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Nguyen Thi Thanh gives testimony in Seoul in 2018 about the attacks on Phong Nhi hamlet. Photo: Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation

Vietnam war survivors push Seoul to compensate for Korean troop atrocities

  • Victims of massacres at Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut are seeking compensation from Seoul, in the first lawsuit of its kind being tried in South Korea
  • Discussions of atrocities committed by Korean troops has long been a taboo, but hearings continue for a law pushing for investigations into the allegations
South Korea
Nguyen Thi Thanh remembers the gunshots that rang out before she and her family fled their house to take shelter in a nearby hiding hole. It was February 1968, in the thick of the Vietnam war, and she was eight years old.
After a while, South Korean soldiers found them and gestured for the family to come out, threatening to throw a grenade in their direction should they refuse.

“When we got outside, they shot us one after another,” said Thanh, now 61, recalling the episode at Phong Nhi hamlet, some 25km southeast of the central port city of Da Nang.

She lost a sister and a brother on the spot, but survived a gunshot to her waist. Her older brother also recovered from a bullet wound.

“I couldn’t do anything to help my younger brother as blood gushed forth from his bullet-shattered mouth; he was dying and panting,” she told the People’s Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean Troops during the Vietnam war, held in April 2018 in Seoul.

The non-binding resolution from three judges was that Seoul should compensate the plaintiffs for their losses, launch an investigation into atrocities committed between 1964 and 1973, and correct all forms of public memorials pertaining to South Korean participation in the Vietnam war.

An estimated 68 people were killed in Phong Nhi and nearby Phong Nhut in 1968, when a South Korean marine company swept through the two hamlets after a Korean soldier was wounded by small arms fire.

Ten days after the Phong Nhi killings, a different South Korean Marine unit killed 135 people – mostly women, children and elders – at Ha My hamlet in the same province of Quang Nam, a hotbed for Viet Cong activities.

The attack on Ha My was reportedly conducted in retaliation for Viet Cong mortar fire that had killed six South Korean troops. The troops allegedly bulldozed the victims’ shallow graves and flattened the village in an apparent bid to destroy evidence.

Thanh’s testimony and the recollections of 102 others, including survivors and relatives of the victims, are now part of a lawsuit filed in April last year against the South Korean government seeking reparations for atrocities committed during the Vietnam war.

It is the first lawsuit of its kind filed in South Korea, and comes after years of Korean and Vietnamese activists’ efforts to shed light on a dark side of the country’s history.

Each of the plaintiffs are seeking 30 million won (US$25,800) in reparations, the minimum amount that compels the court to clarify why it has ruled in favour of the plaintiff.

“Money is not the real issue. By doing this, we want the court to acknowledge that atrocities were indeed committed by Korean troops,” said Kim Nam-Ju, a lawyer who is representing Thanh and the other plaintiffs.

Alongside the lawsuit, a series of general public hearings have taken place since June as part of efforts to pave the way for a special law that would call for government-led investigations into alleged wrongdoing by South Korean troops during the Vietnam war.

The bodies of victims killed by South Korean troops in Phong Nhi in February 1968. Photo: Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation

Old taboo

It has long been taboo to discuss atrocities allegedly when Seoul sent more than 300,000 soldiers – the most behind only the United States – to fight for capitalist South Vietnam against the North and communist guerillas.

While these troops engaged in humanitarian work such as distributing food and building schools, roads, and hospitals, allegations have persisted that they massacred unarmed civilians in a war that lacked clearly defined battlefronts.

The Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut killings were well documented by US soldiers. But when investigators concluded in April 1968 that there was “some probability a war crime was committed”, the then commander of South Korean troops, General Chae Myung-shin, said the massacre was an act “conspired and mercilessly elected by the communists”, according to American documents.

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It is unclear whether Seoul will change its official stance. In 2019, the defence ministry responded to a petition asking it to look into the allegations by saying it was unable to do so because the Vietnamese government was not ready to cooperate.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, expressed “regrets over an unfortunate past” when he visited Hanoi in 2018, but stopped short of offering an official apology. Vietnam has never requested one, and in recent years has focused on moving forward as a key economic partner of South Korea, the fourth-largest Asian economy.

“It is necessary to shed light on war crimes, no matter who committed them, in order to warn potential war criminals that they will be called to account some day. Even if the war was largely guerilla warfare, it would constitute a serious war crime to round up unarmed civilians and open fire on them,” said Kim Nam-ju, the lawyer.

“Such efforts to reckon with war crimes are especially necessary on the Korean peninsula, where unaccountable numbers of non-combatants were executed on both sides [during the Korean war] and the risk of conflict persists.”

A memorial in Ha My hamlet dedicated to the victims of attacks by South Korean troops. Photo: Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation

Crucial testimony

South Korean veteran Ryu Jin-seong’s testimony has been crucial to the case. He was 22 when his unit swooped down on Phong Nhi after a bullet from the direction of the hamlet hit one of their men.

“When we got there, there was no able-bodied man. Most of the Vietnamese homes had dugouts [for people] to take cover as the war was grinding on. We shouted ‘come out’ toward the dugouts,” Ryu said in July during a public hearing on the need to pass the law instigating investigations into South Korean war crimes in Vietnam.

“Frightened women and old people who were unable to flee from us obliged. Why? They knew we would otherwise throw grenades into the holes.”

While rounding up those villagers, his company shot and killed an old man. While many women and elderly men were gathered in a rice paddy, the head of the third platoon was asked what to do about them by his underlings, as the company had to move.

“With his thumb, he made the gesture of cutting the neck. I heard this from guys of the third platoon,” Ryu said at the public hearing. “Everyone knows what it means. They opened fire and killed them all.”

The following day, the first platoon – to which he belonged – went on a road patrol. Ryu saw hundreds of angry Vietnamese civilians shouting abuse and gesturing toward the South Korean soldiers, raising shackles and bamboo spears in the air.

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“This scene sent a chill down my spine. I had never been as scared. On both sides of the road were straw mats, on which many bodies of victims [killed by the third platoon] were laid,” he said.

A Marine officer visited the head of the district after the killings, apologised for what had happened and left 30 bags of rice for the villagers, according to American documents.

Thanh – who recalls pushing her intestines back into her stomach after being shot – said survivors of the massacre and the relatives of victims were even now suffering from nightmares.

“But the Korean government has never shown any interest or visited us to inquire about the incident,” she said during one of this year’s public hearings.

After being shot, Thanh also remembers calling for her mother, but not being able to find her body. It was only decades later, after looking at a photograph of victims’ bodies found near her hamlet, that Thanh spotted her.

“Five decades have passed, but I still don’t know why they did it,” she said. “I want apologies from Korean troops. In order to forgive, we need an apology at least.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Seoul urged to admit Vietnam war atrocities