To the local Korean community, the area around Pleasant Hill Road, Lawrenceville Suwanee Road and Duluth Highway is known as “K-Town” because of the abundance of Korean businesses and churches located along those corridors.
To Explore Gwinnett officials, it’s an asset to the community that they promote as the “Seoul of the South” in tourism campaigns because of the large number of Korean restaurants, ranging from Korean barbecue joints to bakeries and Korean soul food establishments.
It’s an organic growth that has occurred since the beginning of the century that has spread from the southwestern corner of Gwinnett and added to the county’s diversity.
“Originally it started on Buford Highway, down in Doraville, but just the natural movement of the Korean community has come north,” Stone Grill owner Jason Jang told the Daily Post through an interpreter.
Regardless of what the area is called, the simple fact is that Gwinnett County has become the core of Georgia’s Korean-American community over the last decade and a half. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, the county was home to about 41.9 percent of the Korean-Americans estimated to have lived in Georgia as of July that year.
The next largest population of Korean-Americans in Georgia was in Fulton County, which had a little less than half of the 22,414 Korean residents that lived in Gwinnett in 2014.
That is the most recent survey year for which detailed demographic figures are available. The survey is not as accurate as the decennial census, but it is an annual attempt to estimate and gauge how the population in an area is growing.
If the last census, which is an actual count of the population is looked at, then it should be said that 22,001 of the 52,431 Korean-Americans that called Georgia home in April 2010 were living in Gwinnett County. That still accounted for 41.9 percent of the state’s entire Korean-American population.
The Korean population made up 2.7 percent of the county’s total population at the time, a percentage that remained unchanged in the 2014 estimate, when it was believed that 22,414 Koreans lived in the county. They made up the single largest Asian group in the county two years ago, followed closely by Asian Indians (2.5 percent) and Vietnamese residents (2 percent).
A decade of growth — a decade ago
Regardless of whether the figures from 2010 census or the 2014 survey are used, the fact is the Korean population in Gwinnett has more than doubled since the 2000 census listed it as 9,298 people, or 1.6 percent of the county’s total population.
There are several factors that have spurred this growth, but several members of the Korean community told the Daily Post that factors which would draw people from any demographic to the county — schools and a location along I-85 — are key factors.
“In my opinion, the county is located in a very good location,” Korean American Restaurant Association president Joseph An said. “There’s 85 Interstate highway which goes to the Washington D.C. area, and everybody who wants to go to New York City has to take 85. …
“Also, in Gwinnett County, there are many good schools, and schools are one of the most important factors for people to choose a location to live.”
Explore Gwinnett international marketing coordinator Sarah Park, a native of the Gangnam area of Seoul, South Korea, added that a diversity of service is also an attraction that has helped the local Korean community grow.
“There are more choices, more markets, more churches, more education opportunities and schools,” she said.
Sarah’s husband, Michael Park, who is also of Korean descent but grew up in South Carolina, said the county has reached a “tipping point” where its Korean business community is not only made up of restaurants, but also types of service businesses, such as travel agencies, physicians, real estate agents, lawyers and insurance businesses.
It also has newspapers, a TV station, after school programs and churches that cater specifically to the Korean community. The Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta, which provides help to members of the Korean community, is also located in Norcross.
“It just comes down a point where the tipping point, I think, is when you not only have the large markets and grocery stores, but when services become available,” Park said. “Everything from the after school services, to medical professionals, CPAs and lawyers. When my grandmother was here, she loved it because she could go to the doctor and not have to have one of us translate for her.
“Her doctor could tell her straight up, ‘Here’s what you need, here’s the kind of medication you need.’ They even had pharmacists who were bilingual, so it’s just quality of life.”
When Explore Gwinnett officials talk about a “Seoul of the South,” it should be no surprise that they are mainly talking about the Duluth and Suwanee area. Much of that growth in the county’s Korean population has been in those cities and they have, by far, the largest numbers of Korean residents among Gwinnett’s 16 municipalities.
“The fact that there are a lot of Koreans who live around here is because this is where all of the Korean stuff is,” said Chris Cho, the assistant manager at Tree Story Korean Bakery in Duluth. “It’s not just the restaurants, it’s the H Mart, where you can shop and get the Korean things that you need.”
Several people the Daily Post talked to said the services available to Koreans in Gwinnett County also draw Korean Americans who live in other states because they don’t have those services available where they live.
“We also have a lot of customers who are Korean, who live in Florida and other states, who visit often because they do business here and are here every weekend,” Cho said.
Duluth and Suwanee combined were home to about 4,301 of the more than 6,000 Korean-Americans who were believed to be living in one of the county’s cities in 2014. The number of people of Korean descent who live in unincorporated Gwinnett is more than twice the number of those who live in a city though.
The census bureau estimated 2,688 of the 27,821 people believed to have lived in Duluth in 2014 were of Korean descent. They accounted for 9.7 percent of the city’s population. Fourteen years earlier, there were 763 Koreans living in the city, making up 3.4 percent of the population. By 2010, that figure was up to 2,600 people, or 9.8 percent of the population.
Suwanee’s Korean community went through a similar growth spurt, going from 256 people in 2000 to 1,467 in 2010 and to an estimated 1,613 people in 2014. They went from making 2.9 percent of the population in 2000 to an estimated 9.7 percent in 2014.
“We’re at a point in the Korean immigration history where it makes sense now,” Michael Park said. “Our parents’ generation was kind of the first wave (to come over from Korea), but a lot of them are retiring now, so as you get that first generation of Korean immigrants who are retiring, they just want quality of life.
“They’re looking for warmer weather. They’re looking for a place to play golf, a place to spend time with their grandkids, and it’s just much more attractive here than it is up north.”
However, after Suwanee, the city-by-city population figures drop off significantly. Sugar Hill had the third largest population in 2014, when an estimated 659 people of Korean descent called the city home, making up 3.3 percent of the population. that is compared to 507 people in 2010 and 63 people in 2000.
Peachtree Corners was home to about 331 Korean-Americans in 2014, but there is no previous census data to compare that to since the city was not created until after the 2010 census count.
What these cities have in common is that they are along the western edge of the county and more or less follow the I-85 corridor. Even Norcross and Lawrenceville, which respectively each had Korean populations of 148 and 135 people in 2014, ranked high among Gwinnett cities.
The exception to the rule, at least as of 2014, has been Auburn, which has proved to be a new hot spot for growth among Korean-Americans this decade. It was home to a Korean community of an estimated 222 people in 2014, compared to official counts of 6 in 2010 and 14 in 2000.
Sarah Park said the attraction of eastern Gwinnett has to do with one key factor that has drawn people from other ethnic backgrounds to that area: It’s more rural, and there’s more land to live on out there.
‘Seoul of the South’
Rather than let Gwinnett’s Korean community be in the shadows, Explore Gwinnett officials are embracing and promoting it.
In her position with international marketing, Sarah Park serves as a liaison between the community and the tourism agency, and it was she who came up with the “Seoul of the South” promotional moniker.
Explore Gwinnett has created flyers listing some of the area’s Korean restaurants. The flyers are distributed to hotels and other visitor information areas.
Park and her husband also recently led a pair of tours, one for hoteliers and another for reporters and food bloggers, of select restaurants in the Duluth area.
“When I talk about Korean food, I don’t want to just talk about Korean barbecue,” Park said during one such tour on April 5. “I just wanted to introduce people to the other food that we eat.”
Park has also be instrumental in getting Korean restaurants to participate in Gwinnett Restaurant Week. Last year, the popular Breakers Korean BBQ near Gwinnett Place Mall joined the tour and the group is looking to expand that participation in the years to come.
“It’s not that restaurants think there’s necessarily set reason (for coming to Gwinnett), but it’s just that this is where the community is,” Jang said.
But the restaurants don’t cater solely to the Korean community. It’s not uncommon to people of several different ethnic backgrounds patronizing the restaurants, which range from in what they serve from Korean barbecue to baked goods and Korean-style soul food.
Cho said the popular bakery, for example, include dishes from around the world but still keeps its roots in Korean delicacies.
“There are a lot of non-Koreans who have come in and tried out Korean-style baked goods and drinks, and it becomes one of their favorite things that they get every time they come here,” Cho said.