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South Korea's Collective Guilt

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While Americans were grieving and trying to a make sense of Mondayĺs 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." [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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.