- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

SEOUL — The reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre in the nation where the shooter was born has been an outpouring of sympathy mixed with feelings of shame.

Expressions of regret have ranged from candlelight vigils and religious services to online tributes. South Korea’s ambassador to the United States proposed the idea of Koreans living in America taking turns in a 32-day fast to honor each of the victims.

President Roh Moo-hyan has expressed condolences four times — the first before it even became known the killer was a South Korean immigrant — followed by words of sympathy to the American people and to President Bush.

“This is a sensitive time,” the leading Chosun Ilbo daily cautioned in an editorial. “We must ensure that our true intentions, to share the sorrow, can travel across the ocean and reach the hearts of grieving Americans.”

Cho Seung-hui left South Korea as a boy and lived in the United States for more than 14 years before his suicide Monday.

Much of the reaction to Cho’s nationality in his native land is colored by South Korea’s keen awareness of its national image. South Korea is obsessed with how it is perceived by the outside world, and its group-oriented culture means the achievements of the few are marshaled into rallying cries for the many.

“Koreans think very much in terms of national identity rather than individual identity,” said Michael Breen, author of the book “The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.”

South Koreans are quick to take group credit even from afar. The most notable recent example is Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Hines Ward, the offspring of a black father and Korean mother, who was hailed as a national hero after he was named Most Valuable Player in the 2006 NFL Super Bowl — even though he and American football were virtually unknown here.

But that sense of collective pride has also meant Koreans fear facing group reprisal after Cho’s shooting spree.

There are worries about everything from personal assaults to possible fallout for a proposed free-trade agreement between Seoul and Washington or long-held hopes of relaxed U.S. visa requirements for South Koreans.

The deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul reassured South Koreans in a speech yesterday they should not feel any collective guilt and that the shooting would have no bearing on U.S.-South Korean ties, which were forged after American forces came to South Korea’s defense in the 1950-53 Korean War.

“This tragic incident will have no influence on our bilateral relationship. It was an act of one individual,” said Deputy Chief of Mission William Stanton.

Part of the reason South Koreans may express fear of reprisals is because of what could have happened had the situation been reversed and an American-born student went on a rampage at a South Korean campus, noted Mr. Breen.

For example, when two girls were killed in a traffic accident involving a U.S. military vehicle in 2002, South Korea was gripped with anti-American fervor whipped up by mass protests. The mood was fanned by politicians seeking a boost in that year’s presidential vote that brought Mr. Roh to power with a promise not to “kowtow” to the U.S.

Since Monday’s shootings, however, there have been no signs of any reprisals against Koreans in the United States.

“It will be very instructive to Koreans to watch the reaction of Americans,” Mr. Breen, a Briton, said of the response to the shooting rampage. “They know it’s more gracious than their own reaction would be.”

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