Saturday, April 21, 2007

Why Are Koreans Apologizing For Cho's Actions?

Children attend a candlelight vigil in Seoul for the 32 victims of the Virginia Tech massacre. Many Koreans expressed concern that their country's image has been marred by the rampage by a South Korean-born gunman, despite U.S. Embassy statements to the contrary. Photo Credit: By Lee Jin-man -- Associated Press Photo

The day after the Virginia Tech shootings, it was revealed that the person who shot 32 students and faculty before turning the gun on himself, is South Korean. Then came a flood of apologies from Korean Americans, and Koreans.

Washington State Senator Paull Shin of Edmonds, a Korean-American, apologized to fellow lawmakers and legislative staff members, first at a private prayer meeting, then in Senate chambers, reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

An emotional Shin said that the U.S. sacrificed much for Korea, and this incident hurt him deeply.

"Although legislators told him he had no need to apologize, Shin, fighting his emotions, said he felt compelled to do so because of his acceptance in America and his leadership position in the Korean American community."

Shin was just one of many Korean-Americans to apologize for something for which they had absolutely no part.

More from the Seattle P-I:

"At the University of Washington, student leader Jihye Kim also shouldered responsibility.

"Personally, after hearing about the criminal's racial background, I felt as if I am the one who caused the tragedy," said Kim, president of the Korean Student Union. "I couldn't make eye contact with others. I greatly apologize for those who are closely related to the victims."

Remorse is also blanketing Seoul. The Washington Post reports many Koreans have expressed concern that the image of their country has been marred. South Korea's ambassador to Washington, Lee Tae Shik has even gone so far as to say Koreans need to "repent," and fast for 32 days to mourn the 32 people Cho killed.

That's some heavy, heavy guilt.

The question is, why? Why are Koreans and Korean Americans taking it upon themselves to apologize for the actions of one man - who by all accounts, had nothing to do with anyone, Korean or otherwise?

Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hangyang University in Seoul, has an idea. "I can smell a collective sense of guilt," he says. "There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility," he told TIME magazine.

Writing in the Washington Post, Adrian Hong says,

"Media outlets have printed and broadcast remarks from Koreans ranging from leaders of civic organizations to men on the street; many seemed to home in on a specific sentiment -- that Koreans somehow felt as though they were responsible for the terrible events in Blacksburg."

Hong goes on to say:

"Korean Americans do not need to apologize for what happened Monday. All of us, as fellow Americans, feel tremendous sorrow and grief at the carnage. Our community, as it should, has expressed solidarity with and sent condolences to the victims, and as Americans, Koreans certainly should take part in the healing process.

"But the actions of Cho Seung Hui are no more the fault of Korean Americans than the actions of the Washington area snipers were the fault of African Americans. Just as those crimes were committed by deranged individuals acting on their own initiative, and not because of any ethnic grievance or agenda, these were isolated acts by an individual, not a reflection of a community.

"Further, it is inappropriate for the Korean ambassador to the United States to apologize on behalf of Korean Americans and speak of the need to work toward being accepted as a "worthwhile minority" in this nation. While the Korean ambassador represents the interests of Korean nationals in the United States, and the interests of the Republic of Korea, he does not speak for naturalized Koreans here."

Hong is a director of the Mirae Foundation, which provides mentorship and empowerment of Korean American college students. He goes on to say:

"Korean culture also includes the concept of han, a shared sense of injustice and pain carried through generations; this is, Koreans say, a result of much of the oppression the nation has faced in past centuries by regional powers."

My colleague Sueann Ramella shared her thoughts on han in her blog following a winter vacation to Korea.

More from Adrian Hong:

"The Korean claim to guilt and shame on behalf of Cho Seung Hui is well-intentioned but misguided. We are Americans first. While we share an affinity with Korea and appreciate and respect Korean culture, at the end of the day we are Americans. Our president is in the White House, not in the Blue House. And our response to this crisis should be as Americans, not as Koreans.

"Many Koreans interviewed by the media have also expressed concerns of retaliatory attacks, and some international students voiced fears of losing their status in the United States. Thankfully, it seems that few groups have voiced hate or advocated retribution against Koreans at large for this tragedy. (Some media outlets have even stopped referring to the gunman's ethnicity, mentioning his South Korean citizenship in passing. He is now known simply as "Cho" or "the gunman.")

"Moreover, it is absurd to think that the United States would somehow pursue retaliatory measures on international students from Korea, or any nation, as a result of such an attack. The other 100,000 Korean nationals studying in the United States are largely model citizens and tend to be quite engaged on their campuses and in their communities. Perhaps this fear stems from our collective experience in April 1992, when Koreans became scapegoats for simmering ethnic tensions and, somehow, were seen as responsible for the Rodney King beatings, and nearly 2,000 Korean businesses were the targets of rioting and looting. But I believe America has moved beyond that. Today, no Koreans should be afraid to leave their homes or to attend school.

"I have great faith in the American people. We have come a long way as a nation and understand today that the actions of an individual do not reflect on a community. I believe we have moved beyond the days when we would assign guilt and penance to an entire race based on isolated incidents.

"While the past two days have brought random acts of juvenile hate and immature racial slurs and acts, the vast majority of Americans understand that Korean Americans were victims along with the rest of America -- that we all took part in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, regardless of race or ethnicity.

"So I ask the Koreans of America to please continue expressing your heartfelt condolences. They are helping the healing process. But please do not apologize. The actions of Cho Seung Hui were not your fault. If our heads are hung low, they should be in grief, not in apology and shame. This tragedy is something for all of us to bear, examine and try to prevent as Americans, together."

Here's Hong's full article.