The 2020 Census should settle the questions about how many Korean-Americans are living in the U.S. Southeast. For now, however, the estimates of the Korean Consulate General based in Atlanta are about as good as you can get and the consulate’s estimate for the seven states and the Virgin Islands, over which it has jurisdiction, is more than 204,000.
Most remarkable has been the growth in Georgia, which according to the 2010 Census was 83,568 Korean-Americans, with a current estimate of 100,000 in a state with a population of 10.4 million.
Kathleen Stephens, who served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008-11 reacted with a degree of surprise upon learning of the size of the Korean communities in the region.
“It couldn’t have been imagined just a few decades ago,” she told Global Atlanta in a telephone interview from Washington where she is based as the president and CEO of the Korean Economic Institute of America.
She is to be the featured speaker at the annual dinner of the Southeast U.S. Korean Chamber of Commerce at the KIA Georgia Training Facility in West Point the evening of Thursday, Jan. 16.
The former ambassador’s attachment to Korea goes back to 1975 when she spent two years in Chungnam Province as a Peace Corps volunteer. She returned in the 1980s to serve for six years as a political officer in the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and then as principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Busan. When she assumed the position of ambassador, she was the first Korean-language speaker and the first woman in that role.
Aside from holding the prestigious teaching position as the William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford Unviersity’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, she recently was elected to chair The Korea Society in New York’s board of directors.
She told Global Atlanta that she considered the presence of so many Korean-Americans in Georgia “a constant reminder of unfinished business,” and underscored the “human element” that has endured with the division of the Korean peninsula between the Republic of Korea and the Democractic People’s Republic of Korea including the separation of family members.
Well-aware of Georgia’s historical ties to South Korea, she has met with former president of Emory University and former ambassador to South Korea James Laney recalling Dr. Laney was involved in defusing the 1994 nuclear crisis during his tenure there from 1993-96.
The heightened tensions on the peninsula are as high as those of the turbulent 1990s, she said calling today a “period of stalemate” following the “period of hope and summitry” in 2018 and the year of “fire and fury” of 2017.
“It’s not as bad as one might have feared,” she said of the current hostilities, “North Korea has refrained from testing. We’re not at the level of 2017 but have to be ready for a long-range missile test, or something else to challenge the U.S.”
She also said that North Korea’s capabilities to harm Americans should not be underestimated and recalled a period of terrorist hostilities in the past. Despite today’s risks, she cited a few reasons for optimism.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un understands that if the United States suffered a direct hit, his country could be obliterated. Also at his relatively young age, 36, he could look forward to a half century of further rule if North Korea advances economically.
“Economic development is more important to Kim Jong-un than it was to his father or grandfather,” she said. “He understands that North Korea is an anomaly and that it doesn’t have the opportunities of China, Mongolia or Russia,” its neighbors in Northeast Asia.
But China, which has close ties to North Korea, provides a model where authoritarian rule can exist alongside economic development. “The Chinese can tell them that we have ways of doing this,” she said.
Ms. Stephens also said that she supports efforts to unify the two Koreas through inter-Korean programs such as building a railroad and road infrastructure to tie the two more closely together even if sanctions remain in place.
She also supported programs such as the addition of North Korean hockey players to the South Korean female hockey team in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics of 2018, and recommended the book by New York Times reporter Seth Berkman, “A Team of Their Own: How an international Sisterhood Made Olympic History.”
Prior to attending the Southeast U.S. Korean Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner at the KIA training facility in West Point, she will visit the headquarters of Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama,LLC. in Montgomery, Ala., with a small delegation headed by chamber president Jim Whitcomb. She said that instead of delivering a lengthy address, she would prefer to provide only abbreviated remarks so that she could answer questions from attendees at the dinner.
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