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[Robert J. Fouser] Korean American women storm the House

The recent US election produced a mixed result. As expected, Joe Biden won the presidency, thus adding Donald Trump’s name to the list of defeated presidents. Down-ballot elections for the Senate, House of Representatives, governors and state houses, however, proved disappointing for Democrats, as Republicans beat expectations at every level. The results show that voters wanted a change at the top, but within the context of centrist moderation.

Of all the races in play, the most surprising result came in the House of Representatives. In 2018, Democrats won 235 seats in the 435-seat chamber, but projections show that they will lose at least ten seats, giving them a paper-thin majority of around 225. Before the election, Democrats were confident about gaining seats, which would have put them in a strong position to keep the majority in a Biden presidency. With rare exceptions, the party in the White House loses seats in the midterm election.

The House elections continued the trend toward increased diversity that took root in the 2000s. For Korean Americans, the results were truly historic. Five Korean Americans ran, and four won, three of whom are women. Of the four winners, two are Democrats and two are Republican.

Before this election, only two Korean Americans had ever served in the US Congress. Jay Kim, an immigrant from South Korea, represented a district in California from 1993-1999 as a Republican. He was the first person of Korean descent elected to the US Congress and only the second in the world, outside of South Korea, elected to national office. In 1986, Arai Shokei, a Zainichi Korean, was elected to the powerful lower house of the Japanese Diet where he served until his death in 1998.

In 2018, 20 years after Jay Kim left the House, the second Korean American, Andy Kim was elected to represent a district in New Jersey as a Democrat and began his term in January 2019. He was reelected in 2020. Andy Kim was born in the US in 1982 and was a career diplomat before entering politics.

Before Andy Kim’s election, only two other Koreans were elected to national-level positions outside of South Korea. In 2004, Haku Shinkun, born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father, was elected to the upper house of the Japanese Diet. In New Zealand, Melissa Lee, an immigrant from South Korea, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008. Both are still in office.

The three Korean American winners of the recent US House elections are all women. In California, Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both immigrants from South Korea, were elected as Republicans to seats in Orange County. In Washington, Marilyn Strickland, who was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and an African American father was elected as a Democrat.

Andy Kim, Michelle Steel and Young Kim come from districts that are competitive between the two parties. Steel and Kim won very closes races. Strickland’s district leans slightly Democratic. Districts that have a balance in party affiliation prefer candidates with centrist political views and are quick to punish politicians who move too far to one extreme. How these representatives deal with pressure to take more extreme positions will weigh heavy on their political future.

Another interesting thing about the districts is that they do not have a particularly large Korean population. All the districts are heavily suburban with varying degrees of ethnic diversity, with Young Kim’s district being the most diverse. Winning in diverse areas without a large Korean American population shows that the candidates won on their ideas, not on an appeal to ethnicity.

The only losing House candidate was David Kim, who ran as a progressive Democrat in the Los Angeles district that includes Koreatown. The race had no Republican, so Kim faced an uphill battle against an incumbent Democrat. At 36, Kim was the youngest candidate, and his progressive views reflect many of the concerns of millennials.

With three Korean American additions to the House, the US now has four of the seven ethnic Koreans elected at the national level outside of South Korea. In 2019, Nelly Shin was elected to a seat in the Canadian House of Commons, joining Haku and Lee in the non-US group.

The next election in 2022 will be the first after the 2020 census. Every candidate will have to run in districts redrawn to reflect population changes. If the winners of 2020 can survive the redistricting, then they will be in a better position to build on this year’s victories.


Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com -- Ed.
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