Seoul's defense ministry denies Korean troops massacred civilians during Vietnam War

Korean government intends to appeal a court ruling that awarded damages to a Vietnamese victim of a 1968 massacre.
By Eugene Whong
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Seoul's defense ministry denies Korean troops massacred civilians during Vietnam War South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup told a parliamentary committee Friday that the ministry was certain there were "absolutely no massacres committed by our soldiers."
AP file photo

South Korea’s defense ministry Friday denied that the country’s troops massacred civilians in the Vietnam War, and said that the government would appeal a recent court ruling that awarded damages to a survivor. 

Last week, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the government to pay US$24,000 in compensation to Vietnamese national Nguyen Thi Thanh, 63, who was shot as South Korean soldiers tore through her village in central Quang Nam province in 1968. While she survived, 74 were killed in the raid, including several of her relatives.

South Korea sent 320,000 soldiers to help the United States defend South Vietnam against the communist North. 

The court dismissed claims by South Korea’s government that it was unclear whether South Korean soldiers were responsible for the killings and that civilian deaths were unavoidable as Viet Cong guerrillas hid amid the general population.

Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup on Friday told a parliamentary committee that the ministry was sure that in Vietnam, there were “absolutely no massacres committed by our soldiers," AFP reported.

Nguyen Thi Thanh, a Vietnamese woman who was injured in the raid and lost family including her mother, is seen on a laptop screen as she speaks to reporters via video call at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, on February 7, 2023. Credit: Yonhap/AFP

He said the ministry disagreed with the verdict and that the government intends to appeal.

"Regarding any legal action in the future, we plan to proceed in consultation with related organizations," he said.

Lee said that verifying Thanh’s claims would be nearly impossible, and that the war was extremely complex when it comes to South Korea’s involvement.

"There were too many cases where those wearing South Korean military uniform were not" Korean soldiers, the minister told the parliamentary committee.

Last week, South Korean Catholic Bishop Peter Lee Ki-heon, who was leading a dozen priests on a friendship visit to Vietnam, issued an apology for the atrocities “on behalf of the Catholic Church in South Korea,” according to a report by the Union of Catholic Asian News.

‘Regrets over an unfortunate past’

Foreign Policy magazine said in a report about South Korean atrocities in Vietnam that the claim that massacres were carried out by Vietnamese wearing South Korean uniforms has been often “regurgitated” by South Korean authorities. The narrative was first suggested by a South Korean military commander in 1968.

The Foreign Policy report explained how economic ties between the two countries prevent Vietnamese victims from getting justice. Though then-President Moon Jae-in, during a state visit to Hanoi in 2018 expressed “regrets over an unfortunate past,” his words fell short of acknowledgement of any atrocities or an apology.

Vietnamese leadership is also reluctant to ruffle South Korean feathers on the matter, as Seoul is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Vietnam, Foreign Policy said.

The South Korean government in the past has accused Japan of atrocities during its colonial occupation of Korea which ended at the conclusion of World War II, and South Korean investigators have disputed a United States military investigation into a U.S. massacre of civilians during the Korean War, and in both cases, survivors have sought compensation from Tokyo and Washington.

Seoul, however, maintains that there is no evidence of any South Korean atrocities during the Vietnam War, despite calls from citizens to acknowledge and apologize for the well documented South Korean actions in Vietnam.

South Korean troops have been accused of killing as many as 9,000 civilians in massacres across the country, according to Foreign Policy.

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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