How American is South Korea?

February 1, 2018 Dennis Ottley

Everything you need to know about the American influence in South Korea

When the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel, the North and the South went on separate ways. The North was occupied by the Soviet Union; the South by the United States of America. There was longing for a reunified Korea, but the war that broke out on 1950, when the North invaded the South, extinguished all hopes.

A stalemate ensued between the two, and the North and the South are permanently divided. Families were torn apart. Brothers and sisters live in the opposite side of the border. The South live in constant fear of an invasion from the belligerent North.

To assuage the terror of their ally, the US signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with the government of South Korea—an alliance that endured the tests of time. Today, the relationship between South Korea and America still define the foreign policy of the former. Currently, the US have more than ten military bases throughout the country.

But the alliance goes beyond the American military presence in South Korea. The United States helped shape the course of South Korea’s journey. Their pact was fused in blood. During the Korean war, 36,516 Americans perished while pushing the North Koreans out of the South. It was a great sacrifice that forged relationship between the two countries in the last six decades.

Through the help of the Americans, the South Koreans picked up the pieces after the ravages of war and built their country. The financial aid from the Americans and the monetary reward for sending South Korean soldiers to fight in Vietnam made the rebuilding possible.

The process of modernization picked up a steady pace, leading to the emergence of South Korea as one of the leading economies in Asia. With urbanization comes consumerism. The change is sometimes called Westernization, where the American popular culture slowly penetrates the tradition of South Korea. From clothing to technology, American influence in South Korea is reflected in many aspects of the Korean society. The Americans also helped them practice social mobility in a country primarily influenced by Confucian ethics.

Eventually, the alliance turns into a global partnership. Both are members of the G20 countries, with South Korea hosting the summit seven years ago. They also cooperate in various development efforts and humanitarian assistance programs. In terms of people-to-people ties, the Asian country sends more students in the United States to study than any other industrialized country.

But if one asks, “How American is South Korea?” The answer is not always definite. There are a lot of influences and cultural adaptations, but South Koreans also retain a unique strand of their local tradition. Their way of life, though considerably westernized, still holds the vestiges of a distinct Asian flavor that define that region of the world.

Dennis J. Ottley is the author of Remembering (Korea: 1950–1953). Those who are interested to learn more about the Korean War and its effect to the American war veterans will find this book interesting. For questions and discussions, connect with me through Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.



Byrne, Thomas. n.d. “Five Facts You Should Know About the US-South Korea Alliance But Don’t.” Huffington Post. Accessed December 4, 2017.

US Department of State. 2017. “U.S. Relations With the Republic of Korea.” Accessed December 4, 2017.

Whyte, Leon. 2015. “The Evolution of the U.S-South Korea Alliance.” Diplomat, June 13. Accessed December 4, 2017.

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