Any well-adjusted person knows that the Sungnyemun arson doesn’t belong in the same line of thought as concentration camps or sites of suicide attacks. So why have these comparisons been made? Well, I feel that there is, first of all, a profound misunderstanding of September 11th by many Koreans. For those separated physically and emotionally, the attacks were a televised action sequence that played out live on every network. Like Sungnyemun, the targets did have symbolic significance, but for many Koreans – and indeed for many outside the United States – the attacks represented a strike against American economic dominance and cultural hegemony. The attacks had a number of unpleasant consequences for Koreans that exacerbated an already fragile US-ROK relationship: military support in Afghanistan and Iraq, the execution of Kim Sun-il, and – as some have argued – the capture and ransom of Korean missionaries in Afghanistan in 2007. The human suffering was buried by other considerations and, I feel, was quite lost in translation.
There is also the belief by some that, to add legitimacy to things Korean, they must be cast by Koreans in the light of things Western. Jeju is called Korea's Hawaii, Tongyeong is Korea's Naples, and the singer Rain is Korea's Justin Timberlake. Such comparisons are damaging to both sides, and always cheapen the Korean claim.
And at times, this can also be a country prone to hyperbole and public displays of sorrow. Editorials on topics like English education or the Yeosu Expo depict the issues as matters of important national pride. It is not unusual to see news reports of disgraced public figures making tearful apologies and prostrations at press conferences. The blog "Gusts of Popular Feeling" has documented how Korean children were encouraged to cry on camera, and on cue, when news broke of Pyeongchang's latest failed Olympic bid. Korean music videos are another fine example, as today's top hits contain images of arson, assault, suicide, and murder. The emphasis in these being not the loss of life or destruction of property, but rather the pronounced reaction of the video's protagonist who has watched the scene unfold. The newspaper articles I mentioned weren't comparing the fire to other despicable events, mind you, but were merely trying to compare the emotional reactions.
It must also be said that the Korean press and a fair number of Koreans have displayed a worrying lack of empathy and tact regarding foreign cultures and countries. Lesser examples occur in the papers on a nearly daily basis, and the major gaffes have attracted worldwide attention. For example, the day after the
Virgina Tech massacre the Seoul Shinmun ran a cartoon using the 33 deaths to mock the United States' gun policies, though the newspaper pulled the cartoon when the shooter turned out to be a Korean. In April, 2006, at the COEX Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul, the hotel's president was giving a lecture on poktanju, or "bomb alcohol." The president said to the gathered company, which included most notably the Japanese Ambassador, that poktanju "is like a flash and explosion of bubbles, like the moment of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima." There are also several Nazi-themed bars throughout the country, and they've just recently been given international media attention. In response to criticism, the owner of one such bar told a reporter, "I wanted to be different." One patron told a TIME magazine reporter in 2000 his views on the Nazis: "I don't hate them, I don't like them, but at least they dressed well." The highly-offensive "blackface" make-up has appeared on comedy programs, in music videos, and even in the current national elementary school curriculum. And I know I'm not the only teacher to have had students make jokes about terrorism, Bin Laden, and the crumbling Twin Towers.
The rest is available online. The issue of hyperbole is one that deserves more attention than 1,200 words allow. It's also worth pointing out that 9/11 itself is shrouded in hyperbole and excessive patriotism, and because the attacks were used to justify war in the Middle East, the sympathy ship has sailed for many. The Korean reaction isn't, as I see it, related to the September 11 attacks themselves, or to the sense of panic, hopelessness, and, well, terror, but rather to the imagined meaning the Koreans assign the attacks based on their interpretation of television coverage. That the attacks unfolded live on TV allowed viewers across the world to witness an "appropriate" reaction to the destruction of landmarks . . . and for some of the reasons I elaborated in the article---chiefly a profound misunderstanding of 9/11---there is no reason for Koreans in general to view the September 11 attacks as anything more than symbolic strikes on landmarks.
I also want to add that after I submitted the above article in late-February, the Joongang Ilbo ran an article attributing the trauma of the Namdaemun blaze to the fact that it occurred on live TV. In fact, it seems like the author is suggesting that the attacks were more traumatic for Koreans than 9/11 was for Americans because Koreans aren't as used to watching their landmarks destroyed in movies and on TV. An excerpt:
We have had our fair share of tragedy ― the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store and Seongsu Bridge, plus the arson attack on the Daegu subway.
However, cameras didn’t catch the moment of the accident. The fire at Naksansa Temple in 2005 still sticks in our memory, because we saw it on TV.
People could do nothing but watch the pitiful footage as the ancient temple burned and the bronze bell melted in the flames.
Viewers who saw those painful images will never forget them. The sounds of people shrieking as they looked on has been burned into the hearts of the people of Korea.
The Gwangju News is always looking for writers and good articles about the Gwangju/Jeonnam region (agentX and kiwiduncan, I'm looking in your direction). The anniversary of the Gwangju Massacre is coming up, and if there are any bloggers knowledgable on this subject who would like to contribute something for the May issue, please let me know. Anyone interested in writing should sign up and submit their stuff to the Gwangju News forum and/or get on the Gwangju News facebook page to stay updated.