Community Reaction

'Every Korean Person Is So Very Sorry'

Korean broadcast reporter Yunghee Kim, center, is among the journalists outside the Centreville home of the Virginia Tech gunman, Cho Seung Hui.
Korean broadcast reporter Yunghee Kim, center, is among the journalists outside the Centreville home of the Virginia Tech gunman, Cho Seung Hui. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When Yung Yang, a South Korean-born secretary in Annandale, heard the first rumors that the man who had slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech University was Asian, she said a fervent prayer: Please don't let him turn out to be Korean.

Yang's eyes filled with tears yesterday as she recalled her anguish on learning that Cho Seung Hui not only hailed from the same country as she but had grown up in the same Korean American community of Northern Virginia.

"I am so sorry about this," said Yang, 30, clasping her hands together as though begging for forgiveness. "Every Korean person is so very sorry."

It was a sentiment echoed across the Washington area's 52,000-strong Korean-born community as one of the region's most educated and established immigrant groups grappled with the notion that such a horrific act could have been committed by one of their own.

And from Seoul, South Koreans and their government appealed to Americans not to let the carnage generate racial prejudice against the 2 million South Koreans who live in the United States.

At the same time, a number of South Koreans noted that Cho had lived in the United States for most of his life and said that he should not be considered a South Korean even though he carries a South Korean passport.

At least two Korean-language radio stations that serve Washington suspended their regular programming so Korean American listeners could call in to vent their shock.

Along with profound grief for the victims and concern for Cho's family, many expressed fear that his actions would tar the entire Korean American community -- which has long been associated with such values as hard work, education and family unity.

"I hope everyone can see this as a tragic, random act of violence and keep the broad-brushing of the racial aspect out of it," said Mark L. Keam, a founder of the Korean American Coalition of Greater Washington.

Mihae Kim, another community activist in Virginia, was especially worried about the impact on younger Korean Americans who might be insecure about their place in American society.

"Even for those who were born in America, they may face an identity crisis," she said, adding that various community groups and churches were working to arrange youth counseling this week. "They may be looked at differently now. . . . There may be ethnic issues."

Young Bong Kim, senior pastor of McLean-based Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington, shared an e-mail in which one of his parishioners said he was experiencing such pressures.

"People in my office look at me differently," wrote the man, a government employee working in the District. "I cannot even approach my co-workers to talk. I feel so ashamed. I feel like I gotta do something to show that I'm a good neighbor."

Spurred by a similar impulse, local Korean American organizations and churches organized a candlelight vigil last night at the Fairfax Government Center, and they are planning a collection drive Sunday for victims' families.

Such activities mark a notable departure for an immigrant group that has shunned public attention even as it has made steady economic gains and developed strong community networks.

"When publicity comes in the worst possible way, it can make us become even more insular," Keam said. "We hope we can keep attention on the more positive aspects, too, so people don't say, 'My gosh, these Korean people -- they might snap any second.' "

Several local leaders also speculated that Cho's fate might prompt Korean-born parents to reassess their community's longtime practice of immigrating to the United States for the express purpose of enrolling their children in U.S. schools.

"It leads us to question what kinds of unspoken stresses results from the immigration and assimilation process for young Asian men here in America," said Kyungsup Shin, owner of a Northern Virginia Korean-language radio station.

Adding to the pressures on such youngsters, he and others said, is the knowledge that their parents have made great sacrifices to send them to the United States -- taking lower-level jobs, for instance, or remaining behind in Korea to earn enough money to support their children in the United States.

In Seoul, many commentators emphasized Cho's long residence in the United States. "The fact that Cho is a Korean should not be overplayed by the media," said an analyst on a South Korean television station, SKN. "He's been living in the United States since 1992. This was a personal matter. It should not involve Koreans as a whole."

A senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Cho Byung Jae, described the government as "in shock beyond description."

President Roh Moo Hyun, after a special cabinet meeting Wednesday morning in Seoul, repeated official condolences and announced that his government will try to prevent the shootings from having an impact on South Koreans studying and working in the United States.

Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon, correspondent Edward Cody and special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report. Salmon reported from Virginia; Cody and Cho reported from Seoul.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company