Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Trying to Connect the Dots

Returning from South Korea two days after the horrific shooting spree at Virginia Tech, I could not help but reflect on Korean culture and society in light of the tragedy.

I fear that there may be some backlash or hostility toward Korean immigrants because of the violent actions of one long-time US resident from South Korea. I remember seeing pictures of Korean shop owners protecting their businesses with fear and trembling during the ethnically-focused strive and riots in LA in the early 1990’s. More recently, the backlash and harassment of Arab-Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 demonstrates that some Americans are fully capable of displaced anger and retributive violence. I also worry that the Korean association with the tragedy will result in more restrictions on immigration that will impact the number of Korean students able to attend Drew and other institutions of higher learning.

I was heartened by the rapid response and compassionate messages of condolences from several political and religious leaders in S. Korea for the victims of violence. Rather than defending the right to bear arms (as our President did), the South Korean President expressed his utter shock and dismay “beyond description” as well as great sympathy for the victims. I know from my own conversations with Koreans that they find America’s lack of gun control and toleration of violence incredible and a major flaw in societal structuring; this in contrast to the relative peace and safety of Korean society and virtual absence of guns and violence. Although Korea experiences a high suicide rate—due perhaps to the extreme pressure and competition for young people to perform and success in education and business—murder, theft and major are rare.

Given my interest in global AIDS, it was interesting to learn that Korea has one of the lowest infection rates in the world: .01 percent. Compared to Malawi which is at least 15% or Swaziland with 42%. Although the sex industry has grown in recent years, IV drug use is not a major problem, and homosexual vs. heterosexual transmission is about equal in numbers. Still, there are less than 4,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in South Korea.

Though AIDS is not a major problem in Korea, Korea may be the country that discovers the best vacine or cure. When I googled AIDS in Korea, I found an article in the Korean Times that announced: "World's First AIDS Vacine Factory To Be In South Korea". Apparently, Vax Gen, a leading, US-based, AIDS vacine maker, built a production facility in Songdo, Inchon, and is completing clinical tests for its AIDS vaccine.

Here is yet another connection between Korea and Malawi, East and West...