South Korea Starts to Come to Terms with Vietnam War Crimes
Court orders payment to single victim of massacre
By: Shim Jae Hoon
One February morning in 1968, a company of South Korean marines stormed Phong Nhi village in central Vietnam, searching for Viet Cong guerrillas from whom they thought they had taken fire. After lining up frightened villagers into three separate groups, the marines shot them down, killing 74 innocent villagers.
One survivor who was left bleeding with gunshot wounds to her abdomen was Nguyen Thi Thanh, then 8 years old. She was found and saved by a US Marine coming to inspect the scene. Thanh’s five family members including her mother, an aunt, and a sister had been killed. Other women were found dead with bayonet stabs and abandoned at nearby ditches.
That prompted the nearby US Marine brigade to declare it a war crime. General Chae Myong Shin, top South Korean military commander in Vietnam at the time, denied the killings, saying Korean marines were not at the scene, but this was found untrue in later investigations.
Over half a century later, the ghosts of Phong Nhi have returned to haunt South Korean society, forcing the country to come to terms with war crime charges that few were prepared to accept. But it was clearly a Korean version of the My Lai Massacre, in which US troops were accused of massacring an entire Vietnamese village just a few weeks after the Phong Nhi massacre.
On February 7 this year, just a week before the 55th anniversary of the Phong Nhi killings, presiding judge Park Jin Su of the Seoul Central District Court’s civil division panel, delivered the verdict that the Korean government was responsible for the killings of Thanh’s family in Phong Nhi, and should therefore pay her a compensation of KRW30 million (US$24,000), the amount that she had asked for. But the sentence was limited to Thanh’s individual loss of family, not the entire murder of the whole village.
Even so, the verdict represented the South Korean court’s first ruling on allegations of war crimes by Korean units in the Vietnam War, and thus carried a historically symbolic significance. For decades since its participation in the Vietnam War on the side of the United States in 1965, the Korean government has never officially admitted to any wrongdoing on the battlefield, even though several past Korean presidents, including the last, President Moon Jae In, have elliptically expressed what he termed “regrets” by referring to “unfortunate ill feelings” related to Korea’s wartime conduct.
Commenting on the court’s verdict, a defense ministry spokesman said the government will appeal the sentence for a second deliberation at the Appellate Court, repeating the official stand that there had been no war crimes committed by Korean troops in Vietnam. As for Hanoi, a foreign ministry spokesman said he “respected” the verdict but added Vietnam will continue to “cooperate with Korea on a forward-looking spirit.”
But the fact that South Korea is now prepared to face the facts of its past also signifies huge democratic progress the country has made in the past few decades. The country’s free press has made it possible for it to face its past ugly side without fear or prejudice.
Against that backdrop, the court’s verdict clearly holding Korean combatants killing of Nguyen Thi Thanh’s family meant a giant departure fraught with future implications. “Thang Loi, thang loi! (We’ve won!), Thanh’s Korean supporters shouted over their cellphones to Thanh's own cellphone in Vietnam. Now 63 years old and still living in Phong Nhi village, she talked by phone to South Korean human rights activists who have campaigned hard on her behalf for over two decades since the issue first surfaced.
“It’s not the money I care about,” she had told her Korean human rights campaigners earlier, “what I want from the Korean government is an admission of guilt, and a statement saying, ‘We are sorry!”
That she got, after two years of court fighting and four trips to Seoul from Vietnam to set the record straight. But it also amounted to a hard-won victory on the part of many Korean human rights campaigners that backed her appeal for justice. After her story first surfaced in Korea years ago, human rights activists launched the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation as a platform to channel public attention to war crimes investigation.
Backing the campaign was Hankyoreh Newspaper, Seoul’s progressive leftwing daily, which campaigned vigorously to get the truth to the front of Korean society. Vietnam veterans were invited to speak out their experiences on the battlefield. In one spectacular event, an advertising campaign was started to publish statements by veterans expressing contrition and remorse over their battlefield actions. In one of her memorable experiences in Seoul, one Korean marine veteran came and knelt before her asking for forgiveness for war crimes.
People who lost their kin killed or wounded in Vietnam, or hundreds of marines and others who returned from the battlefield sickened by the after-effects of Agent Orange defoliants remain grimly resentful. While many veterans have already died, those still suffering from exposure to Agent Orange by transmission to the second generation are still found in hospital beds, still in hospital beds in Seoul, bed-ridden from generation to generation.
For all that, Vietnam has other implications for many Koreans who have suffered from the trauma of war. As human rights lawyer Lim Jae Sung, who had taken the Vietnam issue to the Seoul court, recently recounted, the Phong Nhi massacre wasn’t simply something that had happened in some remote corner of the world. In his campaign for justice and reconciliation, Lim had been moved by South Korea’s own history of internecine conflicts that have produced a large number victims of civilian killings.
“South Korean society does not have a very strong fear of being a perpetrator of violence,” he wrote in the Hankyoreh newspaper after the court’s verdict. “South Korea itself emerged out of a context of extreme violence through colonization and warfare.”
In saying so, Lim was indicating Koreans’ own long fight not only to set the record straight on the large number of civilian killings that resulted in the course of the three-year war between North and South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean Conflict. South Korea has its own record of many civilian deaths from mistaken bombing raids, on top of the victimization of Korean women drafted for sexual slavery under by the Japanese, and Korean forced laborers who had been drafted to work at Japanese coal mines during World War II.
In other words, South Korean human rights activists had to squarely look on their own country’s guilt complex in accusing Japan or the US.
“Behind the (economic) achievements that South Korea has realized today,” Lim wrote in the Hankyoreh newspaper after the verdict on Thanh, “there is at least some measure of death and suffering experienced by Vietnamese massacre victims.” What he was implying was the dollar income that South Korea received in payment for soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War.
What does Nguyen Thi Thanh herself think?
“I feel like a big load has been removed from my back,” she told Hankyoreh newspaper, adding: “there are still many civilian massacres besidesPhong Nhi that have not been investigated,” referring to allegations of other cases of war crimes still left unopened at several places involving South Korean troops. “I hope the Korean government will waste no time and investigate these cases and apologize to the victims.”