By Lim Eun-jung and Dennis Halpin
"The Korean Wave" is a popular global phrase depicting the increasing cultural impact of not only the "Gangnam style" of dancing, but Korean films, soap operas, popular music and even food and fashion.
Yet a little noticed but equally strong second Korean wave has influenced the U.S. Congress in the past decade. The movement of Korean Americans, following in the footsteps of other successful ethnic advocacy groups, such as Irish, Jewish and Taiwanese Americans, have successfully adapted to American grassroots politics. As a result, twelve members of the House and one Senator attended the recent second annual Korean American Grassroots Conference near Capitol Hill.
Major accomplishments for the Korean American community in the past decade include: the 2004 passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act (a similar bill has yet to pass in South Korea); the 2007 passage of House Resolution 121, on the "comfort women" issue; the 2008 inclusion of South Korea in the U.S. Visa Waiver program despite stricter visa policies after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; and the 2011 approval of the South Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), despite growing protectionist sentiment in the U.S. following the 2008 financial crisis. These are no small accomplishments for an ethnic community once barely seen on Capitol Hill.
This year promises to be another year of increased Korean American political activism. It is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and this year witnessed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe becoming the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress. This is also the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the 50th anniversary of normalization of Japan-South Korean diplomatic ties.
Meanwhile, Korean Americans commemorated the eighth anniversary of the unanimous passage of House Resolution 121 on July 30. Before this resolution was passed, unfortunately, "comfort women" did not get the attention they deserved. The relevant issues were often marginalized even in South Korea despite the surviving victims' never-ending suffering and Korean civil activists' persistent efforts.
House Resolution 121 changed the dynamics by internationalizing the issue as a matter of universal women's rights. For example, the "Nabi" Butterfly Fund was established in South Korea by comfort women survivors for current victims of sexual violence, including those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where an estimated 6,000 victims of civil war are being assisted. The comfort women issue is thus no longer just a parochial quarrel between Japan and South Korea.
The agent of change with regard to the universalizing of the comfort women issue was neither the South Korean government nor South Korean leaders but Korean Americans via the U.S. Congress. This community traces its roots back to 1903. The first group of Korean immigrants was composed of approximately 7,500 contract laborers on Hawaii's sugar plantations. They came almost one generation later than the Japanese Americans. However, Korean emigration to the United States continued until the present through various means, such as marriage, adoption, family reunification and international students. The number of Korean Americans has reached 1.7 million. The Korean American community has become the fifth largest Asian immigrant community, after the Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Vietnamese. Korean Americans are also widely distributed around the United States, though California still has the largest population. This is in contrast with Japanese Americans who are concentrated in California and Hawaii. Texas, Virginia, and Georgia are the top three states with the fastest growing ethnic Korean populations.
Korean Americans retain a more intimate connection with their homeland than Japanese Americans do with theirs. The younger generation of Korean Americans is greatly intrigued by Korean soft power. K-pop is very popular, Korean dramas demonstrate the flamboyant lifestyle in Seoul, and South Korean brands increasingly attract them. This is another big distinction between Korean Americans and Japanese Americans who now blend into American society more seamlessly with few lingering ties to their ancestral land.
In the last decade, Korean Americans have strived to link American national interests in a manner beneficial to their homeland. The KORUS FTA might not have been ratified without Korean Americans' diligence in persuading American law makers to pass it. And Korean Americans, with growing confidence in their grassroots power, are working to strengthen their political influence through enlightening themselves about voting rights, mobilizing themselves for major elections, and encouraging the next generation to be more active in Washington D.C.
KACE, Korean American Civic Empowerment, started its annual conference, Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC), in July 2014, and this year's KAGC, held between July 21 and 23, was even more successful than last year's session. Now Korean Americans are mobilizing even more with a view toward next year's presidential election.
Korean Americans can be the deciding factor in crucial swing states, such as Virginia, if they continue to mobilize themselves as KACE is attempting to do. Key minority groups can collectively wield powerful leverage. Thus Korean Americans have the potential to be a factor by voting during the 2016 Presidential Election.
Dr. Lim Eun-jung is currently a Lecturer for Korea Studies at School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include comparative studies on democracy and local politics. She has been looking at Korean Americans' grassroots movement as well. Dennis P. Halpin, a former U.S. consul in Busan and Asian affairs advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.