News that the Virginia Tech shooter was a fellow countryman set off a firestorm of apologies in South Korea. But amid shock that one of their own could commit such a heinous act is surprise that his crime—not his race—is the main issue in the multicultural United States. And in that, there’s a lesson to be learned for a modern nation still struggling to come to terms with its own increasing diversity.
CHOI WON-SUK/AFP/Getty ImagesMisguided sympathy: South Koreans have no need to apologize for their countryman's murderous rampage.
CHOI WON-SUK/AFP/Getty ImagesMisguided sympathy: South Koreans have no need to apologize for their countryman’s murderous rampage.
South Koreans like to boast that theirs is the worlds most ethnically homogenous country. Fending off invaders for thousands of yearsfirst the Chinese, then the Japanese, and most recently, one anotherKoreans have fought hard to defend their distinct identity. The result is a scrappy, sometimes chauvinistic national character that is often shorthanded as han minjok, meaning one race, one bloodline. Koreans also use this phrase to lay claim to the accomplishments of anyone of Korean descent, such as last years Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, whose mother is Korean, and the young Korean-American golfer Michelle Wie. Last Mondays shootings on the Virginia Tech campus, though, show how quickly national pride can turn into national shame.
When news began to trickle out from Blacksburg, Virginia, that the killer was a South Korean citizen named Cho Seung-Hui, Koreans soon lapsed into what CNNs local broadcast termed collective guilt. The morning papers in Seoul showed Koreans holding vigils on their knees in front of the American embassy, apologizing for their countrymans murderous rampage. Leading the self-flagellation was President Roh Moo-hyun, who has already publicly apologized at least three times to the United States. No doubt most of these gestures come from a sincere placeof feeling some sort of genetic kinship with Cho and an accompanying shame that a Korean could kill so many in cold blood.
Intimately tied up in this ethnic-based sense of guiltthe flip side of han minjokare fears of an anti-Korean backlash in the United States. So far, this worry has proven unfounded, as incidents of Koreans or Korean-Americans being harmed have yet to be reported. The U.S. media has largely treated Cho as a local and, though mentioning his race and his nationality, have focused appropriately on his actions and personal problems.
Koreans could learn something from the U.S. reaction: how to stop seeing the world through a racial lens. Earlier this week, I met with three young South Korean women, all in their 20s, who work for a radio station run by North Korean defectors. Talk of the shooting dominated the conversation, and all three women expressed their surprise at the American response.
Because we have only one race in Korea, we tend to view foreigners by their race rather than as individual people, said one of the women, Im So Jeong. For example, if an American soldier rapes a Korean woman, it confirms anti-American sentiment. By Thursday, Koreas Internet chat rooms were dominated by discussions marveling that the architect of Mondays massacre in Virginia was not in fact being singled out by his race or nationality in his adopted land. That is really amazing for us, one Kim Su Yeon said. Others attributed the difference in attitude to the United States multicultural makeup, so foreign to homogenous South Korea.
But whether Koreans are willing to admit it or not, their own country is becoming more multicultural every day. Race is a deeply touchy subject here, one that increasingly sparks fears that the land of han minjok is losing its identity. But change is happening nonetheless. Thousands of unwanted mixed-race children were fathered by foreign troops during the Korean War and then sent overseas to be adopted. Many have since come back to reclaim their Korean heritage. And now, migrant workers from other southeast Asian countries regularly come to Korea to work; Vietnamese women enter the country as mail-order brides for rural farmers; and the government is actively recruiting foreign businesses and language teachers who will no doubt bring more intermarriage and more children of mixed heritage. (In 2005, marriages to non-Koreans accounted for 14 percent of all marriages in South Korea, compared to 4 percent in 2000.) One hopes that these children will not grow up as marginalized as their predecessors, and that Koreans treat them with the respect they are now begging for from the U.S. public.
The shootings at Virginia Tech were the actions of a disturbed individual. They say nothing about Korean culture, but they have nonetheless prompted the beginnings of healthy introspection in the country of his birth. A modern and hyper-wired nation at the forefront of globalization, Korea can no longer retreat into its familiar identity as a Hermit Kingdom, its pride and strength deriving from a protected gene pool. As it inevitably becomes more ethnically diverse, Korea must finally put the philosophy of han minjok behind it.
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