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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