institute, summer, 1989.” Howard Kyongju Koh, ed. Hesung Chun Koh: Essays in Honor of Her Hwegap, 1989. New Haven: East Rock Press, 1992
“Family and friends of Dr. Koh gathered to celebrate Dr. Koh’s 60th birthday in front of 251 Dwight Street, New Haven, home of the East Rock Institute, summer, 1989.” Howard Kyongju Koh, ed. Hesung Chun Koh: Essays in Honor of Her Hwegap, 1989. New Haven: East Rock Press, 1992

An additional section will serve as an in-depth case study into the life and roles of the Ko family as leading representatives of the Korean diaspora experience during this period. Dr. Ko Kwang-lim and Dr. Ko Hyeseong-Cheon serve as important links in connecting many of the scattered dots in the vast landscape of this research project. They were pioneers in their efforts to research and introduce Korean culture to American society. Their efforts resulted in the formation of the Korean American Society, which was developed through weekly meetings at the Ko home, where Koreans came to discuss important topics while enjoying Korean food and hospitality. The Ko’s were also instrumental in founding the first Korean church in Boston, which is symbolic of the foundational role faith, family, and friends play in Korean diaspora communities. Thus, the indispensable roles of the Ko’s as social glue to the community will be highlighted throughout the project. Dr. Ko Hyeseong-Cheon remains one of the foremost experts in Korean Studies globally and continues to exert her impact and presence in the field though her efforts at ERI. To her and the East Rock Institute the research is greatly indebted.

Lastly, Boston University figures prominently as an institutional facilitator to many of the developments during this time. Both Dr. Ko Kwang-lim, who taught at Boston University’s School of Law, and Dr. Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, who did her doctoral studies in Sociology and Anthropology at Boston University, have ties to the school. As mentioned above, the first Korean church in Boston held its inaugural worship service at Marsh Chapel. In particular, the School of Theology produced many important graduates during this period. Therefore, the project will feature several well-known alums and shine a spotlight on the importance of the role Boston University played in their lives.


[1] Edward Taehan Chang, “Korean Kaleidoscope: An Overview of Korean Immigration to the U.S,” inKorean Diaspora: Central Asia, Northeast Asia, and North America, ed. Hesung Chun Koh (New Haven: East Rock Institute, 2008), U15.


Written by: Paul Choi