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Korean Americans look inward after Oakland shooting

By Aruna Lee New America Media | Last updated: Apr 18, 2012 - 7:59:37 PM

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One L. Goh
SAN FRANCISCO - The shooting that killed seven at a private Christian university in Oakland would never have happened in Korea, where owning a firearm is outlawed. That at least is the assessment of community members who point to America’s own thriving gun culture as a causal factor in this and other incidents.

“Gun possession is a major factor in the deadly shootings,” said Nam Paik, pastor of the Northern California Deaf Church based in Fremont, Calif. “Sometimes frustration and anger can boil over into direct and violent action through the use of firearms.”

The shooting, the Bay Area’s worst mass murder in nearly two decades, occurred Monday morning at Oikos University, in a business park between Interstate 880 and Oakland International Airport. Another three were injured in the slaughter, according to police.

The shooter has been identified as 43-year-old naturalized Korean American One (Won) Goh, a former nursing student at the school. A report in the SF Chronicle notes that Goh may have been involved in a dispute with campus officials. He was apprehended an hour-and-a-half later in Alameda, after having fled in a victim’s car.

“Life as an immigrant in this country can be very isolating and lonely,” explained Paik. “Also, the violence in American culture… with high rates of gun possession and an entertainment industry that glorifies violence can definitely influence people.”

One of the victims, Hyun-joo Shim, 21, was enrolled in the school’s nursing program, according to Joo-young Hwang, a reporter with the Korean-language Korea Daily. Hwang says the victim’s father had been waiting just off campus for his daughter to come out. “I have a bad feeling,” he told Hwang, after failing to reach Shim by phone.

“I regret it happened in the Korean community,” said Jae-sun Kim with the Korean Consulate in San Francisco.

Kyung Chan Kim, a pastor at the Richmond Korean Baptist Church and head of the Northern California Korean Christian Association, expressed condolences to the families of the victims, but was quick to distance the community from the violence.

“I’m very sorry to the victims of the shooting, and I’m very sorry that it happened in a Korean Christian school,” said Kim. “However, this kind of incident can happen regardless of place. I don’t think it’s just a problem within the Korean community.”

Such statements are exactly what Jonathan H. Lee, chair of the Department of Primary Care and Community Medicine at the San Mateo Medical Center, warns against. Lee, who is Korean American, says members must take stock of to what extent this tragedy reflects something within their own community.

“There is a racial overlay to this,” said Lee, noting that both the shooter and the university were part of the Korean American community. “Koreans are implicated… [but] the reaction of the Korean community is probably going to be to find an explanation that doesn’t require them to go inward.”

Part of that may have to do with religion, he adds. “Many of the patients I see, who are more fundamentalist, tend not to acknowledge science.”

There is already a well-documented cultural reticence to acknowledging mental illness among Koreans, a tendency that is particularly pronounced among the more devout. “Some of them have a hard time accepting that their blood sugar count might be low,” said Lee, who notes that for some religiously inclined Koreans, admitting to such afflictions as mental disease can be tantamount to a weakness of faith.

“I met the assailant a couple of times, but don’t know him well,” said Dong Kim, publisher of the Korean-language weekly Hyundae News U.S.A. and a long time Oakland resident. “I heard he used to work at a Korean supermarket in Daly City, and that other staff there feared him.”

That description echoes similar statements following the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, which killed 32 and wounded 25. The attacker, Seung-hui Cho, was a Korean American enrolled at the university. Like Goh, he used a .45 caliber handgun in the attacks. Cho had previously been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. Korean media at the time were quick to note that he was raised in the United States.

In February of this year, a Korean man in Atlanta entered a sauna and opened fire, killing four before turning the gun on himself. All four victims were related to the shooter in that case. Officials say a domestic dispute led to the killings.

“It’s not just an individual problem,” said Dong, who like Lee feels this latest incident highlights potentially deeper problems within the community. Pointing to increasingly common reports out of South Korea about the often violent bullying that occurs there, sometimes driving victims to suicide, Dong says such bullying “doesn’t only happen in schools.”

“We, as Koreans, should reflect on this matter,” he said, “and embrace others in a warm way.”

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