So, there are a lot of different entries popping up all over about this situation, but I'm just going to link to Rob, because he's linked to a lot of the other posts. I'm also going to link to The Metropolitician, because a. what he has to say is much closer to my view on this than has been the general hubbub around and also because b. what I want to say is closely related.
And that is, I don't buy this 니가 story really. And I'm frustrated at the moment at my inability to check out the Korean media for myself to follow up on it, although I have a feeling that wouldn't really help. What I do buy is a story I saw posted up on one of the video links early on which sounded almost like someone who was linked directly to the situation, who said that the foreigner had been on the phone, talking supposedly loudly, and the Korean man had either told him to "be quiet" or to "shut up please". That, to me, sounds like a much more likely story, and here's why:
I don't believe that a Korean man who was polite enough to offer a seat to a foreigner would use the word 니가 to refer to that foreigner. To put that word in context, nobody from my closest older friends on to my boyfriend to people out in public speaking to me in 반말 for whatever reason, has ever referred to me as 니가. Ever. It just isn't natural for a Korean to look at a grown man -- any grown man -- who they don't know and come out with that word. Especially not someone who is trying to do something as kind as offer a seat. It would have been way more likely that the man, even if he was speaking in low form, to just say, "여기 앉아." There would be no need to even bring a subject into it, and, from what I know at least, very unnatural to, as well.
What I have heard time and again, and even seen for myself in the case of two women speaking Chinese on a bus, are accounts of Koreans telling people speaking in a foreign language to be quiet. I don't find that story hard to buy at all.
The other thing is that, if you watch the video, it's clear that this man is not fresh off the boat. He speaks several phrases in Korean to the man which make it extremely clear that he is not completely ignorant of the language. And, especially if he is a teacher around the students on a daily basis, he would be used to hearing the word 니가 all the time. Once you are in tune enough with the sound of Korean to be speaking some of it correctly in context, you are in tune enough to notice the sound of such a common recurring word as that. There's no way he hasn't already noticed it.
I believe the Korean media is trying to fall back on the idea that this kind man was just trying to offer a seat to a foreigner, and he misunderstood, took it completely out of context and flipped his shit. I'm much more inclined to believe the phone story. And I'm also not so quick to condemn the man's reaction, for reasons that The Metropolitician has already outlined much better than I am able to. Is it acceptable behavior? Fuck no. Not b a long shot. But it's easy for white foreigners to tsk tsk about it without taking into consideration just how often this man may have been told to shut up on public transport before. Or any other number of forms of harassment, offensive statements, staring the likes of which even we can't imagine and ignorant questions he has already faced just in this one example day alone.
That's it, really. I don't buy the 니가 thing. And I don't think any critically thinking Koreans would, either. Because it doesn't make sense to me, and it shouldn't make sense to them, if they didn't really want it to.