At many restaurants in Guam, there is a wide variety of kimchi and tanmuji that patrons can order as a complementary side to their main dish. Today, many local radio stations play K-pop and island reggae music to appreciative Gen Z and Alpha audiences. At the center of each of Guam’s villages is a “mom-and-pop” store with names like Gangnam Market, Seoul Mart, Agat Kim Chee Store.

The ubiquity of Korean culture in Guam belies this immigrant groups’ humble beginnings when, in October 1968, two Korean engineers and a contractor landed at the Naval Air Station as the first Koreans to offer support for the escalating American involvement in Vietnam. A half-century later by 2020, the Korean community has grown to more than 3,000 people or roughly 2.2 percent of the island’s population.

Courtesy of Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security, 2015

While this percentage is small, Korean immigrants’ presence on the island can be seen in everyday life across all business spectrums, yet they remain a clannish cultural enclave within the larger Asian and Pacific Island communities. Since this history is a first of its kind, bits and pieces of primary socio-economic and political sources were cobbled together with dozens of layered oral depositions taken from non-naturalized residents (Korean Nationals), Korean Guamanians (known by Koreans locally as ban-ban), and Korean Americans between 2020 and 2023.

Immigration liberalization

Koreans first migrated to the United States following the liberalization of immigration policy in the United States and the lack of job opportunities, political insecurity, and social instability throughout the republic. The Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law in October 1965, served as watershed legislation for Asians as the national origin’s quota of 1924 was abolished, allowing labor and investor migrants from Asian countries ideologically aligned with the US to immigrate to the closest point of entry. For Japanese, Chinese, and Korean nationals, that meant Guam, the largest island in the western Pacific and a mere four hours away by plane.

In 1965 Korea, former military general-turned-president Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) inherited a republic that was still grappling with the aftermath of the Korean War. To fuel modernity, Park’s capitalist South secured massive US foreign and military aid that eventually triggered a substantial socioeconomic transformation that included land reform, the emergence of a new entrepreneur farmer class, upward mobility access, and secondary education.

Due to Korea’s rapid growth and enhanced national security, Park encouraged the export of manpower, technology, and investment to the West, which increased during the 1980s and 1990s to the United States, Guam, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Korean Overseas Development Corporation funneled thousands of skilled and semi-skilled laborers to overseas destinations as a way to overcome the crippling middle-class social inequity, known ominously as Hell Joseon, and pursue versions of their Korean Dream—to be financially successful, technologically savvy, and independent yet fiercely loyal to South Korea.

Planting seeds

Guam of the 1960s is a study of contrast. At the end of the Second World War in 1945, US military planners positioned Guam as an arsenal of democracy, a bulwark that, given its strategic location in the western Pacific, could monitor shifting Asian nationalism in China, Korea, and Vietnam—all flashpoints in the burgeoning Cold War that gripped the world. CHamoru residents and H-2 Filipino laborers were given limited US citizenship at this time through the Organic Act, yet the island remained firmly under military control until 1962 when President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 11045, effectively ending civil rights violations. The island still featured wood-and-tin buildings, mamposteria Catholic churches, and narrow coralline roads that offered a picture-perfect Pacific Island setting at the time of the first Korean arrivals.

Most Korean companies at this time, however, faced considerable administrative and economic obstacles (including passport issuance) to support overseas expansion. Another obstacle was the significant language barrier that existed; few Koreans spoke English, which made it difficult for them to communicate in Guam. Despite these circumstances, by October of 1968, three employees of the conglomerate Jungang Company—Bo Hun Lee, Dong Suk Lee, and Suk Bong Choi—made history as the first Koreans to live and work in post-war Guam. They were recruited to work alongside Ben Palomo, lead engineer of the 500-unit Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority. In a 2015 interview, Bo Hun Lee recalls living a thrifty lifestyle in order to send healthy remittances to family living in the republic:

Our contract was for one year only, but it could be renewed for up to three years. Laborers earned US$1.50 per hour or about US$300 per month—three times that of the average salary in Korea—which was enough to support a family in Korea and provide US$20 per month for the workers’ essentials while in Guam. Engineers earned US$700 per month, but they, too, were frugal. Filipino laborers were paid by the hour, but Korean workers were paid by the job. Korean work crews would go from job site to job site every day. It was a more efficient way to work, and American companies recognized the benefits of piecemeal work.

Making inroads

First-generation Koreans and their children who joined them later in Guam were tough pioneers who favored group living in bare-bones barracks over apartments, condominiums, and houses. Their barracks were located in Maite, the Harmon Industrial Park, and Tamuning—a stone’s throw from Marine Corps Drive, the island’s main coastal thoroughfare. The typical Korean barracks were rustic, nondescript single-story buildings with running water, electricity, and one telephone landline; none remain standing today. Korean laborers and engineers in Guam lived a Spartan life, and their reputation with federal and government of Guam projects was no-nonsense and practical, so much so that American, Filipino, and Korean construction companies competed to petition for Korean H-2 laborers over other imported labor.

Many pioneer Korean immigrants banded together to make the settlement of new Korean immigrants easier. In 1973, the Korean Association of Guam (KAG) and Korean Women’s Association were organized as a support network for island Korean residents. These groups remain active today, providing college scholarships for financially challenged families and community volunteer work for students. In particular, Consul General Chang-Son Kim established the Korean Chamber of Commerce to support Korean businesses in Guam, promote trade between the two regions, and establish a positive relationship between Korean businesses and the rest of the local community.

As Koreans settled, all brought with them generations-old customs and ways—Chuseok, taekwondo, and hapkido, for example—but one has been embraced by Guam: kimchi. According to an island-urban legend, kimchi was introduced to Guam in the early 1970s as a side dish made of spicy fermented cabbage by older Korean women working in the Hawaiian sugar cane fields. Because of the CHamoru penchant for spicy food, kimchi became an instant hit and is now considered a staple. One of the first mom-and-pop stores managed by a Korean family in the early 1970s built a commercial kitchen and produced kimchi, tanmuji, kimbap, and other Korean healthy fast foods. In 2024, mom-and-pop commercial kitchens crank out a couple of dozen varieties of kimchi.

The 1980s and 90s saw a series of economic boom-bust cycles in Korea and Guam. Second-wave Korean investors and workers differentiated themselves as they were affluent, savvy with technology, and upwardly mobile, but they continued to share English as a Second Language difficulties. With their newfound financial, social, and linguistic independence, they settled, for the most part, in the same villages as their first-generation pioneers and replicated how and where the pioneer Korean immigrants lived. This group’s unique characteristic is that a majority of ban-ban do not opt for full US citizenship and rather maintain their permanent residence, green card status in Guam. Ban-ban, Korean Guamanian permanent residents, can take advantage of Korean health and medical services in the republic at affordable costs, while residing in and traveling to and from the US with no visa. The ban-ban invested in the next generation of Korean Guamanians through an understanding of American business models, law, and university education in the mainland US. The combination of these factors has enabled Korean Guamanians to flex their cultural and business muscles by the 21st century as they contribute to the betterment of the island. Today’s Korean families in Guam often are extended with multiple generations living under one roof.

Financial juggernaut

By the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, two events altered the dynamics of Korean out-migration to Guam and the rest of the world. The first event was the economic bailout of South Korean fiscal mismanagement, better known as the IMF crisis. In 1997, the Korean won became overvalued, which adversely affected the cost of foreign debt and future borrowing, and exposed crony corruption. To resolve the mounting economic crisis, the International Monetary Fund intervened with US$55 billion to the Korean government—the largest international economic rescue ever. As a result of the IMF led bailout and the embarrassment the Korean government sustained, disillusioned middle class Koreans panicked to leave the Hell Joseon of middle class stagnation. Many arrived in Guam.

The second event to impact Korean out-migration was the change to US immigration policy. In 2008, the US admitted South Korea into the Visa Waiver Program that offered, among other perks, a 90-day stay in the US without a visa. Consequently, many upwardly mobile Korean professionals made their way to the western Pacific, spiriting private funds as seed money in excess of government limitations. The most common reason why professionals immigrated to Guam is for their children, and to avoid the detrimental effects of the South Korean hypercompetitive score-based education system. One 56-year-old retired mother of two moved to Guam for American education.

I was a professor in Korea, but I retired at the age of 45 to come to Guam. I did not like the hyper-competitive nature of the Korean education system for my children. We sent both our children to the most expensive private school on the island, and that is all we could have wished for. I have no regret[s] in giving up my prestige and academic career in Korea for my children to have received a US education.

A decade following the IMF financial stimulus shows a surge in Korean-managed businesses throughout every village. Korean small business merchants used creative approaches to penetrate the small business ownership dominated by CHamoru and Filipino store owners. At the turn of the century, Korean family corporations leased the store—not the land—from CHamoru and Filipino owners in two- or three-year renewable contracts. By 2023, Korean merchants leased or owned more than 700 businesses in 20 disparate sectors.

Distribution of businesses owned by Koreans residing in Guam, 2022 (Korean Association of Guam, 2023).

Although Koreans brought new flavors to Guam since their arrival in 1968, they have made a tremendous impact on the island community. As the Korean community in Guam grows, it remains similar in design to those of the sprawling Chinatowns located in San Francisco, New York, and Boston: tight-knit, clannish, and protective of their own. Today, island Koreans are so well organized that a newly arrived Korean immigrant could fluently navigate in Guam without understanding a word of English.

By Youngyoon Amy Seo

For further reading

Koreans have contributed to Guam’s cultural diversity since the Vietnam War, but Pacific Island historians have failed to incorporate their story. The following recommended readings focus on Asians in Guam and Micronesia.

Campbell, Bruce L. “The Filipino Community of Guam (1945-1975).” MA thesis, University of Hawai’i, 1987.

Seo, Youngyoon Amy. “The Korean Touch in Guam: Challenging standard identity politics.” BA thesis, East Asian Studies, Stanford University, 2024.

Stephenson, Rebecca A., etal. “’Guam Is Our Home:’ Taiwanese-Chinese ‘Old Timers’ Perceptions of Guam.” Pacific Asia Inquiry 1, no. 1 (2010): 42-53.