A Strained Moment for Korea
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Virginia Tech massacre casts a shadow over a remarkable cultural success story.
The carnage at Virginia Tech shocked the nation. Only eight years after Columbine, Americans were once against confronted with images of dying teenagers and armed police officers patrolling school grounds. When the killer was revealed to be Cho Seung-Hui, a Korean-American man, the incident took on international significance. In South Korea, the birthplace of the killer, the prevailing mood was shock—and shame. People wondered how one of their own could have gunned down 32 students in cold blood.
Korean officials reacted quickly. President Roh Moo-hyun issued three letters of condolence and personally contacted President Bush to offer his sympathy. The Korean government even considered sending an official delegation to Virginia to apologize, an offer American officials ultimately declined.
Korea, once called a “Hermit Kingdom” because of its isolationism, is now the thirteenth largest economy in the world. Its industries are world leaders in technology and intellectual property. Korea is committed to international trade—it concluded a Free Trade Agreement with the United States only two weeks before the Virginia Tech incident. Negotiations are set to begin for a similar agreement with the European Union.
For the last decade Korea has exported its culture to the rest of Asia. Korean television dramas are wildly popular in Asia—they are watched as far away as Uzbekistan—and the “Korean Wave” has made the nation the popular culture leader of the region. Even in the West, Korean cinema has won acclaim for its originality. Earlier this year "The Host," a thriller about a monster that attacks Seoul, was released in the United States to favorable reviews.
The dominant power of its cultural products is opening Korea to criticism. Backlash may already have begun, even before the Cho massacre, and will now likely accelerate. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China are considering placing limits on foreign entertainment due to the popularity of Korean shows. In Japan, a comic book titled "Hate Korean Wave" became popular.
But the biggest criticism is reserved for “Oldboy,” a movie that is credited with placing Korean cinema on the map. This lurid tale of revenge, murder, and incest won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Festival and immediately sparked controversy.
Cho could, therefore, hardly have picked a more damaging film to imitate, from a PR point of view. Police officers believe he watched it in the days leading up to the murder. He may have acted out scenes from it in the media package he sent to NBC News. Pundits are debating whether and to what extent the movie influenced Cho to commit the murders. Koreans are worried that “Oldboy” will create the false impression that Korean culture is violent and highly sexualized.
Even if the Virginia Tech incident does not create a backlash against Korea, the nation’s rising economic power and cultural prominence will open it up to close scrutiny that it has not faced before. For the traditionally inward looking country, the shooting is a reminder of its prominence – and vulnerability.
Frank Y. Lee is a second-year law student at NYU.
Image credit: Image from Flickr user WeI-chieh Chiu