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Nguyet Thi Thanh, one of the survivors of a Vietnam War massacre committed by South Korean soldiers, speaks at a weekly demonstration by former comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, during her first visit to Korea last April. Shim Hyun-chul/Korea Times

Korean troops’ killings in Vietnam still unresolved

Academics call for Seoul to apologise to Vietnamese war victims and looking back would help Korea reflect on its own unresolved historical issues

Korea Times

'Peace is possible when putting myself in the shoes of an assailant'

By Choi Ha-young

Koreans usually see themselves from the point of view of the victims, for example, of wartime sex slavery under Japanese imperialism. So, more than 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, it is difficult to find any feelings of guilt here over Korea’s role in that war, even if the nation sent over 300,000 soldiers to Vietnam. There, 16,000 of them died and some still suffer long-term effects from exposure to defoliants.

According to a Vietnamese military report published in the 1980s, South Korean soldiers killed about 5,000 Vietnamese civilians. Some researchers speculate the number could be as high as 9,000.

In September 1964, South Korean soldiers landed in civil war-ravaged Vietnam to support U.S. attacks on communist forces. Then President Park Chung-hee, President Park Geun-hye’s father, signed a deal with the U.S. to get long-term loans for economic growth. The troops were dedicated to building humanitarian facilities and providing necessities, but also were involved in battles.

From December 3 to December 6, 1966, the 2nd Marine Division of Korea killed about 430 civilians in Binh Hoa, in Vietnam’s south. Reportedly, more than half the victims were women and seven were pregnant. Among them were 166 children.

“The sin, enough to reach the sky, will be remembered eternally,” a monument erected in the village reads. Across Vietnam, around 80 monuments recall the wartime crime committed by Koreans.

Scholars and journalists investigated the tragedy, and it came to light in 1999 through media reports. But Seoul has never apologised officially.

Former President Kim Dae-jung expressed regret in 1998 during a visit to Hanoi, but no progress has been made since. Only civic groups have continued medical volunteer activities in Vietnam to offer an apology and some activists built a museum to inform the Korean public about the issue.

However, the Korean government recently set back the clock. One of President Park’s flagship policies, state-authoured textbooks, justified the nation’s participation in the war, omitting descriptions of the anti-war movement of the time. And most textbooks don’t mention the massacres.

Instead, Korean students would learn of the war’s economic benefits. So, many Koreans are unaware that the country’ soldiers were “assailants.”

Vietnam’s change of view

Originally, Vietnam demonstrated the rule of “shutting out past affairs and opening to the future.” But Ku Su-jeong ― a master’s degree and Ph.D. holder from the Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City ― says the phrase doesn’t mean the Vietnamese will cover up the memories forever.

“Rather, the Vietnamese government has investigated the atrocities, published booklets and designated the massacre sites as historical remains and organised events to commemorate,” said Ku, who exposed the massacres in Korea for the first time as a correspondent of a local media outlet, Hankyoreh.

In December, a documentary titled “The Last Lullaby,” which dealt with the Binh Hoa massacre, won an honourable mention from Vietnamese state-run broadcaster VTV.

“Above all, it is shameful not to recognise wrongdoings citing that victims don’t demand an apology,” the longtime  observer told The Korea Times by email.

Chain of brutality

Interestingly, she pointed out that looking back on the tragedy will help Korea reflect on its own unresolved historical issues. “There are considerable connections between the massacres that occurred around the Korean War, those during the Vietnam War and those during the May 18 Democratisation Movement in Gwangju in 1980,” Ku said.

In 1948, two years before the Korean War, government forces killed Jeju residents who protested the nation’s division. In 1980, a military government ordered the shootings of civilians in Gwangju, which also involved torture and sexual assaults.

Chae Myung-shin, then commanding officer of the Republic of Korea forces in Vietnam, is the thread that connects the consecutive atrocities, Ku said. “Chae’s first post was Jeju Island in 1948 and he conducted sweep-up operations against suspected communists,” she said.

“The achievements during the Vietnam War gave a chance for advancement to the soldiers, who formed a strong bond. This is the beginning of Hanahoe ­ which means Group of One the unofficial private group in the military.”

Two leading members of Hanahoe former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and his right-hand man Roh Tae-woo approved atrocities against the Gwangju Democratisation Movement to strengthen their grip on power.

There were similarities in the murders across the massacres: cutting off females’ breasts after rape, killing children and senior citizens and incinerating all after the brutalities.

“Korea has a long history of ideological conflicts,” Ku said. “The experiences on Jeju and massacres during the Korean War would be a background of the orchestrated atrocities under stern anti-communism education.”

Additionally, she said the soldiers’ panic, caused by an unfamiliar environment and the language barrier, would be a further reason for the cruelty.

How to apologise

Ku calls for an unlimited apology to Vietnamese victims first and also recognition of what happened, fact finding, an official apology, legal compensation, punishment of offenders, documentation in textbooks and the erection of memorials.

“This is what Korean civil society has urged of Japan,” she said. “If Korea treads in Japan’s steps like the so-called Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, this would be a secondary victimisation. Above all, the most important thing is a sincere apology and self-reflection.”

Recently, Ku led a group trip to the massacre sites in Vietnam, on the 50th anniversary of the Binh Hoa massacre. The participants paid their respects at the memorial and met the survivors. Among the participants were 30 conscientious objectors, who have rejected mandatory military service because of their belief in peace.

The phrase “Peace is possible when putting myself in the shoes of an assailant” has inspired Ku and her longtime movement to build peace between Vietnam and Korea. Now she is preparing the establishment of the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Foundation, based in Seoul, to push for a public awareness campaign on the issue. Along with the preparation, she has to deal with a lawsuit filed by 831 Korean veterans who deny all allegations about all massacres.