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COVER STORY : L.A. Threatens, Seoul Beckons : South Korean Emigration to the U.S. Has Reached a Turning Point. Fewer Are Coming, and Many Already Here Are Returning Home.

August 15, 1993|DIANE SEO

SEOUL — While staring at the maze of hotels, office towers and traditional Korean palaces that line the streets of downtown Seoul, Hae Ok Sung can't help but question her plans to move to the United States.

On one hand, the lifelong Seoul resident relishes the thought of emigrating to Los Angeles to be reunited with her mother and two sisters. But since she, her husband and their two children first applied for immigration visas several years ago, her excitement has been tempered by a nagging fear that venturing to the United States is a mistake.

"Is L.A. still a good place?" Sung asks. "I want my sons to have many opportunities in L.A., but I'm afraid of the new world. I visited L.A. right after the riots, and I saw the burned-down buildings. I was afraid."

As South Korea continues to blossom with economic opportunities while the reputation of the United States deteriorates, many Koreans with plans to emigrate to the United States are reconsidering their options. Some are choosing to stay in South Korea, while others are emigrating to other countries or simply visiting the United States.

Last year--the same year 2,300 Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles were burned, looted or damaged during the spring riots--only 19,359 Koreans emigrated to the United States. Not since 1972 had that number fallen below 20,000.

At the same time, a record number of the roughly 800,000 Koreans now living in the United States are returning to their native country.

These trends, scholars say, signify a major turning point in the history of Korean immigration.

Korean immigration to the United States began at the turn of the century when more than 7,000 Koreans came to Hawaii, at the time a U.S. territory, to work on the island's sugar plantations. More than 1,000 women arrived between 1910 and 1924 to marry the laborers.

The Immigration Act of 1924 temporarily curtailed the admission of non-Europeans to the United States, but Korean immigration resumed around 1951 and then began to surge after Congress established new immigration quotas for Asian countries in 1965.

"In 1965, the situation in Korea was very bad," said Kwang Kyu Lee, an anthropology professor at the prestigious Seoul National University. "There was anxiety about North Korea, and many people were living in poverty. People thought that going to the States would provide them with more opportunities."

Korean immigration grew steadily from 1965, peaking in 1987 when 35,849 Korean immigrants arrived in the United States. Since that time, however, Korean immigration has dropped considerably.

Along with fewer immigrants coming to the United States, the social status of Korean immigrants also has changed. While many earlier immigrants were college-educated and from the upper middle class, the majority of immigrants now coming are from the middle and lower classes and do not have college degrees, said Robert Butler, an immigrant attache at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Seoul.

"For individuals in the the middle class who see themselves as having very little opportunities to advance in Korea, the U.S. is still attractive," Butler said. "They feel they have nothing to lose."

But well-to-do Koreans are less inclined to emigrate from their homeland because of growing economic opportunities in South Korea, said Nancy Abelman, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois who has done extensive research on Koreans and Korean-Americans.

"There's a real sense among the elite that Korea is a viable country and that they can partake in a cosmopolitan lifestyle here," said Abelman, who is doing research in South Korea this summer. "This is a fairly recent phenomenon. With the arrival of the 1988 Olympics, Koreans became more confident because they knew Korea had become a world-class player."

Just three decades ago, South Korea was a poor nation trying to recover from the devastation of the Korean War. About 60% of the population was engaged in agriculture on small farms, and the country's per capita gross national product, which measures goods and services produced in a nation, was less than $100. Today, South Korea is a highly industrialized society with a per capita GNP of about $6,749.

Seoul reflects this success with its wealth of banks, department stores, deluxe hotels and high-rise office buildings. Prosperous Koreans, many of whom earned their fortunes in recent years, travel around the city in expensive sedans and shop and dine at stores that rival any first-rate Western establishment.

Abelman said many Koreans talk about their country's meteoric economic rise with a sense of smugness.

"When Koreans compare themselves to people from the same social class who left for the United States, many people here believe they are doing much better," she said. "There is a huge sense here that somehow Korean-Americans have failed."

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