As news spread that America's worst killing spree was perpetrated by a South Korean who has lived in the US since 1992, reactions among South Koreans have ranged from profound personal shame to a fear of reprisal.
"Because Koreans are also very emotional, Koreans tend to behave more sensitively together than others," says Paik Jin-Hyun, a professor at Seoul National University. "So, one tends not to see the event isolated to an individual but as an ethnic identity."
Koreans are perhaps unique in their sense of a singular national identity, molded through a long history of invasion and occupation, says Yook Dong-In, editor of social issues at The Korea Economic Daily. The heightened sense of having one "blood" or ethnic race has led to a hypersensitivity about foreign perceptions, many experts say.
The collective sense of sorrow and penitance about the killings was reflected in comments by South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae Sik, who suggested that Koreans in the US fast for 32 days – one day for each victim.
Many people noted appreciatively the lack of anti-Korean feelings among Americans. YTN, a South Korean news channel, interviewed a Korean student who has been studying at Virginia Tech on a foreign student visa since 2005. "My Caucasian friend was shocked at first to learn that it was a Korean," said Ha Dong-Woo. "But he instead wanted to protect and take care of us."
Several of the people interviewed added that had an American student living in South Korea killed 32 people, American expatriates would face serious reprisals. To describe such an eventuality, many interviewees used the word nallinada, which can be loosely translated to mean upheaval, disaster, or chaos.
"Anti-Americanism would have become extreme," says Mr. Yook, citing the groundswell of anti-American activism during negotiations for the recently signed free trade agreement between the US and South Korea. The country also saw a protracted uproar after American soldiers hit and killed two young girls while driving a convoy in June 2002. The direct fallout from that accident lasted several months, says Yook, and hard feelings persist today.
One woman, who was interviewed in Seoul on Wednesday, said she is married to a Korean diplomat. Korea's foreign ministry, she said, held late-night meetings to discuss how to protect Korean-Americans from possible reprisals. She was certain that, had an American attacked Koreans, the reprisals would have been swift.
"People will throw rocks at them and tell them 'Yankees go home,' " said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because her husband is a government official. "People will go even crazier here if exactly the same incident at Virginia Tech happened here but committed by an American."