While Japan has been internationally vilified for decades for their World War 2 atrocities, nothing has been said about the crimes that South Korean soldiers have inflicted on civilians in other countries. Ironically, it is South Korea who has been very vocal about its peoples’ sufferings at the hands of their former colonizer, demanding apologies and compensation from Japan’s prime ministers at different periods of time since WW2 ended.
But many years after the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the truth is starting to surface. Researchers drawing testimonies from survivors and declassified information attest to the killings of Vietnam civilians by South Korean military during the Vietnam War that lasted almost two decades. In the Korean War of 1950 – 1953, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created in Seoul uncovered the facts about the Bodo League massacre where 100,000 to 200,000 civilians were tortured and killed by South Korean soldiers.
Yet, in the face of undeniable proof, the administration of President Park Geun-hye still refuses to recognize their war atrocities. In a 2013 state visit to Vietnam, Park brought flowers when she visited the shrine honoring Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnam leader and Chairman of its Communist Party. She did not mention the Vietnam War and the more than 300,000 soldiers that her father, then president Park Chung Hee, sent to fight alongside the US troops and committed numerous massacres where roughly 8,000 innocent South Vietnam civilians were killed.
The brutal killings, rapes and heinous acts of South Korean Forces came to light forty years after the war ended, when graduate student Koo Soo-jung heard about her countrymen’s barbarities and began her own research and interviews. Her published articles in the left-inclined news magazine Hankyoreh 21 created a stir and gave her a set of enemies, including the war veterans, the government and the ultra-nationalists blinded by their loyalty.
South Korea was not directly involved in the Vietnam War. This Southeast Asian country was divided into the communist north, supported by Russia and the south, aided by the United States. Strongman Park Chung Hee sent ROK troops to fight alongside the US Forces in exchange for their continued military presence and the millions of dollars that America gave to Park for his soldiers. The ROK contingent was second in size only to the US troops that fought in this war. Although providing assistance to America, they had the autonomy to use their own methods of fighting.
After the initial reports of Koo Soo-jung, various media did their own investigations and heard the unspeakable manners of the killings of civilian men, women, children and the elderly by the Korean soldiers. The Binh An village (today Tay Vinh village) was attacked 15 times between February and March 1966. Unarmed civilians were rounded up and shot by the ROK Capital Division of the South Korean Army. In the Binh Tai massacre, the 2nd Marine Brigade of the ROK Marines set ablaze the villagers’ houses then fired indiscriminately on the fleeing residents. Other massacres include the ones at Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất and at Ha My village.
The Vietnam War also saw a new breed of children born of South Korean fathers and Vietnamese mothers. These children are known by the derogatory term Lai Dai Han, abandoned by the fathers and brought up by their mothers in total poverty. Their numbers vary widely, from as few as 5,000 to as many as 30,000. Some of their mothers were in liaisons with the soldiers; most of them were raped and impregnated. But all of them were deserted and left to take care of the babies that society looked down upon.
None of these war incidents were ever talked about in South Korea; it was taboo and dangerous to do so when dictators and the military ruled the country. Vietnam believes it must move on and trade relations between the two countries remain strong. But the survivors who had witnessed the atrocities first hand and barely managed to stay alive cannot silence their memories.
The people of Vietnam were not the only ones to experience the savagery of the ROK soldiers. Thousands of Koreans were killed in the Korean War for being suspected of having communist leanings. In June 27, 1950, South Korean president Syngman Rhee heard that the communist North Koreans were advancing to take over Seoul. Giving up on defending seoul, Rhee and other government officials left the city but gave orders to the Korean Army to plant 3,600 tons of TNT at the Hangang Bridge where more than 4,000 refugees were huddled. Rhee gave the order to bomb the bridge to prevent the North from coming. The refugees were not notified and about 1,000 of them perished in the bridge demolition.
The Bodo League massacre meant to kill suspected communists and their sympathizers resulted in 100,000 to 200,000 civilians dead. The communists were blamed and South Korea successfully concealed the incident for forty years. But when numerous corpses were dug up from mass graves, the government could no longer hide from the truth.
South Korea is a shining example of a democracy that thrives amidst autocratic regimes in Asia (although some would disagree about that). Yet it continues to suppress freedom of speech and hide its ugly secrets behind its economic prowess. Pres. Park should own up to the historical truths of her country’s detestable behavior and, like Japan, be truly remorseful by apologizing to the survivors and compensating them for the misery they have not fully recovered from.