The 2020 election was one for the record books, with historic voter turnout and the election of the first woman to the vice presidency. On January 3, 2021, those that successfully ran for Congress in the 2020 election were sworn into the 117th Congress, the most diverse Congress in the United States’ history. The House of Representatives in particular saw historic gains in representation, including the largest class of women to ever serve (118 members). Of the 27 freshman women, three made history as the first Korean American women to be elected to Congress: Democrat Marilyn Strickland representing Washington’s 10th district and Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim, representing California’s 48th and 39th districts respectively.
Representative Strickland is no stranger to breaking barriers. The daughter of an African American military veteran and a Korean mother, she was born in Seoul, South Korea. Before running for Congress, she served as Tacoma, Washington’s mayor, the first Black woman to do so. In addition to being one of the first Korean American women to serve in Congress, her election also makes her the first African American to represent Washington at the federal level. To show her pride of her multicultural heritage, she wore a traditional Korean hanbok to the 117th Congressional swearing-in ceremony.
Washington’s 10th district, which Representative Strickland represents, has strong ties to the Indo-Pacific. Ten percent of the district’s population identifies as Asian American, and 20% of the Asian American population identifies as Korean American (nearly 15,000 people). Over 3,700 jobs in the district are tied to exports to the Indo-Pacific, exports whose monetary value totaled $537 million in goods and services in 2018. The district has 11 sister partnerships with the Indo-Pacific, including one between Tacoma, Washington and the city of Gunsan in North Jeolla Province, South Korea.
Together, Representatives Steel and Kim were part of the historically large freshman class of Republican women to run for and be elected to Congress. Their victories in California’s Orange County flipped the 39th and 48th districts from Democratic to Republican control, a reversal of the outcomes of the 2018 elections. Representative Kim, who was born in Incheon, South Korea, previously served as the first Korean American Assemblywoman to represent California. Representative Steel, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, was considered to be the highest ranking Korean American elected official when she served on California’s State Board of Equalization, the United States’ only elected tax board, from 2007-2015.
The state of California as a whole has a deep connection with the Indo-Pacific and the 39th and 48th districts are no exception. Nearly 50,000 Korean Americans call the 39th district home and 77% of all international students who attend schools there hail from the Indo-Pacific. Three of its seven sister partnerships with the Indo-Pacific involve South Korea: Buena Park and the city of Seongbuk-gu in Seoul Province; Fullerton and the city of Yongin in Gyeonggi Province; and La Habra and the city of Eunpyeong-gu in Seoul Province. California’s 48th district sent $2.6 billion dollars’ worth of goods and services exports to the Indo-Pacific and visitors from the region spent over $300 million in 2018. The district has four sister relationships with the Indo-Pacific, including one between Garden Grove and the city of Anyang in Gyeonggi Province.
Sarah Wang is a Programs Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.