In South Korea, soldiers who fought alongside the US against communist forces during the 1960-1975 Vietnam War are widely hailed as patriots whose dedication and sacrifice contributed to the nation’s rapid economic rise.
Some Vietnamese, however, testify that they still have vivid memories of Korean troops killing their families, friends and neighbors and burning their homes in the US-led conflict five decades ago.
“Beyond admitting that South Korea has a debt of heart to Vietnam, the country should repay the debt,” Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer and one of the board members at the Korea-Vietnam Foundation, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“And repaying the debt can begin with a thorough government-led investigation into whether there was a massacre of civilians by Korean troops,” he said. “When facts are confirmed, the government should apologize and take a legal responsibility by compensating the Vietnamese victims.”
Lawyer Lim Jae-sung (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
South Korean soldiers are accused of brutally killing Vietnamese civilians, including many women and children, in villages such as Phong Nhi, Phong Nhat and Ha My in Quang Nam province during Korea’s 1964-1973 involvement in the Vietnam War.
With no official figures available, the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation put the total killed in these massacres at 9,000 or greater.
South Korea has never formally acknowledged civilian massacres by its troops or officially investigated related allegations.
“There is a distorted perception of history. South Koreans had no chance to discuss how we should view the Vietnam War and our participation in it,” he said.
“Fighting for truth and justice for Vietnamese victims of massacre by Korean soldiers is a 2018 version of peace movement," he said. "It is about remembering the horror of war and violence by the state not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Under the authoritarian Park Chung-hee administration, South Korea offered to send more than 320,000 soldiers during the Vietnam War to support the US in the fight against communism, accounting for the second-largest troop presence, following the US. The number of South Korean soldiers outnumbered that of US soldiers by 1972 as the US decided to withdraw its troops from Vietnam amid growing anti-war sentiment at home.
The war left some 5,000 Korean soldiers dead. According to the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, some 45,000 veterans of the conflict are registered with the government as victims of defoliants used during the war.
As a result of its participation in the war, South Korea received an estimated $1 billion in assistance from the US. That aided in the nation’s economic takeoff in the 1960s and ’70s, which has been touted as a key achievement of the military-backed government by conservatives.
“Many soldiers died during the Vietnam War and we should pay tribute to them, but we cannot justify our participation in the war by saying it contributed to the nation’s economic development,” Lim commented.
As President Moon Jae-in kicks off a three-day state visit to Vietnam on Thursday, calls are again surfacing in the political arena and civil society for Moon to offer a sincere apology to the Vietnamese people.
Moon is scheduled to land in Hanoi on Thursday and meet Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang during his stay.
“I hope President Moon Jae-in can make an apology beyond saying he has a debt of heart to Vietnam,” Lim said, referring to President Moon’s apologetic remark to Vietnam in November last year.
Moon made the remarks in a video recording that aired at the opening ceremony of the Ho Chi Minh City-Gyeongju World Culture Expo 2017. But he fell short of apologizing to Vietnam.
The line was also used by former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 when he paid tribute to Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. In 2001, Roh’s predecessor Kim Dae-jung also expressed his regret during a visit to Hanoi, saying, “I am sorry that Korea participated in an unfortunate war and inflicted suffering on the Vietnamese people.”
A few online users have posted separate petitions to Cheong Wa Dae’s website asking for the Korean government to official apologize to Vietnam. Ruling Democratic Party of Korea Reps. Kim Hyun-kwon and Kim Jung-ro have also called on Moon to apologize to Vietnam during his stay there.
They all also touched on the issue of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women at frontline brothels during the 1930s and the ‘40s, saying South Korea should set an example of recognizing its own past wrongdoings, offering an apology and taking legal responsibility.
But the South Korean government maintains that the Vietnamese government is not demanding an apology.
“We should consider the Vietnamese government’s position. But we have a debt of heart, so we express it through other channels,” an official from Cheong Wa Dae told reporters Wednesday, referring to official developmental aid Korea offers to Vietnam.
Vietnam has not demanded an apology from the Korean government, seeking to leave the past behind and instead forge a future-oriented relationship with South Korea.
South Korea and Vietnam now share close ties. Korea is Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor and second-biggest donor in official development assistance. Vietnam is Korea’s third-largest trading partner as of 2017.
The Southeast Asian country is also a core partner country for the Moon administration’s New Southern Policy -- aimed at expanding its ties with Southeast Asian countries to the same level as its relations with the US, Japan, China and EU.
“Even if the Vietnamese government doesn’t demand an apology, the South Korean government can still apologize to Vietnamese victims," Lim said. "The two countries should not make it a diplomatic issue, it is a human rights issue."
“Vietnamese victims are ready to receive the apology.”
The civic group is now preparing to hold a three-day “Citizens’ Peace Tribunal” in Seoul from April 20-22 in the form of mock litigation where Vietnamese victims are to testify with judges to listen to them. It also plans to file a compensation suit against the South Korean government later in the year or next year on behalf of the victims.