South Korea Rightfully Demands WWII Justice but Has a Blind Spot for Its Own Vietnam War Crimes
South Korean forces murdered up to 9,000 Vietnamese civilians in over 80 massacres
Those who prosper through the misfortune of others often seek in their arrogance to disregard that suffering. Just as Japan has ignored a resolution to the military comfort women issue, so South Koreans tend to be unwilling to confront the massacres of Vietnamese civilians as a mirror of the truth and justice they demand from Japan. The only “apology” to yet come from Seoul is then-President Kim Dae-jung’s remarks in 2001 about feeling “troubled by the suffering unwittingly caused to the Vietnamese by our participation in an unfortunate war.”
The most recent edition of Hankyoreh 21 (No. 1196) includes a special feature on the 1968 massacre in Quang Nam Province. The cover image is chilling. It shows 69-year-old Le Thanh Nghi who lost his mother, younger sister, and 17 other family members to South Korean soldiers’ guns and grenades half-century ago. The Hankyoreh has worked with the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation plan a three-part series titled “1968: Quang Nam! Quang Nam!” The latest issue includes a map of the 1968 massacre, along with a pilgrimage course for South Koreans wishing to commemorate the victims.
The “We Apologize, Vietnam” series was originally published in 1999 by Gu Su-jeong, a current section director for the social enterprise AMAP who was then working as a Vietnam correspondent for Hankyoreh 21. According to Gu, around 80 massacres of Vietnamese civilians were carried out by South Korean troops, with over 4,000 killed in Quang Nam Province alone and 9,000 dead in five provinces overall. Hankyoreh reporter Koh Kyoung-tae wrote the book “February 12, 1968: The Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat Massacre and the World” out of what he described in the introduction as a “desire to record.”
After noting “rumors that South Korean Marines stripped young women and cut off their breasts,” Koh goes on to write:
“This was 20 years after the Jeju Uprising on April 3, 1948. It was 12 years before the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. February 12, 1968, in Vietnam came midway between Jeju and Gwangju. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, the events in Jeju were recreated in the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat. The events of May in Gwangju unfolded. Nguyen Thi Thanh, then a 19-year-old girl, lay naked and moaning in painting on a rice paddy. Blood was streaming from her mutilated breasts. Her left arm was in the same state. The Marines who entered the villages were as brutal as the punitive forces who had gone into Jeju 20 years before and the paratroopers who would be sent to Gwangju 12 years later. The punitive forces of the past, the paratroopers of the future, and the Marines of today looked the same and spoke the same language. . . .”
South Korea sent as many as 50,000 troops to fight in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. The number was three times as high as the total troops sent by other countries besides the US (Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan), with 320,000 soldiers setting foot in Vietnam over the course of the war.
Korea and Vietnam have a number of similarities
Korea and Vietnam share a number of similarities besides being heavily influenced by China and its language and culture. Both become colonies with the Western advancement on East Asia in the 19th century; both ended up divided with their long-awaited liberations after the Japanese Empire’s defeat – Korea at the 38th Parallel and Vietnam at the 17th. Both become pawns in the Cold War between major powers, and both experienced wars among their own people. The US was involved in both wars, but while the Korean Peninsula has remained divided after the Korean War’s end as a “battle without victors,” Vietnam was eventually reunified.
What does this difference stem from? Ho Chi Minh’s outstanding leadership, a spirit of rebellion running through Vietnamese history, and a sense of village consciousness mitigating ideological differences may be mentioned as factors. But for all we known, the most crucial may have been the differences in natural environment: the Korean Peninsula lacking the dense jungle of Vietnam and boasting harsh winters not found there.
Few explanations for the brutal behavior of South Korean troops
Why should South Korean troops have behaved so brutally in Vietnam, a country of fellow indigenous Asians for whom South Korea held no enmity? Today, they are all in their seventies, but a half-century ago these soldiers would have been spirited young men, perhaps trembling with loneliness and trepidation as their transport ship departed Busan Harbor and passed the darkened seascapes of the South and East China Seas. Around 5,000 of them did not return alive. Another 10,000 or so were wounded, while over 20,000 have suffered from the aftereffects of defoliant exposure. It was an ugly war.
Robert McNamara, the man then-US President John Kennedy picked as Secretary of Defense, pursued and expanded military intervention in Vietnam, doing everything he could to justify the action. In his 1995 memoir “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” he wrote, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” Such reflections are rarely found in South Korea, which does not even formally recognize that civilian massacres took place. The Vietnam War must remain a “battle to protect the free world.” Even today, as the power of candle-holding citizens has placed former President Park Geun-hye behind bars, the spirit of her father Park Chung-hee remains alive and kicking as far as the Vietnam War is concerned.
Park Chung-hee: The Vietnam War’s greatest beneficiary
And indeed, the greatest beneficiary of the Vietnam War was Park Chung-hee. Three weeks before Vietnam was unified on Apr. 30, 1975, eight individuals from the committee for the reestablishment of the People’s Revolutionary Party were put to death in South Korea. Park’s Yushin regime was mighty, and those who violated its emergency measures were tortured and imprisoned.
On Jan. 21, 1968, when the Vietnam War was in full swing, North Korea sent a team of commandos, including Kim Shin-jo, south of the border with the goal of eliminating Park. Whether or not this was intended to create a new front in line with North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive that same month, this assassination attempt served to further solidify Park’s regime. Control of the public and the militarization of education proceeded apace with the implementation of the Resident Registration Act, the establishment of the army reserves and the adoption of military drills in high school and university.
“War is the enemy of love!” – this line by popular Vietnamese poet Thanh Thảo appears in the book “Why Ho Chi Minh?” by Song Pil-gyeong, a dentist who is the leader of Medics for Vietnam and Peace, which has been performing volunteer work in regions of Vietnam that suffered civilian massacres, including Quảng Nam Province, since 2000.
“At the time, most men joined the army at the age of 17 or 18, when they were about to graduate from high school. Their survival rate was less than 10%, and they laid down their lives without even getting to experience romance,” Song wrote. But Park Chung-hee regarded all wars (including the Sino-Japanese War, World War II and the Korean War) as opportunities to satisfy his ambition.
The same was true of the Vietnam War. Just as the Korean War brought Japan an opportunity to rebuild after its defeat in World War II, the demand for supplies during the Vietnam War and the ensuing construction boom in the Middle East enabled Park to back up his slogan of “let’s live a good life” with material wealth. South Korea overtook the North in its economy and standard of living in the 1970s, and Park seemed set to become president for life.
On the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1985, German President Richard von Weizsäcker made the following remarks: “The next generation has grown enough to take political responsibility. Our young people are not responsible for what happened 40 years ago. But they are responsible for the consequences of what happened… We must help young people understand why it’s so important to preserve memory.”
Linking the Vietnam War and the comfort women
Is it possible to relate to the depths of another’s pain? During the 1,300th Wednesday comfort women demonstration in Sept. 2017, former comfort women Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok apologized on behalf of the Korean people to the women of Vietnam who had suffered the same things as they had at the hands of South Korean troops.
Along with a one-person protest in front of the Blue House calling on the South Korean government to apologize, the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation is organizing the “10,000 campaign,” hoping to bring together “10,000” people to remember the “10,000” victims of the Vietnam War and to prevent such conflicts in the future. In April, a “citizens’ court of peace” will also be convened to judge the massacres of civilians during the Vietnam War. I hope that thousands of civilians will take part in this campaign.
THE PETITIONS OF CIVILIAN VICTIMS OF MASSACRES DURING THE VIETNAMESE WAR
National Route 1A is a major transportation artery running down the spine of Vietnam. About halfway down this highway, near the road, are the villages of Phong Nhị and Phong Nhat. A 20-minute drive to the east brings one to Ha My village, while a 15-minute drive to the west leads to Thuy Bo village. A three-hour drive south from Quảng Nam Province leads to the villages of An Phước, Cầu, Diên Niên, Phước Bình and Thọ Tây, in Quảng Ngãi Province, which are within a 15-minute drive to the east or west of the highway. The villages of Văn Quật, Sơn viên, Thuận Trì, Trảng Trậm, No. 5, La Thọ, Hà Tây, Khánh Lâm and Tây Sơn Tây are also located about an hour to either side of that same highway.
These 17 villages have several things in common. Located on broad flatlands near National Route 1A or on low hills, they’re ordinary villages that have been the home of many farmers for time immemorial. That turned out to have tragic consequences. South Korea’s 2nd Marine Division, known as the Blue Dragons, was stationed in Vietnam between 1966 and 1972. While the Blue Dragons were moving from Quảng Ngãi Province in the south to Quảng Nam Province in the north, they pulverized each of these villages, one after another. The Blue Dragons’ primary mission was defending National Route 1A; in order to facilitate their search for the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF), the army controlled by the Viet Cong known as National Liberation Front, they were supposed to “evacuate” the population – which meant burning down villages and mercilessly slaughtering many of the villagers. During the period when Korean troops served in Vietnam (1964–1973), it’s estimated that 9,000 civilians were massacred and that 4,000 of them were buried in Quảng Nam Province.
Over the past 20 years, the testimony of the survivors has gradually been brought to the attention of Korean society through coverage in the Hankyoreh 21 and through the “We’re sorry, Vietnam” campaign organized by the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation and other civic groups. But there hasn’t been any response from the Korean government. Now, the survivors have decided to force the Korean government to make a move. They’re asking for a thorough investigation, an official apology and restitution for their losses. The first step is a petition to the Blue House. This petition was signed by 103 victims from these 17 villages, both survivors and family members of those who did not. The petition letters were personally delivered to the Blue House on Apr. 4 by two representatives of the petitioners. The Hankyoreh 21 is printing the petitions of 17 people, one from each of those 17 villages, along with the faces of all 103 of the petitioners.
The Blue House is obliged to give a response to the petitioners within at least 150 days. We can join the petitioners in solidarity and support them until the Blue House fully accepts their demands. Now is the time for us to speak, but instead of “We’re sorry, Vietnam,” we should say, “We’re with you, Vietnam.”