Politics of denial: South Korean war crimes in Vietnam

In 2018, two survivors of massacre perpetrated by South Korean troops in Vietnam during the Vietnamese-American war, instigated the People’s Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean Troops during the Vietnam War. This signalled a watershed moment in the history of civil activism and transitional justice in South Korea; yet, there is still much to be done.

Following the outbreak of conflict in Vietnam (1955-1975), U.S. President Lyndon Johnson initiated the Many Flags campaign to consolidate a united front against communism in Indochina. While several countries, including Thailand, Australia and New Zealand participated, South Korea contributed by far the largest number of troops after the U.S.: around 300,000 rotating troops by the end of the war.

Dictator Park Chung-hee sought to build a stable South Korean government, and so he agreed to take a leading role in the war in exchange for American military support in the Korean peninsula and economic support for Park’s ambitious development plans. The estimated $1 billion USD worth of American aid and other war-related income was a vital lifeline for the crumbling Korean economy.

However, the ROK (Republic of Korea) forces claimed an estimated 9000 innocent civilian lives in total in over 45 incidents of massacre spotted throughout Vietnam. In 1966, for example, South Korean forces killed around 70 unarmed civilians and burnt the entire village of Bình Tai to the ground. In 1968, South Korean Marines bombed the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất villages using mortar rounds, and claimed 70-80 civilian lives. Widespread accounts of sexual assault also exist, with some studies estimating that up to 10,000 Vietnamese women and girls were raped by South Korean soldiers.

The authoritarian nature of South Korean politics at the time enabled the government to promulgate a “cleaner” picture of its role in Vietnam. The Park regime sentimentalised the Vietnam War as a heroic defence against the communist invasion, which was welcomed by the South Vietnamese, and completely concealed wartime atrocities such as Bình Tai from the public.

However, at the advent of the new millennium, South Korea successfully transitioned into a liberal democracy and previous restrictions on information and expression were lifted. This allowed South Korean media to diversify and develop liberal alternatives to a predominantly conservative industry. Famous left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh published several articles in April 2000 based on the testimony of Kim Gi-Tae: a former Commander of the South Korean Marine forces in Vietnam who oversaw the Bình Tai massacre. Later that year, Hankyoreh exposed the Phong Nhị/Phong Nhất atrocities using declassified American military reports and photographs.

South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After

Civil society flourished in this liberal environment; groups such as Nawauri and Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) were allowed to organise and contest mainstream narratives about the war. These civil society groups have driven several efforts to achieve government-level recognition and responsibility during the war.

With legal counsel from Minbyun and the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation the two women survivors, both named Nguyen Thi Tanh, gave testimonies recalling graphic accounts of bullet wounds, deaths of family members and the brutality of South Korean troops during the Phong Nhị/Phong Nhất massacres. The judges ruled that the South Korean state was “guilty”, calling on the government to provide reparations to the survivors, establish official investigations into South Korean war crimes during the Vietnam War and correct public memorialisations of South Korea’s involvement in Vietnam to better reflect the victims’ experiences.

Due to the citizen-led nature of this transitional justice tribunal, the ruling was non-binding. Yet, this tribunal was organised in a highly comprehensive manner that resembled an actual trial and aligned with similarly citizen-led proceedings, such as the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, garnering legitimacy and recognition in international legal scholarship. The verdict caught the attention of major Korean media channels including KBS, SBS and MBC, resulting in greater public awareness and stirring discussions on compelling governmental actions. ​​The tribunal also galvanised a petition that demanded official fact-finding investigations and voiced the trauma experienced by survivors. Two years later, Nguyen filed an official lawsuit in the South Korean District Court, demanding damages as a victim of a war crime.

However, the South Korean government has continually denied its role in these massacres.

Alongside the government dismissing Nguyen’s lawsuit, the Ministry of National Defense and the National Intelligence Service have repeatedly blocked access to relevant records that detail the conduct of South Korean troops during the Vietnam War. Implicated military leaders have also claimed that the massacres were actually carried out by the Viet Cong, “camouflaged” as ROK troops, despite overwhelming evidence and testimony proving otherwise.

Civil society groups have condemned the South Korean government for its hypocrisy by drawing parallels with a major thorn in present-day Japan-South Korea relations: Japan’s acknowledgement of its wartime atrocities.

The term “victim-centred approach” has entered the lexicon of reconciliation tensions surrounding the “comfort women issue”: the systematic sexual slavery of Korean women organised by the Imperial Japanese Army in Korea during Japanese colonial rule. This method of transitional justice centres on meaningful consultation with survivors throughout reconciliation processes that require an official apology, memorialisation of victims, reparations and prosecutorial initiatives. Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-Wha called for a victim-centred approach at the 40th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, urging Japan to comply with international human rights treaties.

It is important to note that war crimes in Vietnam and the comfort women issue are not analogous. However, the comparison highlights the South Korean government’s inconsistent approach to fact-finding initiatives, a crucial element of the “victim-centred approach”.

The South Korean government justifies its hypocritical position in the Vietnam-American War by pointing to the silence of the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese government has indeed refrained from making any statements on the issue, but this justification is inconsistent with the notion of the “victim-centred approach”. This approach prioritises victims’ ownership of post-conflict reconciliation over “official” state responses. Additionally, there is a clear asymmetry in economic power between a developing Vietnam and a wealthy South Korea. Vietnam’s silence as an emerging economy, dependent on aid and foreign investment for continued growth, is reminiscent of South Korea’s own silence on Japanese colonial war crimes, which was met with fierce public opposition.

To fully engage in this process of transitional justice, the government should consider two initiatives as starting points for transitional justice.

Firstly, a truth commission investigating the role of ROK troops in several massacres is required, to provide restorative justice to and respect the lived experiences of survivors in Vietnam. Official truth commissions have been set up to investigate abuses from the Japanese colonial state and the United States, and the most recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2005, investigated abuses from national authoritarian governments. Partnering with civil society groups could also keep the government accountable to the public and ensure fact-finding processes are insulated from political bias.

Secondly, the South Korean government should address the consequences of sexual crimes committed by Korean soldiers during massacres such as Phong Nhi/Phong Nhat by assisting victims and their families with compensation and reintegration into society. This extends far beyond just financial reparations; it also includes gender-responsive rehabilitative initiatives and a proper acknowledgement of sexual crimes committed during the conflict through educational resources. As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Woman, South Korea should uphold its international obligations to condemn sexual violence against women and seek reconciliation efforts for survivors.

Participating in transitional justice processes regarding Vietnamese victims of South Korean war crimes would certainly be a crucial step towards showing the world South Korea’s full commitment to “victim-centred justice” and further legitimising its grievances with Japan. The government already has the tools, a well-developed judiciary and driven civil society actors; now we need to wait and see if the current government has the political will to cooperate with civil society efforts to do so.

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