Koreans Aren't to Blame

By Adrian Hong
Friday, April 20, 2007

Monday's events at Virginia Tech were tragic. As our nation mourns, countries around the world continue to send condolences and words of encouragement to the American people.

Included in the aftermath of these shootings has been the response of Koreans in the United States. Many first-generation immigrants, part of a diverse and vibrant community, have taken it upon themselves to apologize for the actions of gunman Cho Seung Hui, citing a sense of collective guilt and shame simply by virtue of a shared ethnicity.

This week Washington state Sen. Paull Shin issued an emotional apology for Cho's actions to fellow lawmakers and staff, and he cited American sacrifices for South Korea during the Korean War. News reports indicate that several Koreans have approached police stations throughout the nation, apologizing. Leaders of many Korean immigrant organizations have spoken of a sense of guilt and shame, apologizing on the shooter's behalf.

South Korea's ambassador to Washington, Lee Tae Shik, spoke at a candlelight vigil I attended Tuesday night in Fairfax County. Through tears, he said that the Korean American community needed to "repent," and he suggested a 32-day fast, one day for each victim, to prove that Koreans were a "worthwhile ethnic minority in America." More than 600 people attended the hastily organized vigil. Many in the audience, overwhelmingly composed of Korean immigrants, sobbed openly as they prayed for healing in America in the wake of this tragedy. Many also expressed a personal sense of guilt.

Media outlets have printed and broadcast remarks from Koreans ranging from leaders of civic organizations to men on the street; many seemed to home in on a specific sentiment -- that Koreans somehow felt as though they were responsible for the terrible events in Blacksburg.

Korean Americans do not need to apologize for what happened Monday. All of us, as fellow Americans, feel tremendous sorrow and grief at the carnage. Our community, as it should, has expressed solidarity with and sent condolences to the victims, and as Americans, Koreans certainly should take part in the healing process.

But the actions of Cho Seung Hui are no more the fault of Korean Americans than the actions of the Washington area snipers were the fault of African Americans. Just as those crimes were committed by deranged individuals acting on their own initiative, and not because of any ethnic grievance or agenda, these were isolated acts by an individual, not a reflection of a community.

Further, it is inappropriate for the Korean ambassador to the United States to apologize on behalf of Korean Americans and speak of the need to work toward being accepted as a "worthwhile minority" in this nation. While the Korean ambassador represents the interests of Korean nationals in the United States, and the interests of the Republic of Korea, he does not speak for naturalized Koreans here.

Culturally, Koreans have a strong sense of collective identity -- both in happiness and in suffering. This is part of the reason Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, the most valuable player in last year's Super Bowl, was claimed as a Korean son in Seoul and celebrated as a hero, even though he had lived in the United States all but the first year of his life. Korean culture also includes the concept of han, a shared sense of injustice and pain carried through generations; this is, Koreans say, a result of much of the oppression the nation has faced in past centuries by regional powers.

The Korean claim to guilt and shame on behalf of Cho Seung Hui is well-intentioned but misguided. We are Americans first. While we share an affinity with Korea and appreciate and respect Korean culture, at the end of the day we are Americans. Our president is in the White House, not in the Blue House. And our response to this crisis should be as Americans, not as Koreans.

Many Koreans interviewed by the media have also expressed concerns of retaliatory attacks, and some international students voiced fears of losing their status in the United States. Thankfully, it seems that few groups have voiced hate or advocated retribution against Koreans at large for this tragedy. (Some media outlets have even stopped referring to the gunman's ethnicity, mentioning his South Korean citizenship in passing. He is now known simply as "Cho" or "the gunman.")

Moreover, it is absurd to think that the United States would somehow pursue retaliatory measures on international students from Korea, or any nation, as a result of such an attack. The other 100,000 Korean nationals studying in the United States are largely model citizens and tend to be quite engaged on their campuses and in their communities. Perhaps this fear stems from our collective experience in April 1992, when Koreans became scapegoats for simmering ethnic tensions and, somehow, were seen as responsible for the Rodney King beatings, and nearly 2,000 Korean businesses were the targets of rioting and looting. But I believe America has moved beyond that. Today, no Koreans should be afraid to leave their homes or to attend school.

I have great faith in the American people. We have come a long way as a nation and understand today that the actions of an individual do not reflect on a community. I believe we have moved beyond the days when we would assign guilt and penance to an entire race based on isolated incidents.

While the past two days have brought random acts of juvenile hate and immature racial slurs and acts, the vast majority of Americans understand that Korean Americans were victims along with the rest of America -- that we all took part in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, regardless of race or ethnicity.

So I ask the Koreans of America to please continue expressing your heartfelt condolences. They are helping the healing process. But please do not apologize. The actions of Cho Seung Hui were not your fault. If our heads are hung low, they should be in grief, not in apology and shame. This tragedy is something for all of us to bear, examine and try to prevent as Americans, together.

The writer is a director of the Mirae Foundation, which provides mentorship and empowerment of Korean American college students.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company