Korean-Americans’ fear of a backlash from the campus massacre at Virginia Tech eased a bit when mainstream news media began focusing on issues that concern all Americans, such as mental illness, gun control and campus security, rather than the ethnicity of the gunman.
Their anxiety, however, was understandable. Koreans cannot forget the nightmares that resulted from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which they were targeted and more than 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were destroyed.
On April 17, when the news about the gunman Seung-hui Cho broke, Seung-wook Lee, president of the Korean Students Association, convened an emergency meeting to prepare Korean students emotionally for possible verbal abuses or physical attacks.
Korean students attending Virginia Tech were on edge. “We are hesitating to go to the school’s cafeteria for fear of possible retaliation,” a student said. “We gather in threes or fours when we go out. Some stayed in their dormitory all day long.” Some who came from Korea were thinking about returning to Korea, Lee said. Some 1,000 Korean students, including hundreds from Korea, are enrolled at Virginia Tech, he said.
At Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia, the gunman’s old school, tension was evident. Several Korean students reportedly were deliberately hit with backpacks.
In Los Angeles, several Korean students were physically attacked at a junior high school near Koreatown, according to Jenny Kim, a parent of an eighth-grader. The school authority told the parents they were investigating the report, she said.
In Korea, the anxiety level is running just as high. Many students who were preparing to apply for colleges in the United States are rethinking their plans. At a consulting agency in Seoul which specializes in helping Korean students find a foreign school, some students withdrew their applications for study in the United States, even though they had already paid the deposit of $2,000.
At the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, only a dozen Koreans showed up on April 19 to apply for a U.S. visa. The line of people waiting each day outside the office used to average about 100 yards long.
The Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) said it pulled its “Sparkling Korea” television advertisements off CNN after the shootings. “It would be inappropriate to air the 30-second ads featuring images of Korea’s culture and natural beauty in between the news reports of a shooting rampage by a Korean-born student,” said Park Young-Kyu, an official at the KTO branch in New York.
In an extreme case, the Kangwon Ilbo, a daily newspaper based in Korea, published a series of interviews with government officials to calm local fears that the Virginia Tech shootings might have a negative effect on local efforts to host the 2014 Winter Olympics at the region’s ski resort in Pyeong Chang.
Lee Tae-shik, the Korean ambassador to the United States, came under fire from the Korean media. While speaking at a Korean church in Washington, D.C., he suggested that Korean American Christians fast for 32 days to mourn the 32 people Cho killed.