The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, Jan. 5, unanimously proclaimed Jan. 13, 2023, as Korean American Day in Multnomah County. The occasion featured testimony from invited guests to publicly recognize, honor and celebrate the heritage and contributions of Korean Americans in the community.
“Today is a really special day for me and my fellow Korean Americans,” said the proclamation’s sponsor, Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who is a Korean American adoptee herself. “We celebrate the invaluable contributions that Korean Americans have made to enrich our cultural diversity, grow our economic strength and contribute to our community’s well-being.”
The United States and the Republic of Korea share a long history tracing back to 1882, when the nations signed a treaty to establish a peaceful relationship and commerce, Commissioner Stegmann shared as she read the proclamation. This led to a group of 102 Korean immigrants setting sail for Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1902, touching off a first wave of immigration that brought more than 7,500 Koreans to the United States over the next two years. Jan. 13 commemorates the arrival of that first group of Korean immigrants to Hawaii in 1903.
Commissioner Stegmann also highlighted the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Korea in 1953 that brought an end to the Korean War and paved the way for a flourishing South Korean economy. She said that between its signing and 2015, South Koreans went from being 10% as wealthy as Americans, to 70%.
“It is this kind of tenacity, creativity and ingenuity that Korean Americans possess that have resulted in their incredible contributions to our country, and nowhere is that more evident than right here in our own community,” she said.
Consul General of the Republic of Korea in Seattle Eunji Seo joined the meeting virtually to speak about the successes and contributions of Korean Americans. Still, she said, “they never forget their communities,” and called out Stegmann’s service.
Commissioner Stegmann said that today she is proud of her story and that in her role as a county commissioner, she strives to ensure everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the senses of trust and belonging.
Seo also stated that South Korea and the United States share the values of democracy, freedom and human rights.
“As a consul general of the Republic of Korea in Seattle, I will continue to build bonds among Koreans, Korean Americans and Pacific Northwest communities to help the second, third and following generations in serving this nation with honor and courage, fulfilling the vision of our alliance,” she said.
Honorary Consul of the Republic of Korea Susan Cox shared her personal story and connections to Korea and the United States.
“I was born in Korea, and when I was 5 years old, I left Korea to come to Oregon,” she said. “When I left Korea, it wasn’t to come to America. It was to come to a family.”
Cox was the 167th child to be adopted from Korea and credits her adoption as the reason she has had many opportunities. And while there are now more than 200,000 Korean adoptees who now live in the United States, Cox acknowledged the many orphans who never had the opportunity to be adopted.
Cox described that, like her, many Korean adoptees adopted by non-Korean parents can feel “like an island” and feel like they live “between two cultures and two identities.” But she has also seen that change over time.
“When I was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the first Asian Pacific White House Commission, it was the first time that an adoptee was included in the broader AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community.”
For her and other adoptees, it was the first time there had been acknowledgment that adoptees are Korean, not just American, Cox said.
Senator John Lim, who became the first Korean American state senator when he was elected in 1992 to serve East Multnomah County, spoke about his journey as a Korean American.
Sen. Lim and his wife have lived in Multnomah County for 56 years; his children and grandchildren reside here, as well. “Multnomah County is my home,” he said.
Sen. Lim said the sacrifice American troops made during the Korean War, which was fought while he was in high school, “is the reason why I’m here.”
Serving as a house boy for the American troops, Sen. Lim never thought he would be able to go to the United States. But once he arrived in the country, he took on a variety of jobs, including janitorial, house painting, and gardening work. He went on to own a health food vitamin company and, since then, he said he has prospered because of opportunities he’s found in Multnomah County and Oregon.
“We are very proud to be with you, working with you,” he said about the people in Multnomah County, the state of Oregon and the United States.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal thanked the invited guests for “sharing the transnational issues that our countries work on and the values that we share.”
“There’s no doubt that the contributions that the Korean American community has made to Multnomah County, to our whole state, has been enormous, and we see examples of it every day,” Commissioner Diane Rosenbaum said.
“It’s so meaningful to have my fellow Korean Americans and my entire AANHPI (Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander) community here with me,” Commissioner Stegmann remarked.
Chair Jessica Vega Pederson thanked Commissioner Stegmann for bringing the Korean American Day proclamation forward and for inviting the guest speakers. She reflected on the importance of such proclamations, calling them “a chance for learning, sharing our cultures and talking about what makes us proud about who we are and the cultures that we come from.”