The world is born out of sweat and blood, and most of those people are the one, who history remembers vaguely. It is often the leaders who are credited for an action they very little contributed to and the civilians who made that action memorable are long forgotten. Though people may remember Mahatma Gandhi, they might not know about the enormous support, advice, and actions that led Gandhi to become Mahatma. And as the leaders steal the credit of these unknown names, they often willingly pass on the consequences to them. These consequences are massacres, bloodshed, lootings, and rapes.
Today many know about the history of the US invasion of Vietnam in 1964, yet nobody remembers the atrocities committed by their allies South Korean troops on the people of Vietnam. The South Korean government, under the administration of Park Chung-hee, took an active role in the Vietnam War. This part of the war never came to light and people who died within it were left unrecognized. This is their story.
The forgotten holocaust of the Vietnam War
So many wars, so many massacres, so many dead, so many rapes yet none recognized. This was the fate that fell upon thousands of innocent Vietnamese people from 1964 to 1973. The number of troops sent to Vietnam by South Korea was much greater than those sent from Australia and New Zealand and was the second largest only to the US. Such a massive number of soldiers when it wasn’t even their war!
In return for its contribution, it won American aid that helped build the national economy. The military commander was Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin of the South Korean army. The role of Korean troops included both combat and non-combat. This war is alleged to have massacred civilians according to the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation. The troops are believed to commit 80 massacres resulting in 8,000 to 9,000 civilian deaths.
Though South Korea and Vietnam’s relationship has progressed impressively over the years since the countries established diplomatic ties back in 1992, the weight of the atrocities of the past still haunts the survivors if anything, who survived almost two decades of bloodshed. Today South Korea is Vietnam’s largest FDI investor and Vietnam is South Korea’s biggest tourist attraction. But things weren’t the same 50 years back.
Nguyen Thi Thanh, now 62 is one of the living survivors of the Vietnam War. Her family was killed by the South Korean troops in 1968. In April 2020, the woman became the first Vietnamese to sue South Korea for a part of history long forgotten. This case came into light for the first time and created a feud between those who truly sympathized with the survivors and those for whom the massacres never happened.
Tran Thi Duoc, then 16 recalls that the soldiers arrived at her village wearing camouflaged uniforms and helmets. In the neighboring Hamlet just behind their house, she and other villagers would see smoke, most probably coming out of the burned houses. These Soldiers looked like Asians but spoke a foreign language. They ordered everyone to gather around the well, and then hysterically began shooting at the citizens. Tran Thi Duoc begged on her knees asking for mercy, but the soldier shot her, nonetheless. The bulled passed through her finger tearing up her arms and upper body. She wasn’t dead but passed out of pain, perhaps it was her fate to survive the injury. When she woke up, she discovered that her parents and two brothers were dead, while her 3-month-old cousin lay wounded nearby. To date, neither can she forget, nor can she forgive.
Hundreds of people lay dead, all unarmed when the South Korean troops crossed through Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat, villages in central Vietnam. Days after, the United States military did investigate and addressed the killings in declassified American document. When American Marines and South Vietnamese militiamen arrived at the villages where the South Korean Marine unit moved out, they saw burning houses and piles of bodies including children. One woman who was still breathing had her breast cut off. The Americans and South Vietnamese did help the fleeing wounded and gave them medical assistance, yet their report was buried and never came to light, perhaps because they too did the same in the other parts of the country.
Though the Americans did investigate, there is no proof that the matter was pursued any further. According to many survivors, the United States deliberately suppressed the evidence. After the diplomatic ties of 1992, when South Korean tourists and researchers began visiting the villagers, only then did they encounter several survivors who shared what happened with them 50 years ago. A study conducted by an independent researcher from South Korea is based on the interview of several survivors and witnesses from the village and states that around 9,000 civilians were massacred over two decades of bloodshed.
Has there ever been a war without war crimes? And was there any war that happened without rapes? It was reported that hundreds of women were raped, gang-raped, and murdered by the South Korean and American troops during the war. Some women were raped and their bodies were mutilated. Lai Đại Hàn is a Vietnamese term long been subject to racism for racially mixed people born to a South Korean father and Vietnamese mother, most probably during rapes in war. There are an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 of these people who were conceived because of the rape of Vietnamese women by South Korean troops. There were estimated to be 800 mothers of Lai Dai Han conceived due to rape who were still alive in 2015.
To date, the South Korean Government has never once compensated nor apologized for its atrocities during the Vietnam War. However, there has been increasing pressure on the government to apologize for its role in the alleged massacres of War.