Korea's Immigration History: Those Who Left Their Motherland

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According to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs' estimation, 7.2 million Koreans were living in 175 countries around the world as of 2015. Of these, 4.7 million overseas Koreans retain Korean citizenship while the rest have acquired foreign citizenship. This amounts to 10% of the population of North and South Koreas. By region, there are 2.58 million Koreans in China, 2.42 million in the U.S., 600,000 in Japan, 500,000 in the former Soviet Union including Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and 510,000 in the South Pacific region including Australia and New Zealand. There are also 220,000 Koreans in Canada, 100,000 in Latin America, 630,000 in Europe, 26,000 in the Middle East, and over 10,000 Koreans living in Africa.

The history of Korean emigration began in the mid-19th century during the late Joseon Dynasty. People from the northern part of the Korean peninsula migrated to Northern Jiandao County in China. When Japan forcibly annexed the Korean Empire in 1910, many nationalists as well as farmers who lost their lands resettled in Chinese Manchuria (Liaoning Province, Jilin, Heilongjiang)] and the Russian Far East. These regions served as the cradle of the Korean independence movement for a long time.

Japanese colonial exploitation made life difficult for Koreans. Tens of thousands were driven into low-wage labor in Japan every year in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1938, many Koreans were forcibly drafted to heavy labor duties in Japan. Together they formed the first generation of Korean-Japanese who remained in Japan after World War II.

When Japan established Manchukuo, it encouraged impoverished Korean peasants from the southern part of the peninsula to resettle there to cultivate the land. At the end of World War II in 1945, nearly two million Koreans were living in Manchuria. Most of them returned to their homeland, but many remained and lived in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture.

In 1937, the Stalinist government of the Soviet Union forcibly relocated 170,000 Koreans who had originally settled in Primorsky, to Central Asia. Thousands of Koreans died during the deportation and resettlement due to extreme hunger, diseases and harsh weather. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Koreans found themselves living in the newly-formed republics of Central Asia that succeeded from the Soviet Union.

The history of Korean-Americans, who account for 30% of the entire overseas Korean population, began with the arrival of 168 Korean students and merchants in 1900. They preceded the wave of Korean indentured laborers who arrived in Hawai'i in 1903-5 to work on sugar plantations. Among them were nationalist intellectuals and activists including Seo Jae-pil, An Chang-ho and Syngman Rhee, who greatly contributed to building the groundwork for Korea’s modernization.

During the period between the Korean War (1950-1930) and 1965, war orphans and women who married American soldiers emigrated to the United States, along with many students, researchers, nurses, and doctors.

In 1965, the U.S. immigration law was drastically revised and opened the door to more immigrants. As a result, Korean families began to emmigrate to America. Henceforth, the number of Koreans emigrating has increased consistently. Official records suggest that around 1.9 million Koreans have immigrated to the United States since the Korean War.

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