Hegemonic Legitimization of U.S. Dominance

A historical perspective on U.S. imperialism of South Korea:

In order to investigate the possibilities for self-empowerment of Korean subjects situated within the U.S., we must also look closely at the history of the South Korean nation-state’s emergence under U.S. military authority, political supervision, and cultural dominance. Sovereignty in South Korea has always been a critical issue ever since the territory gained independence from Japanese imperial rule, which dominated from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. However, this issue has largely been omitted or carefully excluded from the dominant historical narrative produced within the confines of a knowledge system imposed by American political and cultural forces.

Some argue that in 1945, with the fall of the Japanese empire in the Pacific, there was transference of power as the key players of Cold War politics took over the vulnerable and traumatized nations such as that of Korea. It was almost immediately after the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War that Korea experienced the violence of partition, which effectively formed the North and South Koreas. The peninsula was split into two nation-states to be occupied and subsequently advised by the communist Soviet Union in the North and the capitalist U.S. In 1950, the North and South Koreas engaged in a brutal war only to end in an armistice. The 38th parallel exists still today as a vestige of the wounds left unhealed from the war and containing ideological as well as militaristic tensions ready to erupt at any moment.

So as to prevent another nation from being conceded to the threat of communism, the U.S. felt the need to have a strong presence in the weak and vulnerable borders of a community just freed from colonial oppression. The U.S. imposed institutions, like educational institutions, to legitimize its cultural influences over the Korean masses and discreetly build structural dominance over the Korean national economy. The American intervention into South Korean national formation cannot simply be regarded as an act of charity or benevolent support for a community desperately seeking independence from Japanese colonialism. The U.S. presence in the southern part of the peninsula was a strategic move, which was motivated by American desires for economic and military expansion in the pacific. Chungmoo Choi in referring to the increasing dominance of the U.S. as the center of the new Western empire, claims, “In other words, (post)colonial South Koreans have continued to mimic Western hegemonic culture and have reproduced a colonial pathology of self-denigration and self-marginalization, which have long blinded the South Koreans from critically assessing their ‘liberator-benefactor’ as a colonizing hegemon” (Choi 83). According to Choi, struggling to culturally assimilate to Western cultural models has obstructed the Korean national community from realizing its own colonized consciousness under U.S. imperialism and initiate radical demands to negotiate the struggle for decolonization.

A closer look at history of the relations between the U.S. and South Korea will reveal that the myths of American generosity detracted attention away from the reality of the U.S. making pursuits to control foreign markets and strive to dominate the world capitalist system. South Korea was designated as a kind of empty territory or container in which to store surplus agricultural products (Choi 243). While the U.S. provided some amount food for a war-torn and impoverished South Korea, it also imposed its own economic policies and expropriated the revenues for its own plans for military expansion. However, as the American “regime of representation” continued to impose portrayals of the American imperialists as generous paternal figures, South Koreans increasingly looked at themselves as inferior subjects indebted to the superior (white) Americans. Choi suggests, “This economic, political, and… military dependency on the United States allowed for further American intervention into South Korean affairs and firmly situated the nation at the edges of the American empire” (242).

The mythology of American aid in forming the Republic of Korea as a nation-state can be critically viewed as an illusory veil that obscures the history of U.S. occupation of South Korea, its control over the Korean state-making process, and its continued military surveillance of the surrounding territories that constitute East Asia and Southeast Asia. This same mythology, however, helped to impress a particular image of American culture and civilization into the minds of the Korean masses. For many, immigrating to the U.S. was a way by which to reach closer to the center of this civilizing force and experience a more “just” society with more “equal” opportunities to obtain financial stability, if not success. However, upon arrival, all racialized immigrants are met with the obstacles presented by a civilization and culture founded on principles and structures of racism.


Works Cited:

Choi, Chungmoo. “The Discourse of Decolonization and Popular Memory: South Korea.” Positions (1993): 77-102.

Choi, Chungmoo. “Transnational Capitalism, National Imaginary, and the Protest Theater in South Korea.” Boundary 2 22.1 (1995): 235-61.

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