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“American” Ideas and South Korean Nation-Building: U.S. Influence on South Korean Education

Jooyoung Lee 1

1Brown University

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This paper examines the American role in shaping South Korean nation-building during the early Cold War by considering how the United States attempted to form South Korea’s education and how Koreans responded to these efforts. It looks at education as an arena where “American” ideas such as democracy and liberalism were received, transformed, and utilized by Koreans. This study pays particular attention to the gap between American intentions and Korean expectations, as well as to the competition between American and Japanese systems, which explains the contradictory role America played in South Korean nation-building. In order to better assess the role of the United States in shaping South Korean education, this article considers the complex dynamics between the Japanese legacies, American influence, and Korean actors. Americans had exerted a great effect on Korean education since the beginning of their relationship. American missionaries, U.S. military government, and educational mission teams had all contributed to the expansion of educational opportunities for Koreans. Through the educational institutions that they established or helped establish, Americans tried to spread “their” ideas. In this process, Americans had to struggle with two obstacles: Korean nationalism and the legacies of Japanese colonialism. Many Koreans used American missionary schools for their own purposes and resisted U.S. military government’s policies which ignored their desire for self-determination. American education missions had limited effect on Korean education due to the heterogeneous Japanese system that was still influencing South Korea even after liberation. The ways in which Americans have influenced the democratization of South Korea have not been simple. Although “American” democratic ideas reached Koreans through various routes, Koreans understood the “American” idea within their own historical context and in a way that fit their existing socio-political relations. Oftentimes suspicious of “American” democracy, Koreans developed their own concept of democracy. The overall American influence on Korean democratization, as well as on Korean education, was important but limited. While Americans helped Koreans build educational infrastructure and tried to transfer democratic ideas through it, Koreans actors and Japanese colonial legacies limited its impact.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.