SEOUL, South Korea – When a jet from a Seoul-based airline crashed this weekend in San Francisco, South Koreans took it personally.
The president issued a statement of regret. With a low bow, Asiana Airlines’ chief apologized not just to passengers and their families but to all of South Korea. Along with sadness over one of the highest-profile crashes by a Korean air carrier in recent years, average South Koreans expressed shame and embarrassment about how it would reflect on their country.
It is a reaction difficult to imagine coming from people in the U.S. or many other countries. The successes and failures of big South Korean firms are intimately linked to this small, proud, recently developed country’s psyche.
“I really think that foreigners see this accident as a reflection on all of South Korea,” Cheon Min-jun, an office worker in his mid-30s, said Tuesday in Seoul.
South Koreans take great interest in the global profile of local companies and of ethnic Koreans on the world stage. New York’s Times Square. And when a company’s stumbles draw international attention, there’s a collective sense of national shame, even for South Koreans who have no connection to the company beyond nationality.
“In the West, the separation between governments and society and businesses is more distinct,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. “The large organizations in Korean life are not standing independently of each other; they’re working together, in unity, pursuing a grand vision of Korea Inc.”
The attitude may stem from recent economic developments and the link between autocratic political leaders and businesses in the 1960s and 1970s. After the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul provided easy money to big companies and controlled the imports of certain goods to protect those firms. These government-driven economic plans provided crucial early support for companies that have since become globally recognized brands, including Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
The dizzying economic rise from poverty — sometimes dubbed the Miracle on the Han, after the river that runs through Seoul — has made South Korea the fourth-largest economy in Asia.
Asiana is a large corporation known by many foreigners and “easily falls into the category of flag-carrying national champion,” Kelly said.
“No corporation captures American imagination and political attention the way Korea’s largest firms do,” he said. “Local nationalism is channeled through successful firms.”
The stories of Asiana crew members heroically working to save passengers have inspired feelings of pride. But even before investigators determine what happened, there’s already a sense of shame that a South Korean company was involved in the crash, which left two people dead and dozens more injured among the 307 aboard.
“It’s a bit embarrassing,” said Son Eun-jung, a 25-year-old office worker in Seoul. “I’m concerned about whether I should be flying on Asiana. If I’m South Korean and thinking this way, I worry what people from other countries might be thinking about Asiana.”
While not in the same league as Samsung and Hyundai, Asiana Airlines Inc. is a flagship company of Kumho Asiana Group, South Korea’s 16th-largest private conglomerate. It has many international routes as the country’s second-largest air carrier, after Korean Air Lines Co., giving it exposure to global consumers and businesses.
The two victims were Chinese, both teenage girls. South Korean President Park Geun-hye sent a letter to Beijing, expressing condolences to President Xi Jinping, Chinese citizens and the girls’ families.
Park said the Asiana crash is “regrettable,” something an American politician would be unlikely to say, Kelly said, in part because of fears of possible legal action.
The accident was the first by a South Korean jetliner that led to passengers’ deaths since a 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam, according to the transport ministry. South Korean air carriers and the government made efforts to improve safety systems and their reputations after a series of airliner accidents in the 1990s and a downgrade by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in 2001 marred the industry.
The efforts paid off. South Korea’s two largest air carriers made inroads into the global markets, emerging as renowned airlines in recent years. Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s main international airport near Seoul, was the second-largest airport in the world in cargo transportation volume in 2011 and has ranked tops in airport service for eight straight years by Airports Council International.
The link between the success or failure of South Korean firms and a sense of national pride or shame extends also to the actions of ethnic Koreans who become famous — or infamous.
This was true of the 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting rampage in which South Korea-born student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and then himself. After the news reached South Korea, many in America were surprised by the outpouring of emotion, which included candlelight vigils in the streets and widespread expressions of shame. Even though Cho left South Korea young and grew up in the U.S., some South Koreans felt responsibility.
Separately, when the French president appointed Fleur Pellerin, who was adopted by French parents as an infant, as minister of digital economy, the South Korean media aggressively covered her life story, even though Pellerin doesn’t speak Korean and had not visited South Korea before being appointed minister.
AP writer Elizabeth Shim contributed to this report from Seoul.
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