Thursday, April 19, 2007

Collective Korean Sorrow and Guilt Over the Virginia Tech Massacre

Korean folk singer of “Fucking USA!” - Photo and caption from Legacy of President Roh: Anti-Americanism at

Update, Tuesday, April 24 @ 1:20pm

Here is another article from Time that I read today about the shame his family here in Korea feels. It's too bad. They didn't pull the trigger: A Family's Shame in Korea.

With the outpouring of condolences and the candlelight vigils, it would be nice to see Koreans give Cho's family, who are also victims of this tragic massacre, a similar level of nurturing care.


Update, Saturday, April 21 @ 7:15am:

Of course, the debate about sorrow and guilt or maybe more like wounded pride and attempts to erradicate the shame and assumed bad PR that the shooter was Korean rages on.

There is an active blog about it on the Metropolitician's blog and a great comment that was left by Susan. She takes no prisoners:

And I'm pissed off with all of these Korean people apologizing for Cho's actions. What exactly are you sorry about? That he killed thirty-two people? Or are you really sorry that he brought SHAME upon our good name? Those are two different things. And words without actions are meaningless. The candlelight vigils, the trusts in the name of the injured, the tears, the mea culpas, blah blah blah . . . worthless.
Click over and read it.

It's Saturday, April 21 here. A friend told me yesterday that they're planning a candlelight march here in Seoul at 7pm today. While I acknowledge it will be a nice gesture, I also told her it was blantant fakery in light of the virilent anti-Americanism that Koreans expressed just five years ago. It's also a great chance at photo-ops and coverage by the international media. Come on people, we know what this is about.

Basically, it's bullshit. This is very much about saving face and making every attempt to show that Koreans aren't monsters.

Look, we know this. I'm completely dumbfounded that Koreans really thought that Americans would turn en masse on them. However, I know I shouldn't be because that's exactly what Koreans did in 2002 (as referenced below). Believe it or not, but Americans with all of our faults, do understand that Cho, while clearly disturbed, made a choice.

We realize it wasn't Koreans that sat around and drew straws. However, maybe what's behind this is that there IS a huge dislike and maybe even hate still. It's just that Cho pulled the trigger and brought it all to the surface. That's sent Koreans scrambling to try to cover it up rather than acknowledge it.

Just a theory...but, I think, for many it might be truth.


One, I should be studying for another midterm but don't want to. Read: ExpatJane is procrastinating, big time.

Two, I thought these articles from Time and the Christian Science Monitor are timely due to Cho Seung-hui and the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Three, I think these do a good job of explaining the collective sorrow and guilt that people here in South Korea are feeling and why.

They also highlight what I've seen, first hand, which is the virulent anti-Americanism that I've seen while living here which is the inverse of the collective sorrow and guilt that's being felt now.

Time: South Korea's Collective Guilt

While Americans were grieving and trying to a make sense of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech, on the other side of the Pacific, South Koreans were shaking their heads in disbelief that one of their own could unleash the worst massacre in U.S history.

Most Koreans don't regard Cho Seung-Hui as a "typical Korean" since he spent the bulk of his life immersed in American culture. Still, a collective sense of regret and guilt was palpable today due to the strong tendency of Koreans to perceive the tragedy in terms of Korean nationalism, in which the group trumps the individual. "It's a notion of collective responsibility," says Mike Breen, the author of The Koreans. When a Korean does something wonderful, the country rejoices, but when one of its own goes off the rails, like Cho Seung-Hui, there's a collective sense of shame and burden. So much so that South Korea's Ambassador to the U.S., Lee Tae Shik, pledged to fast for 32 days to show his sorrow today. "I can smell a collective sense of guilt," says Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hangyang University in Seoul. "There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility."

In a country where untold numbers of citizens seem eager to travel, work and live in the United States, many Koreans were dumbfounded when they discovered this morning that the "Asian" campus killer was in fact a 23-year-old South Korean citizen. "I was shocked," says Hong, Sung Pyo, 65, a textile executive in Seoul. "We don't expect Koreans to shoot people, so we feel very ashamed and also worried." Most important, he adds, "we don't want Americans to think all Koreans are this way."

Nor did President Roh Moo Hyun, who sent at least three messages of condolence to the U.S. and gathered aides for an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning, once it became widely known on the peninsula that the shooter was a South Korean student who moved with his struggling parents to the U.S when he was eight years old. Roh reportedly called for the meeting to discuss measures to cope with any possible fallout from the massacre — inadvertently stoking fears that Koreans living and studying abroad could be in for a rough ride. "Koreans still remember the riots in L.A., so we are worried about some revenge against Koreans," says Kim Hye Jin, 29, a web designer in Seoul, referring to Korean-owned businesses that were looted during the 1992 violence. "We are really worried about the image of our country."

Some Koreans even raised the prospect Cho's rampage could possibly inflict damage on U.S-Korea relations, including the recently signed tentative free trade agreement between the two countries.

This kind of nationalistic response can have an opposite effect as well — when the roles are reversed. In 2002, when two U.S soldiers accidentally ran over two schoolgirls with a tank north of Seoul, anti-American sentiment was widespread in Korea. Some restaurants even hung signboards reading "No Americans" rather than "No Soldiers Allowed." For weeks, thousands of Koreans staged protests against American soldiers, while some Korean media even suggested that the girl's deaths could have been deliberate.
The Chirstian Science Monitor: In South Korea, a collective sorrow over Virginia shooting

As news spread that America's worst killing spree was perpetrated by a South Korean who has lived in the US since 1992, reactions among South Koreans have ranged from profound personal shame to a fear of reprisal.

"Because Koreans are also very emotional, Koreans tend to behave more sensitively together than others," says Paik Jin-Hyun, a professor at Seoul National University. "So, one tends not to see the event isolated to an individual but as an ethnic identity."

Koreans are perhaps unique in their sense of a singular national identity, molded through a long history of invasion and occupation, says Yook Dong-In, editor of social issues at The Korea Economic Daily. The heightened sense of having one "blood" or ethnic race has led to a hypersensitivity about foreign perceptions, many experts say.

The collective sense of sorrow and penitance about the killings was reflected in comments by South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae Sik, who suggested that Koreans in the US fast for 32 days ? one day for each victim.

Many people noted appreciatively the lack of anti-Korean feelings among Americans. YTN, a South Korean news channel, interviewed a Korean student who has been studying at Virginia Tech on a foreign student visa since 2005. "My Caucasian friend was shocked at first to learn that it was a Korean," said Ha Dong-Woo. "But he instead wanted to protect and take care of us."

Several of the people interviewed added that had an American student living in South Korea killed 32 people, American expatriates would face serious reprisals. To describe such an eventuality, many interviewees used the word nallinada, which can be loosely translated to mean upheaval, disaster, or chaos.

"Anti-Americanism would have become extreme," says Mr. Yook, citing the groundswell of anti-American activism during negotiations for the recently signed free trade agreement between the US and South Korea. The country also saw a protracted uproar after American soldiers hit and killed two young girls while driving a convoy in June 2002. The direct fallout from that accident lasted several months, says Yook, and hard feelings persist today.

One woman, who was interviewed in Seoul on Wednesday, said she is married to a Korean diplomat. Korea's foreign ministry, she said, held late-night meetings to discuss how to protect Korean-Americans from possible reprisals. She was certain that, had an American attacked Koreans, the reprisals would have been swift.

"People will throw rocks at them and tell them 'Yankees go home,' " said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because her husband is a government official. "People will go even crazier here if exactly the same incident at Virginia Tech happened here but committed by an American."
I've been here for awhile and I was here in 2002 when those two soliders ran over and killed those two middle-school girls by accident. I was really shocked by the incident too. However, I was more shocked by the reactions of South Koreans. I was angered and hurt by the out of control nationalism that I saw. I still have people who try to bring it up as a point against the US. However, I point out things that probably influenced the course of events in the first place like the fact that Korean children are often seen crossing the road into oncoming traffic after they've lifted their arm to signal the vehicle(s) to stop. My theory is that happens here and is a successful way to stop a car because there is a collectivism here that you don't have in the States. You do expect your neighbor to watch your back, as they say. Now, as a foreigner, when I first saw that it shocked me. That might not have happened in the case of the 2002 accident, but you do see people walking with no fear in front of and near moving vehicles all the time.

Also, during that same period the 2002 World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan was on. I specifically remember that North Korea fired on a South Korean vessel at sea and killed quite a few South Korean sailors.

A violent skirmish between the Koreas navies on the Yellow Sea leaves at least four South Korean sailors dead and at least 19 others injured. An estimated 13 North Korean sailors are killed when the South returns fire. (from Timeline: Tensions on the Korean Peninsula at
Where were the spirited protests over North Korea? That was most definitely intentional, but I saw nothing more than a murmur of sorrow from the public over those four dead sailors.

That's still something I've yet to get over. This is particularly true when you know that the huge amount of progress both in development and economics just would not have been possible if South Korea's security wasn't intact. Probably the most significant reason for that security, whether Koreans or anyone else wants to admit it or not, is because the US military has been stationed here since the end of the Korean War.

I can understand feelings of anti-Americanism at times, but it's often one-sided and very hypocritical here in the Land of the Morning Calm. In Is the Korean Media Race Baiting the Virginia Tech Tragedy? at the ROKdrop blog he tackles this hypocrisy head on
Sorry this [the US] is not Korea where a traffic accident led to assaults on Americans and foreigners on the streets, anti-US hate signs on doors and windows, as well as stabbings and kidnapping of US soldiers with the added addition of being paraded around on national television with no Koreans ever being held accountable for these crimes. When this happens to Koreans in America then we can start talking about racism in the US, but all this talk now just sounds like the media is actually hoping there is a backlash against Koreans so they can turn the subject on racism in America instead of on the shooter.
I hate to say that the undisclosed diplomat's wife is correct. If it had been an American who went beserk and intentionally killed South Koreans at one of their universities, Koreans would be in a collective uproar.

Anti-American demonstrators held a rally ... in front of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division in Uijongbu, north of Seoul. The protesters' signs read, in part, "Oppose USA. - Photo and caption from Growing anti-Americanismfesters in South Korea at the

FYI Link - An interesting analysis of the 2002 protests: Solidarity in South Korean Civil Movement against the U.S. Forces

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  1. As a Korean, I often get frustrated with the foreign perception or rather misperception of Korea. Too often the "differences" in cultures are translated as “bad” or “inferior” to their own without an attempt for a deeper understanding. It is true Koreans put more value in "us" than "I", which sometimes displays nationalism (and admittedly deserves it fair share of criticisms), a higher placement of value in self-sacrifice for the whole than self-greed, elderly scold other people's son and daughter's for their inappropriate action as they perceive them as their own and likewise happy to see sons and daughters do well overseas as they are their own. But these are differences in culture. I personally cherish the collective culture than individualism, because there are instances where it stands for responsibility and sacrifice, rather than ones happiness coming first over others.

    The reason why Koreans were outraged with the 2002 soldiers killing of middle school students were (partially because of the heightened anti-American sentiment during the time - for many other justifiable separate reasons) but the lack of American sympathy as a nation (govn’t) for what their soldiers (who are here representing America) did to our young children (mind you, there have been too many incidents where American soldiers stationed in Korea commit rape, or other crimes and getting protected by American jurisdiction without letting Koreans feel the consolation of justice). That was the reason for the outcry against this incident, but this is not how we react to all crimes committed by foreigners – not at all. The reason why we worried about ramification from the Virginia Tech incident was because we remember too well of the 1992 LA riot, knowing US has it’s fair share of racist uproar that can turn very violent.

    We are not doing this to save face and am so disgusted at the lowness of how some people could perceive it that way. Worrying about the uproar and the expression of condolences are two separate things. We feel guilty/shameful and sorry for those killed in this horrific incident because of our collectiveness, yes, because we feel like our own son has committed this, but I can without hesitation standby all Koreans when I say we are not doing this to save face. I truly am disgusted at even the notion of such low intention. Perhaps those thinks in this way because he/she don’t know what it means to have honor or feel shame, but as a Korean who felt along side sadness, a sense of guilt, when I heard that a Korean has done something like this and went to church to pray for the victims, not for one instance did I do this just to save face as a Korean.

    I am also often disappointed at Korean Americans and those Koreans who have lived in America for a long time, often looking at Korea in disdain and criticism. I know it often comes from looking at Korea as an outsider rather than from the inside, with the false superiority they think they acquired from merely having lived in a richer country, often indulging in feeling superior by pointing out everything that is different in the culture as one being inferior to what they are accustomed to. I know my cousin who has lived in America for a long time, whenever she comes home for couple of days to Korea bash Korea as if whatever she has learned an embodied in America as being better than everything Korean. (I know she just hates Korea because she doesn’t fit in well not willing to learn, and gets scolded by our grandfather for speaking such terrible Korean and is resentful of it) Who are they kidding? America is as fucked up as any other country, with its materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism…what not. America has as much obsession on outer appearance in looks (plastic surgery, Hello? Michael Jackson?, all the celebrities openly doing boob jobs, nose jobs?) Just because America is a melting pot (or not) with the diverse race of people, more individualistic than Korea, and can’t understand the collective sentiment we feel towards Koreans home and abroad (even to the half Korean football star Harvey in US – we praise him NOT so that we can searching for things to be proud of but because we REALLY DO FEEL happy for him as we would toward any or our sons. What can we do, when we can’t help feeling happy and proud and want to congratulate and give him praise out of pure happiness. And it is sickening to see people translating this as wanting to build up national pride- as if something like that could build up a nations pride??? Get over it! It’s those people like you who perceive it this way that is shallow! Not us, who is merely expressing our shared happiness toward our fellow kinsman). It is true that we try to build up our national pride to change our perception of ourselves. But this is because we are too aware of the inferiority Japanese have systematically installed in us during their colonial rule, (35years) to ease their rule on us, that we unconsciously believe still, all the lies they are created about our ethic nature, that we make a conscious effort to boost our pride in all areas.

    But Americans too often perceive ‘differences’ as being ‘bad’ when they can’t understand it. Even with the whole incident of Cho’s mental illness – Com’on! they talk as if Korean perceive all mental illness as taboo? What? What century are we living in? They haven’t even cared to see how developed out mental facilities are these days? It’s Cho’s individual incident, coming from a poor family (their relatives alike) who didn’t have the luxury to seek for things other than working hard to better their living standard. They lived in America for God sake! What were the schools Cho went to doing, not distinguishing him as being mental, if they are so developed and better than us? This is why I can’t accept American, or Korean-American criticism towards Korea. I criticize Korea all the time, but its constructive criticism out of love for my country NOT the sarcastic and (false) superiority that Americans/Korean Americans color their criticisms with.

  2. Thanks for such a long and detailed comment. However, it goes both ways. I mean Koreans are very critical of American and Western society in general, as well, as other countries and continents, especially, China, Japan, India and Africa. They have skewed and biased analysis that frustrate even the most ignorant person. I had an Indian acquaintance I know tell me a story about how a cab driver after finding out he was Indian said to him that India was poor and all of the other negative Indian stereotypes. This Indian, being very well educated and who spoke Korean fairly well, pointed out how many international level scholars and the many Noble Prize winners India has produced. The same can be said for Korean criticism of many other countries and regions if it's coming from someone who is merely repeating the generalizations they've heard in Korean society. My point in all this is just to point out that your frustration is common.

    Also, Koreans have a well-known reputation among foreigners as being hyper-sensitive. If a Korean asks you what you think, you'd better say something positive because anything negative will be met with an explaination even if one wasn't requested.

    However, Americans are supposed to take criticism? Also, there seems to be a misinterpretation that criticism is always negative. No one and nothing is perfect, including any society, and that includes Korean society. But have something to say about it and watch the Koreans around you bristle. Why is it that an American is supposed to sit back and take the criticism but you can't?

    Whether you like it or not and whether you can accept it or not Korea can and will be looked at and analyzed by non-Koreans. You don't get the benefits of globalization with the the negatives, sorry. Fair is fair. America gets it as well as other societies and frequently it's coming from the general direction of Korea, so sit back, listen and take it or leave the room. Because if you can dish it out, you should be able to take it.

    You have to realize that most Americans DIDN'T EVEN KNOW what happened in 2002. Clearly, you don't know that there is a difference in news coverage. Other countries know a lot about what goes on in America. Americans, however, tend not to know what’s going on in other countries. Is that good? No, I think it's horrible and it's what gets us into trouble. I think it's a big reason why Americans supported a war in Iraq when they shouldn't have, but, for now, it's a fact.

    As for soldiers, well, we've got soldiers stationed in Japan, Germany, and other places around the world. We have bad apples just like Cho was a bad apple and just like Woo Bum-Kon was a bad apple. If you don't remember him here is a link: He went on an eight hour killing spree in Uiryong in which he killed 57 people, wounded 35 and, eventually, killed himself. The fact is Americans are well aware that there are bad apples in every country, religion and race. I felt sorry those two girls lost their lives, but I will not take responsibility for it because I didn't run them down. Yes, there is going to be some backlash from stupid people who can't or won't let themselves see that Cho is not representative of Koreans or Korea, but thinking that Americans are going to riot and burn Koreatown down because of Cho is short-sighted. I see why a Korean would think that if they're viewing the world solely through their own cultural lens, but that's not going to happen.

    However, it did happen here in 2002. If you think that for one minute Americans are going to stay silent about it, then you're in for a rude awakening.

    The L.A. riots had nothing to do with Korean-Americans, nothing. I was there. I was born and raised in L.A. The only reason Korean stores got looted was because they were in the inner-city. Stores got looted if they were black owned, they got looted if they were Mexican owned, they got looted if they were owned by corporations, they got looted if they were co-ops. Anything in the neighborhood that could be taken, was. Koreans armed themselves to prevent it, and it's as simple as that. But for Koreans to seriously think the riots were about them rather than being about frustration which morphed into a way for hooligans to run the streets is also skewed analysis.

    I'm sorry but the Korean media did initially say that there were concerns that the KORUS FTA was in jeopardy due to Cho's rampage:

    "While the nature of the deadly crime is considered irrelevant to the shooter's nationality, the gravity of the loss could be strong enough to shift the remorse towards South Koreans, observers said. Some also raised concerns that it could influence the alliance of the two countries and other pending issues, such as the on-going effort to waive U.S. visa requirements for South Koreans.

    The U.S. Embassy in South Korea said yesterday that the shooting will have no negative impact on the matter of the visa waiver.

    "There will be no changes," the embassy said.

    President Roh in the morning presided over an emergency Cabinet meeting to receive a report on the case and discuss future measures. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, presidential Chief of Staff Moon Jae-in and the president's Chief Secretary for Foreign Policy Baek Jong-chun were among the attendees.”

    Why was Roh worried? Because you know very well had the situation been reversed that's exactly what Koreans would have clamored for. As much as other countries and cultures like to criticize America we’re not quite that short-sighted.

    The fact is if you're all over the world helping with security and aiding development, the bad comes with the good. If you're expecting anything more than that, your reality is really off kilter.

    Also, to imply that looking at the Korean reaction critically means the person has no honor is just condescending. I guess I could say the same thing when it comes out that a Korean academic commited yet another act of plagiarism. Where is the honor in that? Maybe, just maybe there are simply different cultural views of honor and dishonor.

    What Cho chose to do is a reflection of him. Yes, I'm sure family, culture and many other things factored in, but ultimately, he chose to do it and methodically planned it.

    As for plastic surgery, you're forgetting the high rate of it here. Isn’t it Korea that's known for what 50% of women and a large number of men going under the knife? That's because you're people are seeking lids that aren't theirs as well as other features. It's a bad example and it's an instance of the pot calling the kettle black.

    Korea praised, Hines Ward, an American football player who is half-Korean, only after he won the Superbowl and earned MVP status. His own mother had choice words for Koreans and Korean society. His mother, Kim Young-hee, is Korean.

    That shamed the government so that it reacted and changed its laws. The others were vilified in Korea and you know it. Xenophobia runs rampant here, so much so that I have friends who risk being disowned if they marry a foreigner. Prior to Mr. Ward, how many people of mixed Korean heritage were welcome with open arms? How many? Please tell me.


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.