The story of “Han in the Pacific Northwest” has been in the making for 30 years. Since the founding of the Korean American Historical Society (KAHS) by Daeshik Yu in 1985, while he was in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, a primary goal has been to publish a history of Korean Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Prior to that, the only material available was a master’s thesis by Kyung Sook Cho Gregor on the Koreans in Gresham, Oregon in 1963; a UW master’s thesis by Chul Soo Lee case volunteer and later Korean National Assembly member Jay Kun Yoo, titled “The Koreans in Seattle,” in 1976; and a study of the problems of wives of U.S. servicemen by Sil Dong Kim in 1979 as part of the Demonstration Project for Asian Americans (DPAA). In addition to giving impetus for the formation of KAHS, this project also was the basis for the formation of Filipino American National Historical Society (FAHNS).
At the time, the desire was to publish a pictorial essay “incorporating the data and information collected through interviews and questionnaires and also photographs and documents gathered from the Korean American community and other sources. By realistically portraying various aspects of the Korean American community in the state—political, social, economic, cultural, religious, and educational—we will try in this book to clearly etch the history and contributions made by Korean Americans into the consciousness of Washingtonians, and thus advocate the [sic] Korean American interests.” (Occasional Papers, Vol 1, p. 40).
The Society received an initial grant from UW, and began collecting oral histories; however Dr. Yu’s wife passed away and publication lapsed as grief-stricken Dr. Yu returned to Korea, leaving Ick-Whan Lee as president. Mr. Lee housed KAHS in an office in his trading company, ArKay International, Inc., for many years, providing financing with his friends and colleagues as needed, and relying upon UW student help when available. Many of the students who have served KAHS over the years are now professors at Colleges and Universities. One of the first students to work on the project was Hye-Kyung Kang from Asian Counseling and Referral Service, now a professor at Smith College. Two other KAHS alums are at Smith; others teach at Loyola Marymount University, Sogang University, Indiana University, and Central Washington University.
I was a graduate student in Public Affairs at UW when I met Mr. Lee in 1995 at a World Affairs Council event. When he found out that I had some background in Korean language and culture (I had studied at Yonsei University), he asked whether I could help out with the publication of a journal, as his current help, social work student Yoosun Park, was graduating. Since the work he described sounded interesting and the research assistantship I had was ending, I readily agreed to begin working part-time at their office on Meridian Avenue, near Northgate as assistant editor.
Because I knew nothing of the Korean American community, I began collecting information and making local contacts by seeking out community events and organizations. One of my first contacts was with Korean American Professionals Society (KAPS)—a precursor to Korean American Coalition—where I began serving on the board. In addition to collecting manuscripts, editing photos, and producing Occasional Papers, I administered the office, setting up the first email listserv for KAPS, and developing a membership list and library for KAHS. Oral history collection paused during this time, as I focused on producing volumes 2–5. I hired an intern from Seattle Pacific University named Jean Rhee, to catalogue our oral histories (she later become the executive director for Korean Community Counseling Center after she graduated). Later, a graduate student named Jina Kim assisted with editing volumes 4 and 5.
After the Korean economic crisis forced ArKay to lay me off in 1999, my involvement in KAHS slowed and paused. Through my volunteer work for Morningstar Korean Cultural Center, I met State Senator Paull Shin, who hired me as his legislative assistant. A photo in the book comes from that time. I helped draft his legislation establishing May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and experienced the unusual case of testifying on his behalf for a House committee hearing. When the bill was at last signed into law by Governor Locke, I was proud to be able to photograph the event, which included Representatives Sharon Tomiko Santos, Velma Veloria, and Phil Rockefeller with Senator Shin, the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affair’s (CAPAA) Executive Director Miebeth Bustillo-Hutchins, CAPAA’s Legislative Assistant, the Commission on African American Affairs (CAAA) Executive Director Tony Orange, and community member Rocky Kim.
Ick-Whan Lee persuaded history professor Moon-Ho Jung to become president, who agreed to lead KAHS in 2007. He was joined by Soya Jung, who acted as Secretary while Ick-Whan Lee served as treasurer during 2003-2009. Professor Jung took command of the oral history project, and strengthened the collection process, dramatically increasing the number of oral histories collected and transcribed through his hiring of graduate students. Students at the time included Sun-Hee Yoon and Woonkyung Yeo.
In 2009, when ArKay International closed its doors for good, the Wing Luke Museum generously offered a home to KAHS in the Governor Gary Locke Library and Community Heritage Center. Work on a book regarding Korean Americans in the Pacific Northwest began in earnest in 2010, with an application to the Overseas Koreans Foundation. The project was envisioned as covering the five states of the Pacific Northwest, with an ambitious budget and even more ambitious research plan. Longtime KAHS editor and Western Washington University professor Robert Hyung-chan Kim agreed to serve as the principal investigator; however due to health issues, he had to step down, and Jung was asked to take over.
Professor Jung fulfilled the original intent of the founders admirably, going above and beyond the call of duty. Graduate student Chong Eun Ahn developed a bibliography and conducted and catalogued oral histories. Jessie Kindig developed an early draft of the book and taught me about Young Sook Morgan. Demographics were provided by another student, Timothy A. Thomas. Over the course of the next four years, and many meetings, a draft manuscript begun and efforts to raise funds were made; however sufficient resources were not found and the project was scaled back, until what you see is what we have now. Chin Music Press was chosen because we wanted a press small enough to fit our needs, and yet had high quality printings. They were more than accommodating throughout the process.
Han in the Upper Left: A Brief History of Korean Americans in the Pacific Northwest is a snapshot of the community that questions what being “Korean American” means. Under Professor Jung’s direction, this book was never intended to be a standard narrative of “see how well Korean Americans have assimilated” book, rather it critically examines that narrative. As a result, and in conjunction with the book’s brevity, not every organization, not every person worth mentioning, not every photograph could be included, and so many people in the community may be disappointed. For instance, Michael Park (the first Korean American mayor of Federal Way) was regrettably not mentioned. For that, I am sorry.
When I started learning about this community in the 1990s, even then the percentage of people who spoke Korean as a first language was three-quarters; as of 2010, that number has only declined to two-thirds. So as you can see, the community here is still dominated by the first generation, and only recently has the second generation begun to establish itself. It is easy to confuse the story of individuals migrating to a place and over time, forming a community, with the idea that they have integrated into the larger mainstream community—“assimilation.” This is not that story. The majority of public events and celebrations that Korean American community organizations hold are attended only by Korean Americans. Attempts to publicize these events beyond calendar listings in the mainstream media are generally ignored. As is the case for all non-white communities, the most pressing issue for the Korean American community is political and economic empowerment. Professor Jung said it best when he remarked that ethnic identity is at its heart political, not biological or cultural. Korean Studies disciplines would do well to keep this in mind. The history of Korea includes the history of Koreans in America and overseas as well; as long as Korean American Historical Society exists, we will continue to collect oral histories; future projects will include digitization of archives and exploring ways to make these available to the general public.