Korean diaspora

From New World Encyclopedia
Korean diaspora
Hangul 교포/동포
Hanja 僑胞/同胞
Revised Romanization gyopo/dongpo
McCune-Reischauer kyopo/dongpo

The terms gyopo or dongpo in Korean refer to persons of Korean ethnic descent who have lived the majority of their lives outside Korea or, simply, any Korean who lives outside Korea.

As with most, if not all, ancient empires, Korea's history has been one of constantly fluctuating borders. For approximately 3200 years, from 2333 B.C.E. to 926 C.E., the northern regions of Korea (today's Manchuria and Mongolia) had been inhabited by Koreans. With the fall of Balhae in 926 C.E., many Koreans absorbed into the northern nomadic tribes, China and Russia. That diaspora has been difficult to document. During the Joseon dynasty, many poor Korean farmers migrated to China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. During the Japanese colonization of Korea, Japan forced many Koreas to migrate while in the post-Korean War era many Koreans migrated to the United States. All total, approximately 6.5 million Korean live in diaspora. Although economic and political conditions have been improving in South Korea during the past 20 years, the vast majority of Koreans in diaspora have chosen to remain in their adopted nations.



Large-scale emigration from Korea began as early as the mid-1860s, mainly into the Russian Far East and Northeast China; those emigrants became the ancestors of the two million Koreans in China and several hundred thousand ethnic Koreans in Central Asia.[1][2]

Korea under Japanese rule

Monument for Korean Victims of A-Bomb, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan

During the Japanese colonial period of 1910-1945, Japanese often recruited or forced Koreans into labor service to work in mainland Japan, Karafuto Prefecture, and Manchukuo, especially in the 1930s and early 1940s. The ones who chose to remain in Japan at the end of the war became known as Zainichi Koreans, while the approximately forty thousand forced to stay in Karafuto after the Soviet invasion typically go by the name Sakhalin Koreans.[3]

Aside from migration within the Empire of Japan or its puppet state of Manchukuo, some Koreans escaped Japanese-ruled territory entirely, traveling to Shanghai, a major center of the Korean independence movement, or to the already-established Korean communities of the Russian Far East although the Soviet Union deported the latter to Central Asia in 1938.

After Korean independence

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Ethnic Koreans in China (Chaoxianzu) became one of the officially recognized as one of the 56 ethnic groups of the country. Chinese consider them one of the "major minorities" in China. Their population grew to about two million ethnic Koreans; they reside mostly in northeastern China, where their ancestors had initially settled. Their largest population concentrated in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province, numbering 854,000 in 1997.[2]

Korean emigration to America began as early as 1903, although the Korean American community significant increase took place after the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. More than two million ethnic Koreans live in the U.S., mostly in metropolitan areas. A handful descended from laborers who migrated to Hawaii in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A significant number descended from orphans of the Korean War, the United States standing as a major ally of South Korea. Americans adopted thousands adopted in the years following the war when major media covered their plight. The vast majority, immigrated or descended from those who immigrated after the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 permitted unrestricted immigration for family members of naturalized Americans.

Europe and Latin America constituted minor destinations for post-war Korean emigration. Germany represents the largest Korean community in Europe while London has the largest European Koreatown. Documented Korean immigration to Latin America began in the 1950s; North Korean prisoners of war migrated to Chile in 1953 and Argentina in 1956 under the auspices of the International Red Cross. The majority of Korean settlement occurred in the late 1960s. When the South Korean economy expanded dramatically in the 1980s, investors from South Korea came to Latin America and established small businesses in the textiles industry.[4] Brazil has Latin America's largest Koreatown while Koreatowns also exist Argentina and Guatemala. Mexico City estimates the Korean population at around 30,000. In the 1970s, though, Japan and the United States remained the top two destinations for South Korean emigrants, with each receiving more than a quarter of all emigration. The Middle East became the third most popular destination with more than 800,000 Koreans going to Saudi Arabia between 1975 and 1985, another 26,000 Koreans immigrating to Iran. In contrast, only Germany (1.7 percent of all South Korean emigration in 1977) and Paraguay (1.0 percent) among European or Latin American destinations rated in the top ten for emigrants.[5]

Shifting focus of emigration

Emigration to America became less attractive as a result of the Rodney King riots, when many Korean American immigrants in Los Angeles witnessed their businesses destroyed by rioters. South Korean media reports on the riots increased public consciousness of the long working hours immigrants faced the United States.[6] With South Korea's developing economy, the focus of emigration from Korea began a shift from developed nations to developing nations. With the 1992 normalisation of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea, many citizens of South Korea started to settle in China, attracted by business opportunities generated by reforms, the opening of China to Korean immigrants, and the low cost of living. Large new communities of South Koreans have formed in Beijing, Shanghai, and Qingdao. A small community of Koreans, mostly expatriate businessmen and their families, live in Hong Kong. Southeast Asia has also seen an influx of South Koreans. Koreans in Vietnam have grown from around 30,000 since the 1992 normalization of diplomatic relations. Korean migration to the Philippines has also increased due to the attraction of the tropical climate and the relatively low cost of living.

Return migration

Koreans born or settled overseas have been migrating back to both North and South Korea since the restoration of Korean independence. Kim Jong-Il, born in Vyatskoye, Khabarovsk Krai, where his father Kim Il-sung, had served in the Red Army, numbers among the most famous.[7] The largest-scale repatriation activities took place in Japan, where Chongryon sponsored the return of Zainichi Korean residents to North Korea. Starting from late 1950s and early 1960s with a trickle of repatriates continuing until as late as 1984, nearly 90,000 Zainichi Koreans resettled in the reclusive communist state, although their ancestors lived in southern Korea. Word of the difficult economic and political conditions filtered back to Japan, decreasing the popularity of that option. Around one hundred repatriates escaped from North Korea, Kang Chol-Hwan the most famous, who published a book about his experience, The Aquariums of Pyongyang.[8]

South Korea remains a popular destination for Koreans who had settled in Manchukuo during the colonial period. Returnees from Manchukuo such as Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan had a major influence on the process of nation-building in South Korea.

Sakhalin Koreans independently repatriated to North Korea in the decades following the end of World War II. The Soviets prohibited returning to their ancestral homes in the South since the Soviet's supported North Korea's war against the South, and Japan refused to grant Sakhalin Koreans transit privileges. In 1985, Japan funded the return of Sakhalin Koreans to South Korea although only an 1500 accepted the offer while the vast majority decided to remain on Sakhalin or move to the Russian Far East.[3]

With the steady improve of the standard of living in South Korea during the 1980s, the numbers of overseas Koreans repatriating to South Korea rose dramatically. 356,790 Chinese citizens have migrated to South Korea since the reform and opening up of China, almost two-thirds are estimated to be Chaoxianzu. Similarly, some Koryo-saram from Central Asia have also moved to South Korea as guest workers to take advantage of the high wages offered by the growing economy. Return migration through arranged marriage represents another option, portrayed in the 2005 South Korean film Wedding Campaign, directed by Hwang Byung-kook.[9]

Until recently, return migration from the West has been much less common than from Japan or the former Soviet Union. The economic enticement has been far less than in 1960s Japan or post-Soviet collapse Central Asia. An increasing number of aspiring Korean Americans singers and actors, frustrated by their inability to break through stereotypes in Hollywood, choose instead to go to South Korea through talent and modeling agencies. Prominent examples include singer Brian Joo (of R&B duo Fly to the Sky) and actor Daniel Henney (who initially spoke no Korean).[10][11]


  1. Kwang-kyu Lee, Overseas Koreans. (Seoul: Jimoondang, 2000. ISBN 89-88095189)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Si-joong Kim, The Economic Status and Role of Ethnic Koreans in China The Korean Diaspora in the World Economy (Institute for International Economics, 2003), Ch. 6: 101-131. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Anton Troianovski, What’s in a Name? For the Koreans of Sakhalin, an Anguished History The New York Times, November 7, 2021. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  4. Kate H. Choi, "Who is Hispanic? Hispanic ethnic identity among African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites." Department of Sociology, University of Texas, 2004.
  5. Ivan Light and Edna Bonacich, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982 (University of California Press, 1991, ISBN 978-0520076563), 105-106.
  6. Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots (Harvard University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0674077058).
  7. Lawrence Sheets, A Visit to Kim Jong Il's Russian Birthplace NPR, February 12, 2004. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  8. Chol-Hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic Books, 2005, ISBN 978-0465011056).
  9. Naui gyeolhon wonjeonggi (Wedding Campaign), 2005. IMDb. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  10. Jason Song, Called to star in Asia Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2007. Retrievevd April 14, 2023.
  11. Robert Ito, Stuck in Asia, dreaming of Hollywood The New York Times, February 11, 2007. Retrieved April 14, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abelmann, Nancy, and John Lie. Blue dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles riots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0674077058
  • Bergsten, C. Fred, and In-bŏm Chʻoe. Korean diaspora in the world economy. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2003. ISBN 9780881323580
  • Chaliand, Gérard, and Jean-Pierre Rageau. The Penguin Atlas of diasporas. New York: Viking, 1995. ISBN 9780670854394
  • Kang, Chol-Hwan, and Pierre Rigoulot. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0465011056
  • Kim, Hyung-chan. The Korean diaspora: historical and sociological studies of Korean immigration and assimilation in North America. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1977. ISBN 9780874362503
  • Lee, Kwang-kyu. Overseas Koreans. Seoul: Jimoondang, 2000. ISBN 89-88095189
  • Light, Ivan, and Edna Bonacich. Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982. University of California Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0520076563


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