Rising fears of ethnic backlash

Times Staff Writer

When Pyong Yong Min heard early Tuesday that the gunman suspected of carrying out the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was a South Korean national, he wept.

“First, I cried for the families of the victims, then I cried for U.S.-Korea relations,” said Min, president of the nonprofit Korean American Foundation of Los Angeles. “Then, I thought why must we -- the Korean people, who have been such close allies of America for so long -- have this burden on our hands?” For Min and many Korean Americans in Los Angeles -- home to the largest Korean population outside Asia -- the involvement of one of their own in the Virginia Tech massacre made the incident all the more painful.

“As if the killings weren’t bad enough, it was one of our children who did it,” said the Rev. John J. Park, president of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California.


Park and more than dozen community leaders gathered at a hastily called meeting in Koreatown to offer condolences and to discuss what the Korean community should do in response to the tragedy. The leaders also expressed a sense of shame and responsibility because of their shared ethnicity with the gunman.

“The image of Koreans aren’t very good,” Min lamented, referring also to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

With the memory of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the damage to Koreatown still vivid, and its 15th anniversary less than two weeks away, community leaders said they hoped the shootings did not prompt a backlash against Korean Americans, especially students.

In South Korea, the office of President Roh Moo-hyun released a statement offering condolences to the American people and, although not mentioning a backlash specifically, did say the president “expressed his earnest wish that the enormously saddened Korean American community, along with all American citizens, would be able to wisely cope with the staggering trauma.”

At a prayer service Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Dong Sun Lim, founding pastor of the Oriental Mission Church in Koreatown, was more blunt than the president. “All Koreans in South Korea -- as well as here -- must bow their heads and apologize to the people of America,” Lim said.

Some limited signs of anti-Korean sentiment have already been posted on the Internet. Racist slurs and stereotypes directed at South Koreans and Asians appeared in online discussion forums and popular social networking sites, such as Hateful comments were denounced by others, such as members of one group on Facebook that was named, “Cho Seung-hui does NOT represent Asians.”


In Los Angeles, some leaders said the tragedy was a reminder that Koreans, who often are culturally averse to discussing mental health issues, must be willing to address such problems. “Parents and children must talk to each other -- develop a dialogue,” Park said.

The afternoon service and candlelight vigil, held at the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles headquarters, drew about 80 people who prayed, read from Scripture and lighted candles in memory of the fallen students. “The victims are in the arms of God,” Lim said.

“We don’t know why this happened,” he added. “Yesterday was the most shameful and tragic day in the 100-year history of Korean immigration to the United States. All we can do is pray.”