A newspaper ad in 1902 recruiting farmers to emigrate to Hawaii reads: "Temperate climate, no extreme weather conditions. US$15 a month in wages, 10 hours of labor a day with Sundays off." That year, 121 Koreans left Incheon Port aboard the SS Gaelic. Disease forced 20 of them to turn back after landing in Kobe, Japan, but 101 made it to Hawaii to face hard labor in the sugarcane plantations.
Visitors to the Museum of Immigration History in Incheon can hear the recorded voice of Ham Ha-na, who was among the first generation of emigrants to Hawaii. She recounts her trip in May 1905 aboard the vessel Mongolia. "The stench of oil, cattle and horses made me nauseous when I ate. I had no strength after eating nothing for 10 days," she recalls.
The first and second generation of Korean emigrants left the country to make a living. Many left in the 1950s and 60s as the brides of U.S. soldiers. The government also decided to send coal miners and nurses to Germany in return for aid. Many Koreans moved overseas during the 1970s in search of jobs.
The Foreign Ministry says the number of Koreans who registered to move overseas totaled 899 last year, the first time it has fallen below 1,000. After peaking at 46,533 in 1976, the number of emigrants fell to less than 10,000 in 2003 and dropped to 1/10 of that level last year. In contrast, 4,199 Koreans who had lived overseas returned to Korea last year, up from 2,962 in 2003. First-generation emigrants chose to return to their homeland for nostalgic reasons, but their descendents come in search of work.
There was a time when emigrating was viewed as a means of escaping to a better way of life. But now Korea has become an enviable place to live, and its international status has risen as well. The U.S. and South America have lost their appeal due to slumping economies, and China does not have a permanent residency system and living conditions there are not yet comfortable enough for many to consider moving there. But it is disconcerting to hear overseas Koreans say, "Korea is a great place to live if you have money." That leaves us with something to think about.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Jeong Woo-sang