Gunman's brooding disturbed his family
Jonathan Watts in Goyang
Thursday April 19, 2007
The brooding silence of Cho Seung-hui was so impenetrable it disturbed his family even when he was a boy growing up in South Korea, relatives of the Virginia killer told the Guardian today.
His grandfather feared Cho, at eight, might be mute; the boy's great aunt worried that he had mental problems. And his mother, Kim Hyang-im, spent most of her time in church praying for him to snap out of his unhealthy taciturnity.
"She was heartbroken. It was always her biggest worry when she called home," said the mother's aunt, Kim Yang-soon. "After they moved to America, she hoped his silences would ease as he grew older. But in fact, they got worse."
The poor but hard-working family had a difficult beginning. Cho's mother was forced into an arranged marriage with his father, Sung-tae, who was 10 years older and from a very different background. She was from a well-educated family of North Korean landowners, who had been forced to flee without possessions during the Korean war; he was from a poor family in the south, but had made enough money to marry by working in Saudi Arabia for 10 years on construction sites and oil fields.
As Hyang-im was 29 - a late age for a woman to find a husband in South Korea - her father told her she had to accept the proposal. "She didn't want to marry, but she gave in," said Yong-soon. "Her husband was not fit for her. But she always followed and obeyed him. She never fought him, though sometimes I wish she had done." No one in the family recalls any violent behaviour from Cho or his parents that might have hinted at the carnage to come.
But they were unnerved by his sullenness. "My grandson was shy even as a little boy and he would never run to me like my other grandchildren," his maternal grandfather, Kim HyongShik, told the Hankyeoreh Daily. "The boy was so different from his super-intelligent older sister. His extreme shyness worried his parents. I thought he might be deaf and dumb."
Schoolmates interviewed by local media said they remembered Cho as quiet and nondescript. His former teacher, Noh Yong-gil, has no recollection of him.
But the father doted on his son and daughter. "He lived for his children. He would have done anything for them," the grandfather recalled. "But now this has happened. It's as if everything they've done, the reason for their whole existence has been for nothing. It's as if they've not lived at all."
The family moved to the US in 1992. It did not go smoothly. During their eight-year wait for a visa, they became increasingly short of money, selling their second-hand shop and their home to make ends meet.
They had spent the night before their flight with the mother's family, who live in a wooden hut in the middle of a field of cabbages, spring onions and horseradishes. "They were very happy to finally be going. They thought they were off to a better life," said Yang-soon.
It was only the second time the grandparents had seen their grandson. "He would not talk even when I called to him. He was so quiet that I remarked that he must have a very gentle nature," Yang-soon said. "But his mother told me he was too quiet. Soon after they got to America, he was diagnosed as being clinically withdrawn. It amazes me that he ever made it into university. I guess he must have had some mental problems from birth."
Cho's family worked hard to make a success of their life in the US. His father spent hours in the laundry, earning enough money for his children's education. His mother supplemented their income with part-time employment as a waitress at a cafeteria. Her spare time was devoted to the Korean church in Centreville, where she implored the pastor to help her son. According to the Joong-ang Daily, she always prayed that her boy could become more outgoing.
When Cho started college, at Virginia Tech, his mother took his dormitory mates to one side to explain about her son's unusual character and implored them to help.
"She was worried that he spent all his time in his room, lost in a world of video games," the paper quoted the pastor as saying. "[Cho] came to bible studies for a couple of years, but rarely spoke and never got along with the other youths. I can't believe he has done this to such a devoted mother."
Back in Seoul, the family are worried that they had not heard from Cho's parents since the killings. They have wondered if things might have been different had they been able to bring the boy out of his shell. "I just wish he would have talked," says Yong-soon. "There is an old saying in Korea that people who won't talk will end up killing themselves. That is what happens when the resentment builds up."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007