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Bright daughter, brooding son: enigma in the Cho household

April 22, 2007|Bob Drogin, Faye Fiore and K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writers

CENTREVILLE, VA. — The three-story beige town house on Truitt Farm Drive stands as the Cho family's symbol of middle-class success, precisely what they were searching for when they left a dank basement apartment and a life of struggle in South Korea 15 years ago.

But the dream house is empty now, abandoned by a family on the run, not from the law but from a world seeking some sort of explanation.

Like millions of other immigrant families, Sung-tae Cho and his wife, Hyang-im, struggled to speak English, worked grueling hours and made countless sacrifices to lift their young family upward.

Out of that tough and potentially scarring experience came two very different children: a scholarly, idealistic daughter who graduated from an Ivy League university and a friendless, brooding son who retreated into a dark world of his own and committed the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

Seung-hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech Monday killed 32 teachers and students and wounded more than two dozen others. It also left the Korean American community and the rest of the world to wonder what went so horribly wrong. Family members have offered few answers, speaking only to the FBI for the first few days and then saying in a emotional statement Friday that they felt "hopeless, helpless and lost."

No one can know what went through Cho's mind as he prepared and carried out his grisly acts. But there are clues.

Cho, 23, grew up on a quiet cul-de-sac where neighbors waved a friendly hello, but would later say they hardly knew he existed. He attended a mostly white high school that installed round tables in the lunchroom to encourage students to interact, but Cho barely spoke a word. And he was raised in a South Korean family and culture that so values boys his mother once told her employer that she wished her son had attended Princeton instead of her daughter.

Asian immigrants tend to emphasize education and success, and by all accounts, the Chos were no exception. From a South Korean immigrant's perspective, said Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and an immigrant himself, you are either a success or a failure.

"There is no middle ground."

Poor, rural roots

Cho's parents have always struggled to make ends meet.

Sung-tae Cho, the killer's father, came from a poor rural area. He was a "country bumpkin" and considerably older than his wife, the daughter of a refugee, said Seung-hui Cho's great-aunt, Kim Yang-soon. "We practically forced her to get married."

Hyang-im's father had fled south during the Korean War that separated the south from its communist northern neighbor, according to Korean news reports.

Sung-tae and Hyang-im Cho were ambitious and apparently educated because after they settled on the still semi-rural outskirts of Seoul, they bought a used-book store. One could make a decent living selling secondhand books in the 1970s, before South Korea's economy began to boom. But one relative said the bookstore just eked out a profit.

To ease his family's plight, Sung-tae Cho left his wife behind to be a laborer in the Middle East, working on oil fields and construction sites in Saudi Arabia for most of the 1980s.

Back home, his wife gave birth March 22, 1982, to their daughter, Sun-kyung. On Jan. 18, 1984, Seung-hui was born.

For the first few years of Seung-hui Cho's life, the family lived in a dark, damp basement apartment on a busy commercial street in Shinchang, a suburb of Seoul. They lived at the bottom of a three-story, red-brick home, and paid $150 a month, a bargain even then.

Cho attended an elementary school a short walk from his home. About 950 students attend today, about half the number when Cho was there. The cluster of three-story buildings frames a large, U-shaped dirt courtyard.

The school files contain only a single sheet of paper on Cho, showing he left the school in August 1992, at age 8, after partially completing second grade.

"We don't know anything about that student," said the vice principal, who refused to identify himself. "And I'd like to point out that he did not graduate from here."

The young Cho left little impression on those he might have met. Sketchy recollections in the South Korean media all emphasize his shyness, a trait that would follow him throughout his life.

"He was a quiet, well-behaved boy," said Lim Bong-ae, the family's former landlady.

His grandfather and great-aunt, both in their 80s, still live in Seoul. Though they met Seung-hui only twice, and had not seen him for years when his face appeared on front pages and TV screens last week, they said they remembered him as a troubled boy uncomfortable with affection.

Kim Hyong-shik, his grandfather, recalled "a grandson who was so shy he didn't even know how to run into my arms to be hugged."

Cho's great aunt, Kim Yang-soon, remembered a child who was quiet and strangely remote.

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