A nation desperate to absolve itself of blame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2007, 12:00am

The Virginia Tech massacre in the US raises questions and strikes at complexes at the heart not only of the South Korean-American relationship, but also of Korean society and the Korean soul.

One question South Koreans ask is: what if some mad American, especially one of the 29,000 US soldiers, were to go on a similar rampage? That doesn't take much answering. Hundreds of thousands of Korean protesters would go far beyond the peaceful candle-light outpourings in Seoul after two schoolgirls were killed by an American armoured vehicle nearly five years ago. Americans - and other foreigners mistaken for Americans - would not be safe on the streets. US bases would be surrounded by protesters and the US-South Korean military alliance, already badly frayed, could not survive.

That nightmare scenario compares with the absence of an anti-Korean reaction in the US to the massacre by a Korean student whose video ravings revealed his psychopathic mind. But Koreans are bracing for the worst - a longer-term response involving taunts and possibly violence. The fact that the killer's family epitomised the Korean-American success story only deepens such fears. The impoverished father had gone to the US in search of a better life - and found it. He ran a dry-cleaners and earned enough money for a townhouse in an affluent Washington suburb, to buy a car and to send his children to prestigious universities.

Korean fears, raised in emergency meetings in Seoul the moment the news came out, are overblown. If there's one word - besides 'shock' - being heard around Seoul, it is the 'shame' that the killer has brought to his family, his country and his people everywhere.

On one level, Koreans are constantly saying that the incident was isolated and not representative of the country, while on another, they are wondering if foreigners will ever believe them.

The national sense of shame goes to the heart of the homogeneous but fractured nature of Korean society. South Korea is deeply divided along regional, economic, class, political and religious lines, but united in a language and a culture that goes back 5,000 years. The desire for national unity drives South Koreans to yearn for reunification with the North.

The proud sense of Korean culture and history also feeds resentment over the division of the country by Americans and Russians at the end of the second world war, as well as anti-Japanese sentiment that is more harsh than the anti-Americanism of radical groups. Nor do Koreans forget their historical subservience to China, which continues to exert heavy if quite different forms of influence over both Koreas. For many Koreans, China would prefer to divide and rule rather than see the country united.

Korean ethnocentrism takes many forms, from fear and guilt over the madness of one of their own to strange insensitivity.

But many Koreans, in their eagerness to absolve themselves of guilt, have an answer. The killer, they note, was a member of what's known as 'the 1.5 generation' - one who was born in South Korea and emigrated at an early age; too young to be considered 'first generation', but not second generation, either, as he was not born of foreign parents in the US. Talk in South Korea focuses on whether he was 'really Korean' or 'American'. One blogger could not believe 'someone like me was really involved in this brutal murder'.

But would the killer have been any less like the blogger, or like ethnic Koreans, if he had held a US passport? And does it matter if he was Korean or of another race? Those are questions some South Koreans are raising, while wallowing in a deep grief born more of the killer's ancestry than of concern for those who died - and for the families for whom Korean 'shame' will never begin to compensate for their loss.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals


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