Wednesday, April 18, 2007Last updated 8:49 a.m. PT
Local Korean community apologetic, and fearful after Virginia Tech shooting
They have mixed feelings over need to apologize
By JOHN IWASAKIP-I REPORTER
He was one of more than 1.2 million people of Korean descent in the United States, a disturbed gunman on the other side of the country.
But Cho Seung-Hui's role in the slaughter at Virginia Tech reverberated Tuesday in the local Korean American community, with some members taking the crime personally and others fearful of a backlash.
State Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, apologized to fellow lawmakers and legislative staff members, first at a private prayer meeting, then in Senate chambers.
"It hurts me deeply, knowing what happened to Korea and how much the U.S. helped," said Shin, an orphan who was adopted by an American soldier after the Korean War. "This is not the way to pay back the blessings we received."
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.
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."
But others said the massacre was not the blame of anyone but the shooter, described as a loner.
"Just because he's Korean or Korean American doesn't mean I have to go around apologizing for what he did," said Kiwon Suh, president of the Korean Student Association at the UW. "He didn't do anything representative of Korea by his horrible doing."
Suh said Korean students on campus, like all students, felt shock and disgust by the gunman's actions.
"It goes beyond that he is Korean," Suh said. "It's not a matter of race or gender."
Ick-Whan Lee, president of a Seattle trading company, noted that the Virginia Tech shooter had reportedly immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old. It is not unusual for Korean parents to work long hours to establish themselves in their new country at a time that their young children "really need guidance and supervision in living here," he said, though he did not know Cho's circumstances.
Korean leaders turned to local Korean media to speak to the community. At KOAM, a cable television program produced in Federal Way, the normal afternoon entertainment shows were scrapped. In their place was a discussion with Chanho Kwan, Korean consul general to Seattle, and Andrew Kim and Chung Yi, the presidents of the Korean associations of greater Seattle and Tacoma, respectively.
The men said Koreans should keep a low profile, refraining from going to the mall with lots of children, so as not to draw attention to themselves, said Shelley Ko, assistant director at KOAM.
UW law student Chris Kang, who has spoken to shaken Korean friends across the country after the shootings, asked for understanding.
"The Korean and Korean American community is a victim just as much as other groups involved and ... we should all strive toward supporting each other through these tough times," Kang said.
Koreans were already feeling vulnerable because of the residue of the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittals in the Rodney King police beating trial in 1992, said Cheryl Lee, a past president of the Korean American Voters Alliance.
Racial tensions between African Americans and Korean Americans led to the looting of mostly Korean American stores after the verdict. After 9/11, many immigrants believed that government actions and public discourse discriminated against them, Lee said.
For those reasons, some Koreans worry about a backlash from the Virginia Tech murders, she said.
"People will point to Mr. Cho's 'personality,' or writings, or family, or ethnicity, for clues and answers, without realizing that maybe, there is no answer, only a disturbed individual who behaved incredibly irrationally," said John Chung, president of the Korean American Bar Association of Washington.
"And that term, 'irrational' is the non-answer that truly applies, because there is no reason, no rationale that can really explain this."
P-I reporter John Iwasaki can be reached at 206-448-8096 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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