For many South Koreans, the Vietnam War is remembered in terms of the sacrifice of thousands of South Korean soldiers fighting alongside US troops against communism in the country.
Vietnam War veterans are hailed here as patriotic heroes who helped propel Korea’s rise in the 1960s and ’70s.
But many Vietnamese remember it differently.
It is not well known here, but South Korean soldiers are accused of brutally killing Vietnamese civilians, including many women and children, during Korea’s 1964-73 involvement there. Civic groups put the total killed in these massacres at 9,000.
For history teacher Moon Yong-po, it is something South Korea should study, apologize for and teach its children about. Moon and his 11 students flew to Seoul from Jeju Island last week to join a rally in front of Cheong Wa Dae, calling on President Moon Jae-in to apologize.
Kim Ji-ho holds a board reading "I am sorry, Vietnam. Apology to Vietnam, Justice to the future generation, Peace to Asia! (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
“We demand an apology from the Japanese government for what it did to us in the past. I think our offering an apology to Vietnam would serve as a good example for Japan,” Kim Ji-ho, 13, one of the teacher’s pupils, told The Korea Herald outside Cheong Wa Dae on Nov. 2.
The Nov. 2 rally was part of a relay of one-person protests timed for the president’s scheduled visit to Vietnam later this week.
President Moon, currently in Indonesia as part of a three-nation tour, is to touch down on Saturday in Danang, Vietnam, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit.
Under the military-backed authoritarian Park Chung-hee administration, South Korea sent over 300,000 soldiers to Vietnam to support the US in the fight against communism in Vietnam.
No official figures are available for the number of Vietnamese civilians killed at the hands of Korean soldiers in villages including Phong Nhi, Phong Nhat and Ha My in Quang Nam Province.
Former liberal President Kim Dae-jung expressed his regret in 1998 during his visit to Vietnam, saying, “I am sorry that Korea participated in an unfortunate war and inflicted suffering on Vietnamese people.” President Roh Moo-hyun also said in 2004 that Korea had a “debt” to repay while paying tribute to Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
But South Korea has never formally acknowledged civilian massacres by its troops or officially investigated any related allegations. Vietnam has also not asked for an apology from the Korean government, seeking to leave the past behind and instead look to the future.
Now, South Korea and Vietnam share close ties. Korea is Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor and second-biggest donor in official development assistance. Vietnam is one of Korea’s largest trading partners.
“I wanted to teach my students the meaning of peace. Peace can be made when we know our own wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness,” history teacher Moon said. “It is not the crime I or my students committed, but history will only repeat itself if we forget about our own wrongdoings.”
“I wanted to teach them that the future generation should develop relations of peace, aware of past mistakes.”
Moon and his pupils, holding boards reading “I am sorry, Vietnam,” caught the attention of Vietnamese tourists who happened to pass by the presidential office.
Students hold art-works and boards that read "I am sorry, Vietnam" in front of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in central Seoul on Nov. 2 (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
After, they approached the protesters, read the information on when and where the massacres by the Korean troops took place, and took pictures with them.
“I don’t hate Korea. They made a mistake in the past. But it is meaningful that they want to show that they are really sorry about what happened,” said Thao Nguyen, a 19-year-old Vietnamese tourist.
Vietnamese tourists take a picture with Korean protesters holding up a placard reading "I am sorry, Vietnam" in front of the presidential office on Nov. 2 (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
A war veteran who fought alongside the US forces in Vietnam in 1967 told The Korea Herald that he had witnessed his own troops massacring Vietnamese civilians.
“I still cannot forget the moment I saw dead bodies of Vietnamese people lying on both sides of the road I was patroling every morning,” Ryu Jin-seong claimed. “It was a wrong war that should have not taken place. We went there because we were told to do so.”
“If needed, we should make an apology.”
Seok Mi-hwa, secretary-general of Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation, urged President Moon to deliver a message of peace to Vietnam by recognizing its own wartime atrocities during the Vietnam War.
“The South Korean government should investigate the Korean troops’ massacre of Vietnamese civilians and, if confirmed, it should take responsibility for their wartime atrocities,” Seok said.
On this year’s Memorial Day on June 6, President Moon addressed the country’s Vietnam War veterans, declaring that Korea’s economic takeoff was thanks to their dedication and sacrifice in Vietnam.
His remarks prompted the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry to release an official statement asking Seoul to “refrain from statements and actions that hurt the Vietnamese people and have a negative impact on friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”
But above all, apologizing for Korea’s wartime crimes is in the interest of the Korean people, Seok said.
“Whether it is a history of being assailant or victim, it should be reflected upon so that something like this will never happen again,” she said. “It is not Vietnam’s problem. It is a problem of our own.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org