Story: Koreans

Page 1. 20th-century immigration

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Korea is divided into two countries: the communist north and the democratic south. Only a handful of North Koreans have arrived in New Zealand; almost all the Korean immigrants have come from South Korea.

The great majority of Korean people began coming to New Zealand comparatively recently. From the first census record in 1966 until the early 1990s few arrived, and the population remained below 1,000.

A change in policy

Following a review of immigration policy in 1986, a new act in 1987 changed the rules about who could enter New Zealand. Rather than discriminating by country of origin, the requirements emphasised economic, social and humanitarian factors. In 1991 the government introduced a points system for professional and business migrants, and set yearly immigration targets. Unlike the old policy, the points system was not based on a list of preferred occupations. These changes allowed thousands of South Koreans to emigrate over the following decade. They mainly arrived in two waves: in the early to mid-1990s and in the early 2000s.

The 1990s boom

In the decade from 1991 the population of New Zealanders with Korean ethnicity increased 20-fold, from 930 to 19,026. This rapid growth reflected not only the immigration policy changes, but also a booming Korean economy, which allowed many to accumulate the capital required to emigrate. In 1990 over 43 million people were crammed into South Korea, a land area smaller than the North Island of New Zealand. With the pressures of life in the teeming capital of Seoul and other cities, and the competitive nature of the Korean education system, many middle-class people looked overseas for a lifestyle change.

Immigrants and visitors

Koreans settling in New Zealand maintained close ties with Korea – by 1996 they were known to visit their home country more than any other immigrants. The number of Koreans visiting New Zealand also increased in the 1990s, from 4,200 in 1990 (0.43% of all visitors) to 127,400 in 1996 (8.33% of the total).

Reasons for this rapid growth included:

  • the Korean government’s policy encouraging overseas travel, which came into effect in 1989
  • a robust Korean economy
  • Korean immigrant families living in New Zealand
  • the experiences of Korean students in New Zealand
  • the introduction of direct flights to and from Korea in 1993
  • New Zealand’s clean and green reputation.

However, immigration slowed in the late 1990s. After New Zealand introduced an English-language test as a condition for immigration in 1995, many Koreans were discouraged from applying. In addition, an economic crisis in Korea in 1997 reduced the relative wealth of many prospective immigrants, making it harder for them to leave.

How to cite this page:

Inshil Choe Yoon and Hong-key Yoon, 'Koreans - 20th-century immigration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2022)

Story by Inshil Choe Yoon and Hong-key Yoon, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Oct 2015, updated 1 Apr 2016