South Korean Footprint in Vietnam War

29.07.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

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South Korean statements about “comfort women” leave the author with an impression that only someone without similar skeletons in their closet has the right to voice such demands and harsh criticism. Otherwise these heartfelt declarations appear to exemplify duplicity or unscrupulous populism,

which is true of the situation in South Korea. Hence, it is worth reminding the readers of some events from South Korea’s history and its participation in the Vietnam War.

From 1965 to 1973, ROK took part in the Vietnam war and sent two military divisions (marine units not unlike “Fierce Tiger”, “Blue Dragon” and other brigades, as well as military construction workers), numbering approximately 55 to 60 thousand to South Vietnam, thus earning not only appreciation from the Americans, but also their ammunition and opportunities for military capability development. In exchange for sending the ROK military, the US promised to grant South Korea additional loans and support for modernizing its army. Korean companies entered the Vietnamese market and the mutual profits earned produced an economic miracle to a certain extent.

In 1966, varied South Korean revenues resulting from the war amounted to 40% of all the foreign currency earned by the country (soldiers as well as construction workers transferred money home). During the war the US provided South Korea economic and military aid worth, in total, 12.6 billion US dollars, with 625 million US dollars of this sum received from 1966 to 1970. And the South Korean army began accepting deliveries of the newest weaponry, including supersonic aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles.

South Koreans were not, with some exceptions, deployed in main battles, but instead in cleanup operations, during which they proved their eagerness and left a fairly bloody footprint in their wake.  It is well known that they practically did not take any prisoners and viewed the war against North Vietnam as a continuation of their struggle against North Korea. And while the US massacre in the Sơn Mỹ village gained notoriety world-wide, four similar events that involved South Koreans still remain the subject of study by specialist historians only.  From the point of view of a leftist activist, Kim Wan Seop, South Korean military personnel killed more than 300,000 people, mainly civilians, in Vietnam. However, the author believes that the actual numbers are two times lower.

The people called Lai Dai Han (Lai Đại Hàn in Vietnamese), a Vietnamese term that refers to individuals of mixed ancestry born to a South Korean father and a Vietnamese mother, also remain beyond the limelight. Traditionally, this group includes both children born of mixed marriages and victims of gang rape, whose stories have been recounted by witnesses and can also be found in Viet Cong’s propaganda.

Just as in the case with wianbu, there are enough testimonies from the survivors themselves. These stories (like those of Korean “comfort women”) vary greatly, from women offering sex in exchange for food or cigarettes to pimps selling girls to soldiers or even women being abducted and subsequently gang-raped. Similarly to the fate of wianbu, these stories are often about the painfully hard life of single mothers and victims of rape, especially those who dared to bear a child, who are ostracized by society. Such children were then often abandoned or killed.

Vietnamese historians and the media openly talk about the fact that the ROK leadership created “comfort stations” for its military personnel for reasons similar to those of the Japanese. These “stations” were an alternative to rape and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. They all refer to a fairly wide range of information sources. For example, the Japanese and US media published a letter, addressed to the South Korean Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin by the US command, that mentions “Turkish baths” meant exclusively for South Korean soldiers. US Vietnam War veterans also testified that these baths were called war brothels and employed Vietnamese girls.    According to reports by CNN journalists, at times, women were forced to have sex dozens of times every day, and were regularly examined by Americans or US personnel for sexually transmitted diseases.

The number of Lai Dai Han depends on the extent of the source partisanship and varies from 1,500 (official data from the ROK government) to 30,000 (according to the newspaper Busan Ilbo and other leftist sources). It is worth mentioning that South Koreans are not concerned with the overall number of people of mixed ancestry, but instead they tend to count those that are alive at present, and as of 2017, this number stands at more than 800.

However, if we use the same extrapolation methods, as the ones employed to calculate the number of rape victims in China by the Japanese forces, we can then end up with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women, a shocking numbers of victims raped by South Korean soldiers. This method assumes that all the mothers of children of mixed descent were rape victims, whose total is then added to a purely arbitrary number of women who had an abortion, plus the ones who might have avoided getting pregnant as well as those who were not of child-bearing age (once again using arbitrary data).

Still, since the war ended with a decisive Vietnamese victory, the current relationship between Vietnam and South Korea does not factor in this issue. The first person to broach this subject in South Korea was the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kim Dae-jung. He expressed his deepest regret for ROK’s role in unwittingly causing a great deal of suffering among the Vietnamese people, with the following words “I’m sorry that we were part of that unfortunate war and unintentionally caused the Vietnamese people a great deal of suffering”. In 2001, Kim even called the behavior of South Korean forces in Vietnam shameful. However, this statement a) was made by him as a private citizen, b) has been described as an indirect apology with a similar wording to the Japanese government’s assessment of the wianbu issue, and c) resulted in harsh criticism from conservatives including Park Geun-hye.

Still Kim’s successors have not paid much attention to this issue, and new interest towards Lai Dai Han was sparked by the signing of Park’s agreement in 2015, meant to put an end to the controversy of “comfort women”.

On 14 October 2015, 10 Vietnamese rape victims handed a letter to the UN Secretary-General at the time, Ban Ki-moon, requesting at least a formal apology. By and large, this agenda was cultivated by the Japanese ultra-right, who viewed this as an opportunity to accuse Seoul of double standards, and the South Korean left, who used this issue as an excuse to criticize Park Geun-hye’s duplicity. However, on receiving more compensation amounting to $8,300,000 and a number of apologies, the former ROK President did not, in turn, offer any apologies to the Vietnamese.

On 27 April 2016, the married couple, Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, responsible for designing the Comfort Woman Statue erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011, created a similar monument. This time around the monument (the so called Vietnam Pieta statue) is dedicated to Lai Dai Han, and symbolizes South Korea’s apology and repentance for their wrongdoing in Vietnam. From the couple’s viewpoint, the ROK government has no right to demand apologies, compensation, etc. on wianbu’s behalf until South Korea issues analogous apologies to the Vietnamese side.

On 16 August 2016, the speaker for ROK’s Ministry of National Defense stated that there were no massacres or rape in Vietnam, and that South Korean fighters fought against the spread of Communism in the south, with any statements to the contrary deemed willful propaganda.

In September 2016, the newspaper The Korea Times published debates on whether Vietnamese women could be regarded in the same light as “comfort women”. The outcome of this debate was that the ROK army did not officially hire these girls, and the abductions were not organized in nature or approved from the top.

On 29 October 2016, a petition addressed to Park Geun-hye, demanding that the government issue formal apologies for the rape of Vietnamese women, gathered 29,000 signatures.

However, no progress on the issue has been made even during the new president’s term. Still, Kim Eun-sung expressed hope that President Moon Jae-in may, one day, become the South Korean Willy Brandt, who fell to his knees in front of the Holocaust survivors. But instead on 12 June 2017, Moon Jae-in commended the South Korean veterans who fought in the Vietnam War for their bravery and made no mention of the other side of the story.

The Vietnam Pieta statue is currently on the island of Jeju awaiting its transfer to a location in front of the ROK embassy in Vietnam, as proposed by the couple during the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who rejected the suggestion. The sculptors had hoped that the monument would leave Jeju and reach Vietnam in November 2017, when Moon Jae-in was scheduled to make a diplomatic visit to Vietnam. But this did not happen.

Similarly, the Lai Dai Han issue was not raised during the South Korean President’s official visit to Vietnam from 22 to 24 March 2018. There was no time for either meeting with the surviving war victims or expressing even a terse apology.

As a result, people who are not indifferent towards the fate of Vietnamese “comfort women” and their half South Korean offspring keep posting petitions on web portals such as Change.org or dedicated sites as https://laidaihanjustice.org/. The author, in turn, is reminded of the proverb “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.

On 22 April 2018, a mock trial on South Korean military’s responsibility for the murder of civilians during the Vietnam War was staged in ROK. The trial addressed several massacres of civilians by South Korean infantrymen, including mass murders in Hami, where approximately 130 Vietnamese perished, and in Phong Nha-Kẻ, where 70 people were killed. Two Vietnamese nationals who survived the Hami and Phong Nha-Kẻ massacres arrived in South Korea to testify. However, the defendant representing the ROK government indicated that South Korean military’s culpability for the previously mentioned crimes could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that it was important to take the peculiarities of waging a partisan war into account during the trial. Nonetheless, the mock trial found ROK responsible for the murder of civilians and obligated it to compensate the victims in line with the current legislation. Based on the materials collected during the staged trial, its organizers are planning on demanding compensation in a real courtroom. And the author hopes that, sooner or later, the issue of the Vietnamese “comfort women” will also find its resolution.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”