Teresa Enrico—International Liberation Reference Person for Pilipinos/as and Pacific Islanders

Korean-Heritage People

Hong Ik In Gan—to live for the benefit/betterment of all humankind. Centuries ago Korea’s first kingdom was founded on this principle, and it has shaped our people’s development for over five thousand years.

Korea has a complex history. To know our history is to understand us. It shows who we are and helps to explain our current situation.

Our history is also hard to know. It has often been “erased” and replaced with an altered version. It contradicts our distresses when people understand what has happened to us.


Our beginnings were as tribal people with matrilineal lineage. Later there were kingdoms with successive dynasties that lasted into the twentieth century. At one point prior to 1,000 AD, the kingdoms united into one country.

Koreans have been repeatedly attacked over the centuries. Mongol invasions began in the thirteenth century. Japanese invasions began in the 1500s. China treated Korea as “tributary state” off and on for centuries. The French carried out a campaign against Korea in 1866, to retaliate for the deaths of nine Catholic priests.

Centuries ago the surrounding peoples introduced Confucianism and Buddhism to Korea. Christianity was introduced in the last two hundred years.

In the past the northern border of Korea extended into what is now China. There are still people in China who speak Korean. It is said that some groups wanted to become part of Korea, for protection and because of how well the country was organized and governed. Korea—as a people, nation, and location—has long been sought after.


The late nineteenth century and the twentieth century were the hardest on our people. Our labor, economy, natural resources, and strategic military position were exploited and controlled. Invasions, colonization, occupations, war, racism, and division have shaped the oppression of Koreans. Here is a brief summary of that period:

From 1884 to 1896 China dominated Korea. When the Japanese established an economic foothold, China and Japan fought a war over control of Korea. Russia and Japan also fought a war over Korea.

In 1896 China recognized Korean independence, and Japan assassinated the first empress of Korea.

In 1905 Korea became a protectorate of Japan. The United States refused to help Korea prevail against the advancing Japanese.

In 1910 a thirty-five-year Japanese occupation began. To fuel its economic and imperialist ambitions, Japan exploited the Korean economy and Korean natural resources. Priority was given to the production of war materials, and Korea’s economy became a wartime economy.

The Japanese attempted to wipe out [completely destroy] Korean culture, spirit, and pride. The Korean language was outlawed, family names were changed to Japanese names, distorted history was taught in school, and women and girls were made to be sex slaves (“comfort women”) for the Imperial Japanese Army.

Toward the end of World War II, Russia and the United States (allies during the war) collaborated to “liberate” Korea from Japan. Russian troops went north, and U.S. troops went south. The war ended, and Japan surrendered.

In 1948, during the Cold War between Russia and the United States, Korea was divided into two regions. The government of each declared itself the legitimate government of the whole country. Neither side recognized the thirty-eighth parallel as a permanent border. When U.S.-Russian negotiations failed, the peninsula was divided into two countries. The North had a communist government with close ties to China. The South was a capitalist democracy with close ties to the United States. Once again, two powers were fighting over Korea.

In 1950 North Korean forces, with the support of China and Russia, moved into South Korea. The United Nations called it an act of aggression, called for a ceasefire, and brought in U.N. peacekeeping troops (primarily from the United States). The Korean War began.

Communication was cut off. People turned on each other. Brothers fought on opposite sides. Family members unknowingly killed other members of their own family. People who were or were thought to be communist were hunted down. According to conservative estimates, up to three million Koreans were killed.

In 1953 an armistice (ceasefire) was signed establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The war ended for the United States, but not for Koreans.


A peace treaty has never been signed. The two sides are technically still at war. They are heavily militarized, the fighting has not stopped, and tensions remain high.

Outside forces continue to have agendas for and feed the tensions between the North and the South. In alliance with the United States, South Korea competes with Japan and China to be “number one” in Asia. The existence of North Korea “justifies” the U.S. military presence in the region. Both sides continue to be on war alert.

A U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor system was recently deployed in South Korea. It is supposedly to protect South Korea from the North, but its real purpose is to monitor China. Many say it will only increase tensions on the peninsula, and local residents don’t want it. There have been numerous protests.

North Korea is increasingly isolated. In many ways it is the most isolated country in the world. Its leader is demonized and portrayed as “crazy,” fueling fears in the surrounding countries and beyond. Korea and Koreans are made to look unstable, scary, and harsh.

It is important to note that Korea has never invaded or tried to take over another country. We have lived by Hong Ik In Gan.


Koreans are resilient and resourceful. We are a warm, caring, powerful, intelligent people. We have deep ties to the land, the mountains, and the sea. Family is central.

Our creativity and intelligence show in our art, music, food, song, and dance.

We have drive and determination. We have survived for centuries under difficult conditions.

We love being Korean. We love being with each other. We are proud, passionate, fun, creative, and playful.

Honor and responsibility toward our families and communities are important to us. The Korean language reflects our human connections, with words that refer to us as “sister” and “brother,” whether we are blood related or not.

We are loyal to the core. You could have no better friend.


Our ancient history and the decades of imperialism, war, occupation, and racism have left us with internalized Korean oppression:

  • We have little sense of being liked or wanted. We expect harsh treatment and criticism.
  • We often carry distress about leadership and authority.
  • We feel we must always fight. The fight goes on and on, and we feel powerless to make it stop.
  • Our drive and determination are admirable and have saved lives, but we also have a pattern of “never letting down.”
  • We are not united. The infighting, corruption, greed, and power struggles in our history continue in the present and are promoted by outside forces.
  • Confucianism has left a hierarchy of relationships. Duties are assigned according to gender, age, birth order, economic class, and social status. We are overly conscious of what others think of us, and we try to be what they want us to be. It is hard to be ourselves.
  • There is no room to struggle or to make mistakes. We can’t ask for help. We strive to be perfect and useful.
  • High achievement is expected in education, our work, and our families. We constantly criticize ourselves and are preoccupied with how well (or not well) we are fulfilling our duty.
  • We struggle to know our own history (as noted, it was “erased” and rewritten by our colonizers).
  • The war is still alive in our minds. We constantly feel our survival is threatened. We have a backlog of heartbreak from broken families, deaths, and other losses.
  • The colonization, war, and occupation have made us harsh with and suspicious of one another. We compete with and compare ourselves with others. We feel terrified and humiliated and like no one cares.


To move our liberation forward, we need self-determination for Korea and the reunification of Korea into one country.

The Korean people have always opposed the splitting of our country and have fought for unification. We know there are not two Korean peoples, but we have not had the chance to build unity amongst ourselves.

For our long-term security, we must build unity. We have been led to think that high-paying jobs, material goods, and money will make us secure and give us a good life. In fact, breaking down our isolation and separation is the key to our survival.

Building unity is a big contradiction to hurts from the class society. Reunifying the Korean Peninsula would be an important step toward worldwide unity.

We can begin by making friends with and getting close to other Koreans, including those who are different from us. We can also learn Korean history.

Allies can oppose the common belief that reunification can only happen if North Korea conforms to the capitalist world (not true!). They can acknowledge the damage done and apologize, stay close, and offer resource for healing.


Capitalism uses war and the threat of war to make money for the owning class. War encourages every kind of violence. We need to be able to think about people who have been hurt by war and assist in their healing. War destroys the environment. War increases climate change.

Capitalism continues to squeeze the last bit out of people and the environment. Climate change is already having a large impact on Korea. Weather patterns are shifting; water levels are rising; shorelines are eroding; fishing, food, and other resources are diminishing; and coastal cities are being threatened. As resources become increasingly scarce, wars over those resources will increase. Climate change will bring more wars.

To end the destruction of the environment, we will need to eliminate classism and end war and all other oppressions. Building unity is essential for this. All living things can flourish and thrive together.

Teresa Enrico

International Liberation Reference Person for Pacific Islander and Pilipino/a-Heritage People

Seattle, Washington, USA

(Present Time 188, July 2017)

Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00