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A Culture in Need of Compassion

Korean widow's deportation case requires more caring efforts by local community and its government at home.

March 23, 1997|MOON YOUNG PARK | Moon Young Park is a former special aide to the defense attache with the Embassy of Korea in Washington, D.C. He wrote " 'Lure' North Korea," Foreign Policy magazine, winter 1994-95. He is currently in Seoul

SEOUL — Jasmin Salehi's immigration problem, as reported in The Times and by private television in South Korea, reflects serious problems in the treatment of individuals by both the U.S. and South Korean governments, and illustrates a cultural myopia that too often tears Koreans apart.

Salehi, a native of South Korea, faces deportation from the United States as a result of the slaying of her husband by a robber in a Reseda restaurant. Although U.S. immigration law requires two years of marriage for permanent residency, Salehi, tragically, had been wed only 11 months when her husband was killed.

Despite urgings to the contrary from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others, U.S. immigration authorities have taken a hard line and said that Salehi must leave. Yet it can be argued that Salehi lost her husband because government, at many levels, failed to perform its duty to provide adequate security. But for the failure of public safety, it must be assumed that Salehi would have met the two-year residency requirement. By continuing to insist on a partial technicality, government attempts to shift blame onto the victim. A more reasonable interpretation of the law should have it that government's failure exempts Salehi from the two-year requirement.

In this case, as in many others, South Korea's inaction and its inability to provide its citizens with constitutional protection makes many Koreans feel ashamed. Koreans in the United States have faced increasing discrimination and deprivation of human rights and dignity. Yet guarding its people from harm in foreign countries has not been the primary concern of the South Korean government. This is in contrast to its U.S. counterpart, which has shown consistent concern for the protection of citizens from any harm by foreign powers--sometimes to an extent that is intrusive and aggressive. (The U.S. government's refusal to transfer to Korean authorities the custody of Pvt. Eric Munnich, who admitted to killing a Korean woman for refusing sex with him, is a recent example.)

In a Nov. 5 report, MBC--Munhwa Broadcasting Co.--the major private TV network in South Korea, demonstrated the Korean people's time-honored approach to their countrymen's well-being when the case at hand does not seem immediately related to their own lives. Interviewed by a reporter from South Korea, a representative of a Los Angeles Korean association that Salehi went to for help pointed a finger at Salehi for failing to request specific measures for the association to take to solve her problem. That blame game was nothing more than an attempt by the civic organization to cover up its indifference and failure to follow through on its own raison d'e^tre: providing guidance to the Korean people, most of whom are not familiar with American culture and the U.S. legal system.

The TV report also showed how the L.A. Korean community tends to consider Salehi's case a nuisance. Korean store owners criticized the reporter for attempting to bring the case to the attention of Koreans who were not aware of it. They insisted that even a mention of Salehi's name would make their "calm" stores lose sales.

This scenario highlights a myopia deeply rooted in the tradition of the Korean nation. It seems that the message of the Los Angeles riots never touches the many Koreans. That the uninvited havoc inflicted on them in 1992 was in part a result of the community's own disunity apparently escapes notice. Yet this disunity had been noticed by those who needed a scapegoat on which to shower their spite.

Strikingly enough, this disunity is well observed by most Koreans, who resign themselves by saying, "We are helpless and without a solution." Although they recognize the problem, they aggravate the situation by thinking: "As others are indifferent and without compassion, why should I be concerned?" This rationale reflects the closeted life Koreans have lived for 4,000 years, and hence the myopia that has broken the country apart throughout their history.

To begin to solve this problem, the South Korean government must take the lead in bringing the people together by being faithful to its responsibilities and showing respect for them first. Then it must reform an educational system that for decades has promoted subordination and win-lose competition, into the kind that "discusses" and teaches harmony, love, human dignity and win-win cooperation.

As for Jasmin Salehi, since the two-year residency requirement is set forth to prevent a fake marriage, the Korean community should form a support committee to help her with her case. The South Korean government has been traditionally generous in its treatment of Americans in Korea; it therefore should demand reciprocity from its U.S. counterpart in this matter.

In contrast to the heavy-handedness of the U.S. government and the inaction of its Korean counterpart and people, the compassion demonstrated to Salehi by the American people and Sen. Feinstein touches concerned hearts. It testifies that the real fabric and power of the United States, the country most admired by many around the world as well as by the Korean people, come from the people and their culture, which value and practice love, caring and, indeed, compassion for other humans beings.

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