The current paper examines how English has evolved to become valued language capital in South Korea (henceforth ‘Korea’). Since the late 20th century, Korea has experienced the phenomenon of ‘English fever’, which refers to the frenetic and at times over-zealous pursuit of English-language proficiency across Korean society (J. S. Y. Park, 2009). Researchers have examined ‘English fever’ through various prisms, including education (Park & Abelmann, 2004; J. K. Park, 2009), neoliberalism (Piller & Cho, 2013; Cho, 2015; Lee, 2016), and local socio-politics (Shim & Park, 2008). Rarely has the phenomenon been approached from a historical point of view. Considering the fact that a historical examination of language can provide critical insights into the local processes through which distinctive ideologies of language have been shaped and popularized (Cho, 2017), this paper traces the historical evolution of English in Korean society by focusing on three key periods, i.e. Japanese colonization (1910–1945); the post-independence period and modernization (1945–1980); and military dictatorship and globalization (1980-present). Drawing on the theoretical framework of global centre-periphery divisions embedded in Orientalism (Said, 1979), the analysis focuses specifically on the influence of the United States on the rise of English in Korea. In doing so, I show that ‘English fever’ is not a recent phenomenon but has its roots in historicity through which the seeds for the ongoing phenomenon of ‘English fever’ were planted in Korean society.