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  • Introduction to the Special Section Unsettling Korean Migration:Multiple Trajectories and Experiences
  • Sunhee Koo (bio) and Jihye Kim (bio)

The first wave of Korean emigration began in mid-nineteenth century, when Koreans crossed over into China in search of unused land to cultivate and then to work in the industries that China, Japan, and Russia were developing in Northeast China (Manchuria) and the Russian Far East (Primorsky Krai). Some of these Koreans left their native land voluntarily; others were pushed by political and economic forces threatening their lives at home. We can only speculate as to how many of them had a clear idea of where they would end up or what was waiting for them there. The political climate in Northeast Asia in the first half of the twentieth century, marked by a series of wars, colonization, and the partitioning of the Korean Peninsula into two separate countries, induced many Koreans into internal or international exile. While some earlier emigrants returned to Korea by the middle of the twentieth century despite ominous political and economic uncertainty there, Koreans continued to leave the peninsula in the second half of the century—this time mostly South Koreans who seized a range of voluntary migration opportunities and left for different parts of the world for various reasons. Today, sizable Korean communities are found in countries of East Asia, North and South Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. [End Page 1]

Since the early 1990s, when international traffic at border crossings accelerated, a significant number of Korean migrants have returned to Korea (mostly South Korea), having spent much of their life—or, in the case of descendants of migrants, even their whole life—outside Korea. Their return may have been lured by a sense of nostalgia or by practical opportunity offered by the (ancestral) homeland, which by then had accrued a degree of industrial advancement and material prosperity. But many were surprised by the social challenges they encountered, namely alienation and discrimination, which were largely rooted in the hierarchical treatment of ethnic Korean returnees according to perceptions about their economic class, their cultural identities, and the particular countries from which they returned and with which they maintained links as expatriates.

Social challenges are also observed in Korean migrant communities overseas. These communities have become increasingly plural in terms of not only the places to which they migrated but also the waves of migration to the same destination in different time periods. Subsequently, longstanding Korean communities encountered more recent migrants whose routes of migration and settlement are different from the past. In places like China and Japan, dynamics and tensions between different groups of Koreans—each group identifying with its respective wave of migration—are readily observed and may even be manifested through separate transnational organizations, differing cultural practices, and newly established Koreatowns separate from older ones.

If Zygmunt Bauman's concept of three different phases of modern-era migration is applied to the Korean case, the first wave of Korean migration may be seen as similar to the migration from a "modernized" center to "empty land" (2011:429). To a degree, Korean migration was driven by economic opportunities presented by Korea's neighboring countries. However, unlike European imperialist migrations promoting the "white man's civilizing mission," Korean migration was impelled by colonial and imperial forces that affected the peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. The second wave of modern-era migration coincided with the liberation of many states from their colonizers and the subsequent aspirations of the liberated people to relocate to the states of their former colonizers. Although Korea was never a colony of Western countries, the Korean migration wave to Europe and North America throughout the second half of the twentieth century may be similarly or at least partly motivated by the colonial aspiration of desiring the West—now equated with modernity and industrial advancement—and its promise of social and [End Page 2] cultural mobility for which many South Koreans as well as the government were striving at the time. Many Korean migrants, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, aspired to a better life as guest workers and middle-class immigrants. Bauman's third wave of modern-era...


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