* Update 1: I thought I'd add a little bit of commentary atop my original post. I realize the Chosun Ilbo piece is merely quoting a few opinions, and does not necessarily represent widely-held views. Koreans are very prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, even in calm situations, and the piece reflects that tendency. While a lot of Seoul residents probably do feel a genuine sense of loss, I suspect we are seeing some of the Korean brand of sorrow, which encourages public displays of mourning. Add that to a penchant for overstatement, to a fiercly protective nationalism, to a well-stoked national sense of victimhood, and to a frequently-seen inability for empathy, and it's not surprising to find people linking arson to terrorism. Maybe the "Korean 9/11" opinion isn't widespread, and maybe it hasn't been adopted as the company line yet, but when I checked the Chosun Ilbo site this evening I did see it featured on the homepage, which is not only stupid journalism but just plain stupid.
There will be plenty of time for the blame game, and this disaster will provide plenty of material for blogs and newspapers for a long time. It's tempting to point out the multiple levels of incompetence. Or to take the public to task for allowing the "I was old, drunk, and angry" defense to fly so often. Or to shake my head at the irony of this disaster in a place that has recently tried so hard to attract tourism. I find myself saying something to the effect of "perhaps this will be a wake-up call" a lot in response to news stories here, but it's worth saying again that I hope this will foster a greater sense of duty with regard to protecting cultural properties. Usually protecting history here means writing an opinion piece for the paper invoking the Imjin Wars or complaining about imagined slights, and that leaves one wanting a more practical approach. Fire and neglect have destroyed lots of historical sites in Korea, and not just during times of occupation or foreign invasion. Anyone who has travelled to parks or tourist attractions know that local tourists haven't always taken great care of these places, and that's more than a little paradoxic in a country convinced of its proud history. Maybe this great outpouring of pride will drive the public to hold those responsible . . . responsible, keep the government accountable for safety and security measures at sites across the country, and encourage people to be more vigilant and consistant in their love for Korea's limited amount of tangible history . . . not simply when disaster strikes, or when newspapers feel it's prudent.
You can read the Metropolitician's take on this "Korea's 9/11" business here.
From a Chosun Daily article titled "Sense of Disaster Over Lost Monument Sweeps Nation":
Koreans were reaching for the superlatives on Monday. "The Korean equivalent of the 9/11 attacks happened while the whole country was watching." "The Republic of Korea's no. 1 National Treasure or no. 1 national pride turned to ashes in an instant."
Get a fucking grip.
Two professors expound on the 9/11 theme:
Baek Sang-bin, a professor of psychiatry at Gangneung Asan Hospital of the University of Ulsan said, "Just as Americans were thrown into a panic after watching on TV the World Trade Center buildings, the symbol of the U.S., collapse in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Koreans now feel a great sense of loss and frustration at the sight of the Namdaemun collapse. The disaster in Seoul didn't pose any threat to their lives. But they psychologically felt the equivalent of feelings the American had in the wake of the 9/11 attacks." If they happen to watch the scene of a disaster with their own eyes, people regard its consequences as happening to them personally and feel great unease and panic, Baek added.As an American living 4 miles away from Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, I'll wager that no Korean is psychologically feeling the equivalent of what I and many of my peers felt and still feel regarding the 9/11 attacks. Amidst all the finger pointing that is going on, and that will likely continue for a while, I hope people come to terms with how utterly unprotected this psychological guardian was. And in the middle of all this hyperbole and crying-for-the-cameras, perhaps people will reflect on the meaning of monuments, and the symbolic power they hold, and will try to quell the penchant for burning them to the ground.
Ha Ji-hyun, a professor of psychiatry at Konkuk University Hospital, said Namdaemun was one of two national symbols that “protected us psychologically” alongside the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who destroyed the Japanese Navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 16th century. “People's sense of panic and frustration over their loss of Namdaemun will linger on for a long time."
* Update 2, February 20, 2008: Well, I guess now they're comparing Namdaemun with Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields, and Hiroshima, in addition to Ground Zero:
Unlike trips made for recreation or tourism, these trips to the scene of a tragic disaster are made for self-reflection and edification. Representative examples of this kind of tourism are Ground Zero; the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where Jews were slaughtered; the Killing Fields of Cambodia; and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the sites of atomic bombings.
* Update 3, February 23, 2008: Now it's the Joongang Ilbo's turn.
* Update 4: Parallels with the rise of National Socialism? Where's the rolly-eye face?
* Update 5, March 5, 2008: I addressed the issue in the latest edition of Gwangju News.