From 1965 to 1973, South Korean marines were engaged in the Vietnamese War, taking side for the USA and the South Vietnamese government. Until today, this piece of Korean history has been a sensitive issue that is avoided in Korean history classes and political discussions alike. Another example of responsibility grown from history.
„Thanks to the dedication and sacrifice of the Korean Vietnamese War veterans, the Korean economy was resuscitated.“
This phrase, stated by South Korean president Moon Jae-In in June 2017 for the 62nd Memorial Day, has had a bigger political impact than expected. Not only that the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry would immediately demand an apology from South Korea for this official statement with regard to certain issues that lie in the past, but also being an indicator for the changing perception of South Korean people about their own history. Since there has not been a big awareness in Germany about the Korean engagement in the US war against communism, the following questions should be mentioned: How was South Korea engaged in the Vietnamese War and why does it affect its political affairs until today?
It was in 1965, when then president Park Chung-hee agreed to South Korea´s support for the US army in its war on communism in Southeast Asia. As such, about 300.000 Korean soldiers were deployed in Vietnam to join the US troops. Very soon, hard times should begin for the North Vietnamese armed forces. In contrast to the GIs, most of the Korean soldiers were hardened veterans of the Korean War (1951-53) with a clear enemy image they had been introduced to a decade before, by bitter experiences. Franco-German journalist and East Asia-expert Peter Scholl-Latour would later describe the fear of the Vietcong to get engaged with Korean forces in fightings, since the last-mentioned mastered hand-to-hand combat ambushes, and explosive traps in dead corpses; tactics they had perfected against their North Korean enemies. It was out of question that they would show no mercy to communist combatants. Captured documents from the North Vietnamese apparatus would even prove that the Vietcong were ordered to avoid any contact with Korean marines, if a hundred-percent chance for the win was not clearly given. Reports from western journalists stated that no other base was more structured and clean as the Koreans´, who also practiced their traditional martial art Taek Won Do in dawn.
About the unspoken
As for the USA, South Korea proved to be an efficient ally in the Vietnamese War. But for many civilians it would mean a terrible experience from the wide range of war crimes. One of the first big massacres that had been carried out by Korean soldiers was in 1966 in Bình Hòa village, South Vietnam. More than 400 people were killed for alleged support to, and sympathizing with the North Vietnamese communists. In the following years, four more bigger killings of civilians should follow in Binh Tai, Hà My, Phong Ni, and Phong Nhất, leaving hundreds of women, children, and elder people dead or stunted. Witnesses reported the Koreans´ brutal tactics, which included mortar attacks on villages which were suspected to be communists´ hideouts, systematic rapes, and mass executions. This just aside to reported torture, and extra-judicial executions of imprisoned Vietcong. Cases, that would never be brought to a military or civil court of justice. The last South Korean unit left Vietnam in 1973, actually being the very last of the US allies that retreated from the Southeast Asian mainland.
Responsibility for history
During the following decades, the engagement of South Korean soldiers in Vietnam, as well as the war crimes carried out by them, had not to be mentioned in the Korean civil society. Ever since, the prosperity of the country had been rather seen as a result of the hard working Korean people – certainly a true fact with considerable influence –, but less of the good treatment by the USA to their loyal ally in its war on communism. In the first decade of the 2000´s, the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Fundation started public campaigns to raise awareness about this sensitive issue in South Korea. By comparing the incidents in Vietnam with Korea´s own bitter experience during the Japanese occupation, the foundation managed to introduce the younger generations to the responsibility of the history of their parents and grandparents, in which Korea´s victim-role was, and most likely still is overrepresented. Former president Kim Dae-jung did apologize to the Vietnamese government in 2001 publicly, from whereon both countries agreed to avoid this issue whenever possible, as they grew to close allies in ongoing geo-political issues in the Pacific region. Nevertheless, the blooper of president Moon Jae-In proved that this piece of South Korea´s history has yet to be fully reprocessed in its civil society.1