SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — When a jet from a Seoul-based airline crashed over the 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 that would be 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. Many feel pride, for instance, seeing Samsung billboards in 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 cozy 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.
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