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South Koreans affected by shootings


Kyong-Jung Kim of Korea Anabaptist Center

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May 14, 2007
- Ryan Miller, with reports from Dan Dyck

Seoul — The impact of the April 17 shootings on the Virginia Tech University campus that left 32 people dead has stretched across the Pacific. In South Korea, representatives from Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC) have been dealing with the feelings of concern and shame welling up in their students, as well as assumptions about what the incident reflects of American culture, how it may have influenced shooter Seung-Hui Cho and what it might mean to future relations.

KAC staff members responded when news of the shooting reached Seoul, gathering to pray for the victims, family and friends as well as others involved. Kyong-Jung Kim, KAC Administrator, said he, like many Koreans, was extremely distressed by the news from Virginia.

Korean culture, language and mentality, he said, reflects a communal, family-centered society that emphasizes the “we” over the “I.” When an individual acts, those actions reflect on the entire community – in this case, an entire country.

Kim, noting press reports that Cho may have been mentally disturbed, said that analysis does not seem fair. There must, he said, be a cause for Cho’s actions.

Where, Kim wondered, was the church community – any church community – in Cho’s life? What does this tragedy teach us about the church’s calling to reach out to those society considers as outsiders. “What made him so separated from the groups that he was to belong to?” Kim wondered.

In Seoul, Korea Anabaptist Center’s mandate is to promote Anabaptist perspectives, theology and action in a culture with significant Christian presence but few Anabaptists. They do this through interaction with other Christian organizations and leaders, as well as through personal interactions with students, often younger people, seeking to learn English.

The presence of Mennonite workers – Cheryl Woelk of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, KAC’s education coordinator, and teacher Alicia Reimer of Boissevan, Manitoba – as people of peace who will listen to their students’ concerns have led to healthy discussions about the nature of North American society and reactions to violence.

Woelk, a Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network worker in Korea since 2002 observed in an email that one KAC student was extremely saddened, and felt sorry for the victims' families. Another student was going for a visa interview and expressed concern that the Virginia Tech tragedy would affect his chances of getting a visa. He pointed to U.S. responses he'd heard towards people from the Middle East following terrorist attacks, and feared similar reactions would lead to broader ethnic and religious stereotyping.

A third student brought a deeply personal perspective, asking what influenced Seung-Hui Cho to become the person he did. What influence does immigration at an early age have on young children who don't have a choice in their parents' decision to move to another country? How does Korea's emphasis on excelling in education influence children's development in another country and culture?

Reimer, a worker with Mennonite Church Canada Witness, discussed the event in two advanced English discussion classes and found students to be quite sensitive. “Some expressed shame over what happened because the student was from South Korea. Others recognized the fact that the shooter’s mental condition was not stable and that his country of origin had nothing to do with that,” wrote Reimer in an email.

“South Koreans cannot be generalized as all feeling the same way about the massacre,” added Reimer. “The news has focused a lot on the shooter being from South Korea. However, this was one confused person who had been living in America since 1992 and is certainly not representative of the Korean culture and people.” Meanwhile, Kim said he hopes that the reaction to the Virginia Tech tragedy will lead to people working together more diligently in the name of Christ to develop better relationships and understandings that lead to peace, both communally and individually.