As most KDrama fans will have observed to their endless frustration, Korean apology etiquette is to not offer any explanation whatsoever. Any additional comment is seen as an excuse, and therefore a failure to take responsibility. However, in real life (Korean politics, for example), apologizers offer excuses all the time. Come to think of it, it does often come across as an excuse, and a denial of responsibility!
A really serious apology when one has wronged a number of people may be accompanied by a bow. The deeper the bow, the more repentant the apology. We have all seen this in KDrama – usually when a corrupt CEO acknowledges he “made a mistake” in the boardroom.
It’s a real world thing, too. Korean President Park Geun Hye apologized for the Sewol ferry disaster and bowed deeply at the end of an emotional speech in May. Her tears made international news, but I suspect her bow was more significant at home. I came across this speech live, and was weirdly thrilled that I understood the significance of it even without subtitles, thanks to KDrama.
There have been numerous examples of public apology in the entertainment world as well. Celebrities accused of everything from tax evasion to drug use express their regrets and then drop out of sight for a few years, or sign up for their army service if they are men. The length of disappearance is determined by the popularity of the celebrity times the severity of the misbehavior.
Unfortunately, it seems that apologizing is sometimes all that’s required. It’s taken on faith that the apologizer really means it, and after a period of keeping a low profile, they can return to their careers, with minimal legal consequences in many cases.
On the other hand, the truly remorseful may commit suicide. Korean ideas of responsibleness can be rather expansive, another thing we often see in drama, where characters take all sorts of blame onto themselves for things they had no control over. Unfortunately, this is not limited to drama, but occurs in real life, as with a teacher traveling with the Sewol students.
However, suicide is not necessarily an admission of guilt. In drama, at least, it can also mean that someone has been so severely humiliated by being accused of something that is unthinkable to them, that they decline to continue living with such a stain upon their reputation.
Rather oddly, for a culture with a firm belief in the potential for personal transformation, there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.
You may be wondering about the apple. The Korean word for “apology” is 사과 sagwa, which is also the Korean word for “apple.” This pun is often played upon in KDrama.
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