Koreans in Minnesota ~ By Sooh-Rhee Ryu
(Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 2019, ISBN #978-1-68134-133-0)
Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Winter 2020 issue)
As part of a series of books on local ethnic communities, the Minnesota Historical Society Press recently published Koreans in Minnesota, a slim but dense volume which details the development of Korean communities in both the U.S. in general, and specifically in Minnesota. Other books in this series include Somalis in Minnesota and Hmong in Minnesota, and together they do an excellent job of sharing the unique stories of how these diverse and vibrant immigrant groups became part of the Frozen Chosen in Minnesota.
Until recently, Ryu was a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, right outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and she speaks with familiarity and authority about the unique Korean community in Minnesota.
Koreans in Minnesota begins with a brief description of the various waves of Korean immigration to the U.S., beginning with the arrival of Korean plantation workers in Hawaii in the early 20th century. She describes the second wave, which took place in the 1950s and 1960s with Korean War refugees, war brides, and the first generation of Korean adoptees, who were mainly war orphans. The last wave began in 1965, when more liberal immigration laws opened up opportunities for Korean students and professionals to come to the U.S.
Within this larger context, Ryu explains how these three groups constituted the early Korean population in Minnesota. This consisted of students, wives of American servicemen formerly stationed in Korea, and war orphans who were adopted by Minnesota families. Minnesota is known for its high concentration of international students, and Ryu traces this development to the arrival of the first Korean students to Hamline University and Macalester College in the 1950s, immediately following the Korean War. She includes many fascinating photographs of these early Korean students, as well as several fascinating personal profiles of these individuals and other well-known Koreans in Minnesota. Today, Korea is ranked third in international student enrollment at the University of Minnesota, with a total of 784 students.
As more Koreans have landed in Minnesota, they have worked hard to build community through organizing social groups and formal institutions. Some of the groups that Ryu describes are the Korean American Association of Minnesota (KAAM), the Korean Institute of Minnesota (KIM), and the Korean Service Center (KSC). These organizations have provided excellent resources and services to different Korean American demographic groups in the state.
One of the first things that might come to mind when thinking about Koreans in Minnesota is the large number of Korean adoptees in the state, and Ryu does a nice job of explaining the history of why that demographic group is so prevalent. Minnesota is known as the “Korean adoptee homeland,” as it has the highest number of Korean adoptees per capita in the U.S. Estimates vary between 15,000 and 20,000, and the first adoptees were in Minnesota as early as 1953. “Minnesota has long been known for its progressive social politics and policies. A record of strong welfare programs, quality health care, and investment in education distinguish it as a liberal-leaning state,” she writes in explanation of this population.
Several organizations and social networks have been founded to address the needs of such a large population of Korean adoptees. Ryu writes about several cultural camps for children, such as the Korean Culture Camp of Minnesota (KCCM) based in Minneapolis, and Kamp Kimchee in Brainerd. For adult Korean adoptees, the group Minnesota Adopted Koreans was established in 1996, and AK (Adopted Korean) Connection in 2000.
In terms of publications, Ryu mentions Korean Quarterly as “a positive force for Korean adoptees in Minnesota.” Founded in 1997 as a non-profit organization by a diverse group of volunteers including Korean Americans, adopted Koreans and adoptive parents in the community, “KQ has a national and international circulation and covers issues of interest to the diverse Korean American community of first-generation immigrants and their children, adopted Koreans and their families, and other intercultural/interracial Korean American families.”
As with most cities in the U.S. with large numbers of Korean Americans, the Korean Christian church has played a significant role in the immigrant community in Minnesota. Ryu explains that there are currently about 14 Korean churches in Minnesota and includes a fascinating diagram of the history and evolution of these various churches, complete with church splits and new church plants. Anyone who is familiar with Korean churches knows that there are always many versions of the same story, so kudos to Ryu for attempting such a diagram.
Ryu ends her book by asking important questions about the future of the Korean community in Minnesota. With more second and third generation Koreans, as well as the increase in the percentage of Koreans with advanced degrees and economic stability, will there be a weaker sense of ethnic solidarity? Will the role of the Korean community become less relevant as younger generations assimilate?
Time will only tell the answers to these questions, but Ryu ends on a hopeful note and makes it clear that Koreans have made great contributions to the history and culture of Minnesota. “For more than 60 years, Koreans have been part of Minnesota’s ethnic history. Today and into the future, they continue to contribute to the vibrancy of America’s colorful cultural mosaic.”
Stephen Wunrow is an adoptive parent, co-founder and publisher of Korean Quarterly. He works as a freelance photojournalist and plays jango in a local Minnesota poongmulpae, Shinparam.