To get to the city of Duluth in northern Georgia, take the freeway for some 50 minutes from Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Prepare for a surprise: the place looks like one of the newer Korean cities, with large-scale supermarkets on expansive plots and signs in Korean everywhere.
The area has grown to house some 50 Korean restaurants, estate agents, insurance companies, travel agents, barber shops and health food stores. Although it's a weekday, the parking lot is already almost full to its 700 capacity.
At a mart there, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Hispanic shoppers are scanning the shelves for clothing, health food, videos and cosmetics, or are eating at the store's restaurant. At least half the customers are Korean. "We get about 5,000 people on weekdays and double that on weekends," a mart manager says. "Compared to two years ago, sales have really gone up."
Atlanta, the home of CNN, Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, is quickly emerging as a new Korean stronghold in the southern U.S. Following Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Virginia, Atlanta is becoming home to the next biggest Korean community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Koreans in Georgia was 30,000 in 2000. Including all the Korean international students, that number is thought to be more like 100,000-150,000 now.
The rise in their number followed the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The area's economy picked up, and with real estate prices skyrocketing elsewhere in 2000, it became noted as a place to find land at a reasonable cost. "The Korean population has grown 10 percent in the last one year," says Lee Kwang-jae, the consul general in Atlanta. "The biggest reason for the increase is economic factors like the low price of goods and housing."
In New York or Los Angeles, a four-bedroom house may cost US$700,000-800,000 -- in the Atlanta area, it's only about 300,000, and the money saved can be used to buy a store or gas station. The proximity of the Hyundai Motor plant in Alabama completed in 2005 and a Kia plant in WestPoint, Georgia that will be complete in 2009, the area's Korean community seems headed for more growth.
Because of all this, Koreans who made money from the sudden property price surge in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Koreans hit by the slow death of the Detroit automobile industry, and Koreans in the U.S. for their children's education from New York, Los Angeles, Virginia, Michigan and Florida are all converging on the region.
Direct flights to and from Korea have been almost entirely sold out recently. Park Seong-man (47) manages a hair salon. "I heard that it's quiet and life here is good, so I wrapped things up at my shop in Los Angeles and moved here," he says. One housewife in her 40s from New York says, "We didn't even have to do anything with our store there: we just sold the house in New York, and were able to buy a house and another store with that money." The majority of Koreans in Duluth, Buford, and Suwannee run dry cleaners, supermarkets, estate agencies, beauty parlors, food shops and restaurants.
In 2002-2003, no fewer than four large-size retailers opened in the region bringing the total to five, and estate agents from Los Angeles. and New York have also set up shop. There are some 300 Korean churches alone. Jo Sook-hee says, "The second-generation, who used to leave in search of jobs in Chicago or other cities, now think sticking around here is a matter of course as area flourishes."
Atlanta residents are looking at a bright future. The biggest reason is again property prices. When house prices jumped 30-40 percent in Arizona and Hawaii, they only increased 5 percent in Atlanta. The number of Koreans flowing in is much greater than the number leaving, and estimates say the area will be home to some 200,000 Koreans within two to three years. Some born-and-bred American business owners in the region worry that Korean businesses opening up here have driven away their clientele.