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by Inshil Choe Yoon and Hong-key Yoon

Before 1990 there were fewer than 1,000 Koreans in New Zealand. Then the numbers soared, reaching over 30,000 by 2013. Leaving their crowded cities for a less frantic urban life has proved very popular among South Koreans. They have flocked to Auckland, where they have built up business and cultural networks.

20th-century immigration

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.

Immigration in the 2000s

The early 2000s wave

The New Zealand government’s long-term business immigration scheme stimulated a second wave of Korean immigrants in the early 2000s. Although migration rates then slowed, the number of New Zealand residents who were born in Korea rose from 17,931 in 2001 to 26,601 in 2013. In 2013 the number of people identifying with Korean ethnicity (including New Zealand-born Koreans) was 30,171.

Immigration patterns

New Zealand’s immigration policy has been the main factor influencing the number of arrivals, and therefore the size of the country’s Korean community. On the other hand, a lack of job or business opportunities in New Zealand’s small economy, coupled with some hostility and racism towards Asians, has sometimes hampered their adjustment to their new home.

Some Koreans returned to their homeland for employment opportunities, while others used New Zealand as a stepping stone, often to Australia. Others were dubbed ‘astronaut families’, where the husband returned to work in Korea, remitting money to and occasionally visiting his wife and family in New Zealand.

The majority of Korean immigrants held tertiary qualifications and were in their 30s and 40s, meeting the immigration criteria. Some chain migration occurred as earlier arrivals sent home favourable reports to friends and relations – including elderly parents – who then came out to join them.

Where the grass is greener

In 2002 economist Inbom Choi told a Seoul conference what was behind the recent wave of Korean migration: ‘Korea’s highly competitive educational system is driving these people from their homeland. They would rather raise their children in an easy-going, environmentally cleaner, less expensive and English speaking educational system.’1

Places of residence

Most Koreans were used to living in apartments in high-rise blocks. In New Zealand a city lifestyle suited them, as it offered access to all the necessities and to community networks. On arrival most families had sufficient funds to buy houses in relatively affluent areas, such as Auckland’s North Shore, which, with its Korean churches, soon held an active community. In 2001 it was claimed that in North Shore City, Korean was the second-most common language after English.

In 2013 just over 70% of New Zealand’s Koreans lived in the Auckland area, with 11% in Christchurch and others scattered throughout the country. In Auckland, the North Shore remained the most popular area but the central city area had also become popular.

Ties with Korea

Koreans in New Zealand continued to retain close ties to Korea, thanks to the internet and air travel. In 2013 they had greater mobile phone and internet access than other Asians in New Zealand and the general population. They were frequent travellers to Korea, with many visiting their families during September, October and December. September or October are popular – Chusok, the Autumn Full Moon Day, when families get together to venerate their ancestors, falls within these months, and the weather is good. In December there are many end-of-year social events and Christmas.

  1. Simon Collins, ‘Koreans embrace lifestyle change.’ Weekend Herald, 26–27 October 2002, p. B7. Back


Finding work

Finding suitable jobs has been the greatest challenge for Koreans in New Zealand. The small number who arrived before 1991 tended to have higher employment rates and incomes than later immigrants. Those who arrived in the early 1990s when Korea’s economy was booming were unwilling to take just any job. Failing to find work in their areas of expertise, some established small businesses with their own funds. The income from these enterprises often augmented earnings from investments.

In 1996 over 50% of Korean immigrants in New Zealand were either underemployed or unemployed. By 2001 the employment rate had risen, but those in full-time work were still mainly engaged in small-scale businesses serving the Korean community.


Professional workers also focused on the community: there were real estate agents, lawyers and bank employees all catering for Koreans. Popular ethnic businesses were grocery stores, travel agencies, restaurants, and souvenir shops for Korean tourists. In the mid-1990s some immigrants serviced a short-lived boom in the Korean tourist market. The boom ended in 1997 when a foreign exchange crisis rocked the Korean economy. In the 2000s the popularity of tourism has been revived and the influx of Korean tourists is strong. In terms of per capita spending per day, Korean tourists are among the highest. Although numbers have declined since 2007, Korean visitors remain the seventh largest ethnic group holidaying in New Zealand, with over 41,000 people visiting during 2014-15.

Labour force changes

In the early 2000s many Koreans were in the process of settling, while in the following decade many Koreans had settled down. In 2013, 56% of Koreans were in the labour force, up from 46% in 2006. Having spent more time in the country, the 1990s wave of immigrants and their children (by then in their 20s and 30s) were working in professional jobs as teachers, accountants, lawyers, dentists and doctors. In 2013, 21% of Koreans were in professional occupations and 16% were technicians and trade workers. 24% were managers, indicating that a high number of Koreans were self-employed.

Meant for bigger things

Alex Kim was a marketing manager for Chanel cosmetics in Seoul. Arriving in Auckland in the early 1990s, he opened a shop called The Sweet Factory. He then moved to Whāngārei, where he helped found the Immanuel Church. ‘I was trying to purchase a lobster factory … but God had a different plan for me. He wanted me to come here and set up the church.’1


In the 2010s businesses began to serve the wider community. In Auckland, Korean greenhouses and market gardens were supplying the city with vegetables. Laundries and dairies sprang up in urban areas. Some Koreans who had moved north to Whāngārei became involved in businesses such as sawmilling and golf driving ranges.

In 2013, 23% of Koreans were engaged in accommodation and food services. This included owners of restaurants and motels. Some establishments accommodated Korean international students. The second-most popular industry was retail trade, which accounted for 16% of the Korean workforce. The percentage of Koreans engaged in these two industries was far higher than that of the Asian New Zealand population and New Zealanders in general.


Although the number of Korean international students reduced from 17,500 in 2007 to 7,879 in 2014, they have contributed greatly financially to the Korean community and New Zealand economy.

  1. Simon Collins, ‘Korean migrants drift north.’ Weekend Herald, 28–29 September 2002, p. B7. Back

Community and culture


In 2013 over half of New Zealand Koreans were Christians, with Buddhists a small minority. Churches and temples were central points to meet for services and community support.

Wherever they have settled, Koreans have helped boost Catholic and Presbyterian congregations. Korean churches were established in existing church buildings, particularly on Auckland’s North Shore. Some churches serve as community centres, offering diverse courses, and concerts of Korean classics, gospel and pop by well-known Korean singers. The Catholic community has been broadcasting Korean radio programmes since the mid-1990s.

Although a smaller group, Buddhists contribute to the wider community by inviting prominent Korean Buddhist monks to give talks in New Zealand. Many Koreans of all faiths flocked to listen to Reverend Pomnyun in November 2014 at North Harbour Stadium, Albany, Auckland.

Familiar foods

Since the 1990s Korean restaurants have multiplied, serving up traditional fare such as pulgogi, kalbi, pibimbap, cheyukbokkum and kimchi.


The first Korean language class for children began in the 1980s in a Wellington church where Koreans met on Sundays. In the 2010s Korean community schools in major cities usually open on Saturdays, offering classes in language and other cultural traditions such as taekwondo, a Korean martial art. Some schools also offer Korean language classes to non-Korean adult students.

Newspapers and websites

Korean newspapers and magazines such as the New Korea Herald, the New Zealand Times and Korea Town have been circulating in Auckland since the 1990s. They are now also accessible online, along with more recent publications such as NZ Korea Post, Goodday New Zealand, Korea Sunday Sisa News and Tauranga Korean Times.

Community celebrations and concerts

The community gathers on national days, including 1 March, which marks the Korean Independence Movement’s demonstration against the Japanese in 1919. Korean associations in major cities, as well as the Korean Embassy in Wellington and consulate in Auckland, organise various annual events to help Koreans maintain their culture and to promote a better appreciation of it by New Zealanders. In 2002 celebrations in Christchurch featured percussionists and solos on the haegum (two-string fiddle) and ka-yagum (12-string zither). Many concerts performed by local and world-famous Korean musicians have been staged in the main cities.


Many Koreans love golf. They see New Zealand as an ideal location for playing the sport recreationally and for training future golfers. In 2011 around 1,000 Koreans were learning golf in New Zealand, and Koreans made up nearly 70% of the qualifying field for the New Zealand Open.

In 2002, 13-year-old Jae An from Rotorua became the youngest person ever to qualify for the New Zealand Open, where he impressed such luminaries as Tiger Woods. Lydia Ko, the youngest-ever winner of the New Zealand Women’s Open in 2013 at the age of 15, became the youngest-ever winner on several tours, winning the 2012 New South Wales Open, the 2013 Canadian Women’s Open and the 2015 CME Group Tour. In September 2015, Ko became the youngest-ever female winner of a golf major by winning the Evian Championship. She followed up this feat by winning the next major, the ANA Inspiration, in April 2016. In July 2015 Danny Lee, another young Korean New Zealander, won the Greenbrier Classic on the elite PGA Tour.

Community involvement

Many Koreans in New Zealand are looking forward to deeper cultural communications with the wider New Zealand population. Some have developed initiatives to meet local community needs. In 2013 Helen Shin, together with Carmel Stewart, established the Soul of Art Community in Tūākau in the Waikato. This non-profit trust offers art, music and educational opportunities to local youth.

Kimchigook, the first locally produced Korean drama sitcom, was being filmed in 2015 and was due to be shown in New Zealand, South Korea and other countries later in the year.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Korea.

  • 1976 census: 147
  • 2001 census: 17,931
  • 2006 census: 28,809
  • 2013 census: 26,601

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Korean: 30,792 (2006); 30,171 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Inshil Choe Yoon and Hong-key Yoon, 'Koreans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 December 2020)

He kōrero nā Inshil Choe Yoon and Hong-key Yoon, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Oct 2015, updated 1 Apr 2016