By Joseph Juhn
The author is a documentary filmmaker of “Jeronimo” and “Chosen”.
With the recent establishment of the Overseas Koreans Agency (OKA) in South Korea, there is a growing call for a deeper exploration and discourse surrounding overseas Koreans.
Last month, I participated in an academic forum on the Korean diaspora as a Korean American creative living in New York, where I shared insights into my connection with the homeland. Shortly after the event, however, recalling that all participants engaged in discussions fluently in Korean, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my Korean American peers would approach the question of the ‘homeland’ like those of us at the conference.
Before seeking answers, it seems necessary to establish a general definition of young Korean Americans. They can broadly be categorized into two groups: those who spent their childhood and adolescence in Korea before moving to the U.S. for study or work and settling there (referred to as ‘Group A’), and those born and raised in the U.S. as second or third generation Korean Americans (referred to as ‘Group B’). Legally, both groups qualify as overseas Koreans, but their ways of being have meaningful differences.
For ‘Group A,’ Korea is a familiar place, and their connection with the homeland is so strong that they may even identify themselves more as Koreans than Korean Americans. They are fluent in Korean, comfortable with Korean culture, and could integrate seamlessly into Korean society if they were to return.
On the other hand, ‘Group B’ experiences a different dynamic. For them, Korea, or the Korean Peninsula, is a place where their parents or grandparents left for a better life, a place simultaneously familiar yet mysterious. While Korea constitutes the roots of their identity, it remains a challenging place for them to feel a full sense of belonging. They feel a special emotional connection, yet there exists an inherent distance that is difficult to overcome.
Their relationship with Korea is thus complex and ambivalent. Hence, rather than focusing on the unclear relationship with their homeland, they function as Americans, and justifiably so. What being an American means may also vary, whether it be ‘Korean American,’ ‘Asian American,’ ‘ethnic minority’ or just ‘American,’ depending on their upbringing, experience, and outlook on life.
Historically, more Koreans fell under Group A. However, with Korea’s birth rate plummeting and the number of Koreans migrating overseas in steep decline, Koreans under Group B will soon become the majority.
While it is true that South Korea’s economic progress and the global popularity of the ‘Korean Wave’ contribute to the increasing interest in Korea among young Korean Americans, over time the diaspora will inevitably undergo a process of ‘localization,’ naturally leading to a more tenuous connection to the motherland. Look no further than the descendants of Korean immigrants to Hawaii 120 years ago, as well as Koreans in Cuba, Central Asia, and Japan, who all experienced varying degrees of localization that shaped their identity.
Therefore, I believe that the policy direction of the Overseas Koreans Agency should be to undertake serious research and study of Koreans under Group B, rather than maintaining a comfortable relationship with those under Group A. This isn’t to alienate one group over another. Rather, it is to cultivate long-lasting and relevant relationships with those who are “representatives” of the new generations of the Korean diaspora. To achieve this, recognition and understanding of their unique dual or layered identities should precede attempts to excessively ‘Koreanize’ those who are already localized.
Of course, there are challenges for ‘Group B’ Korean Americans as well. Many of them lack a clear concept of their relationship with their homeland, in part because their first-generation immigrant parents, preoccupied with survival, often failed to articulate and conceptualize the meaning of the homeland to their children and the implications of diasporic identity and role.
Recent conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine war, have triggered complex emotions among young Jewish and Arab Americans, highlighting that even if diaspora communities become highly localized and “assimilated”, there remains deep psychological ties to their ancestors’ homeland.
Such dual, layered identity, at times troubling, can also serve as a tool to enrich one’s existential, intellectual, and cultural worldview.