October 18, 2022
In Blog Journal Uncategorized
When the Dragons Came: The Legacy of South Korean War Crimes in Vietnam
by Jean-Philippe Stone.
This article was first published by Quo Vademus on 13th October 2022: https://quo-vademus.org/when-the-dragons-came-the-legacy-of-south-korean-war-crimes-in-vietnam/
The Vietnam War ranks among the 20th century’s most momentous and horrendous calamities. The United States, in a desperate bid to roll back the spread of communism and to curtail the unification of a divided Vietnam, let loose the full might of its unparalleled arsenal on a penurious peasant society. The record of this carnage is extensively documented. US air raids dropped 6.162 million tons of bombs on Indochina—a total tonnage at least three times greater than all US bombs dropped in Europe and the Pacific during World Word II and a hundred times more impactful than nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (Miguel & Roland, 2005: 2). Bombings defoliated around two million hectares of forest, while eighty million litres of chemical toxins like Agent Orange seeped into vegetation, groundwater, milk, and even the genetic codes of animals and humans. 3.5 million landmines leftover from the war either killed or disabled forty thousand Vietnamese since 1975. The fighting itself left around three million Vietnamese dead, another fourteen million wounded, and 300,000 missing-in-action. The United States lost sixty thousand mostly young and working-class men. (Martini III, 2004: 112)
Much less is known about South Korean involvement in this disaster. President Lyndon Johnson sold an unsellable war by initiating the “Many Flags” campaign, an illusion devised to persuade the public that the free world was mobilizing a united front to oust communism from Vietnam. Nations like Australia, New Zealand, The Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and to a lesser degree Taiwan all answered the call and supplied troops, laborers, or logistical support to buttress the American war machine. Seoul’s manpower contribution dwarfed all others. President Park Chung-hee, sensing an opportunity to realize his ambitious economic development plans, sent around 300,000 troops to Vietnam in return for billions worth of aid. Many of these troops committed reprehensible war crimes against defenseless Vietnamese civilians. (Kwok & Kwon, 2022)
This article has the following objectives: provide an in-depth analysis of South Korean war crimes, explain why they still matter, and explore how their legacy casts a stubborn shadow over Vietnamese-South Korean relations today.
Search and Destroy
Nguyen Thi Thanh and her uncle Nguyen Duc Choi became the first survivors of South Korean army massacres in the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat to tell their story to a Seoul district court in August 2022. Thanh filed a lawsuit in April 2020, demanding an official apology and $23,000 in compensation for the slaughter of five family members at the hands of South Korean troops in 1968. (Kwon & Ewe, 2022)
Testimonies make for grim reading. Thanh’s family was hiding in an air raid shelter before Korean soldiers marched towards their home and threatened to flush them out with grenades. Her brother emerged from the shelter, only to be shot in the buttock. Thanh was shot in the stomach next, holding in her intestines by hand before fainting. She and her brother woke up in a hospital days later, although other victims in Phong Nhi were not so lucky. US Marines took photos showing children’s bodies scattered in a ditch, while Thanh’s uncle said a woman missing an arm and a breast was still alive after the attack. (Kwon & Ewe, 2022)
Ho Thi Cham also vividly recalled the aftermath of a South Korean assault on her village of Binh An in February 1966. Cham hid in the bamboo brush with her husband and child for a week as the sound of gunshots rang in the distance. They found a mound of rotting corpses upon their return: “Most of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs with electrical wire. There was a woman still holding her granddaughter, a long knife through both of them.” Provincial officials claim South Korean scorched-earth policies killed over a thousand civilians, although this number is difficult to verify. Headstones and memorials litter the landscape of Binh An today, but survivors say many mass graves remain unmarked. (Associated Press, 2000)
American Quaker Aid workers Michael and Diana Jones gathered information on ROK massacres in the Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces of central Vietnam in 1972. They discovered Korean soldiers killed over a hundred civilians in thirteen out of forty-five separate incidents. (Kwon, 2006) One South Korean researcher concluded around nine thousand civilians perished overall. (Sang-Hun, 2021) The staggering scale of these atrocities has been known for decades, yet government representatives in Seoul still insist the Viet Cong disguised themselves in South Korean uniforms before embarking on random and nonsensical killing sprees. (Kwon & Ewe, 2022)
Retired colonel Kim Ki-t’ae, however, begs to differ. A former commander of the Blue Dragon Marine Brigade, Kim confessed outright in an interview for the newspaper Hankyoreh that South Korean troops regularly committed war crimes in Vietnam. He personally oversaw the murder of twenty-nine unarmed Vietnamese youths in Quang Ngai province. Blue Dragon Marines under Kim’s command arrested these men as suspected Viet Cong guerrillas. Though none possessed any weapons, Kim still ordered marines to tie the men up, throw them in a bomb crater, and fling grenades into the crater. Any survivors were shot on sight. Kim stressed that ROK soldiers had no qualms wiping out entire villages either. In October 1966, South Korean regiments exterminated the population of Binh Tai—a total of sixty-eight men, women, and children. They incinerated homes and waited until families ran out of buildings to pick them off one by one. (Armstrong, 2001: 529-530)
Kim also confirmed persistent rumors that Korean soldiers sliced-off the noses and ears of Vietnamese victims to keep as trophies or souvenirs. (Armstrong, 2001: 534) This depraved and medieval behavior was frightfully common during the war and not the preserve of South Korean units. Journalist Stuart Rintoul claimed a Maori soldier from New Zealand amassed a collection of heads, while Australian military advisors allegedly trained Cambodian troops who ate the livers of fallen Vietnamese in Phuoc Tuy province. (Maddock, 1991: 296-297)
Civilian massacres in Vietnam were not unprecedented. Korean troops and police, well-versed in the dark arts of Japanese counterinsurgency warfare in northern China, the Pacific and Asian theatres in World War II, and the Korean War were no strangers to brutal and unlawful conduct. In Manchuria, the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo relied on regiments entirely composed of ethnic Koreans to dismantle communist insurgents, Korean or Chinese nationalists, and Mongolian brigands. Graduates of the Manchurian Military Academy, who later filled the top-brass in South Korea’s army during the Cold War, joined the Gando Special Forces. This unit inherited the Japanese Imperial Army’s pathological disdain for communism and penchant for unbridled cruelty. To demoralize partisans, the Gandos allegedly burned people alive, boiled the severed heads of suspected enemies, and made ornaments out of skulls. (Lim, 2019)
Korean paramilitaries and prison guards in World War II garnered an unenviable reputation as well. Japan assigned around three thousand to supervise Allied POW camps and railway construction projects in Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Java. Jurist Bert Röling represented the Netherlands at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and noted “Many of the commanders and guards in POW camps were Koreans and it is said that they were sometimes far more cruel than the Japanese”. (Vannoy, 2013) Following Tokyo’s surrender, twenty-eight out of 148 Korean paramilitaries on trial for mistreating POWs were executed. (Min, 2003: 944)
In a Korea liberated from Tokyo’s grasp after WWII, Japanese-trained veterans saturated the upper-echelons of the US military’s provisional government south of the 38th parallel. Washington’s refusal to purge Japanese collaborators ignited a civil war in South Korea between 1945 and 1950. President Syngman Rhee’s floundering regime turned to Manchukuo veterans to stem the rising tide of leftist guerilla activity after the withdrawal of American troops in 1948. (Han, 2005) Sporadic insurrections in Jeju island and southern Jeolla provoked a disproportionate response from an army packed with officers accustomed to spearheading undiscerning reprisals. In Jeju alone, ROK soldiers and policemen murdered 30,000 people, although rebels barely numbered 500 men. Operations aiming to “root out” communists in mountainous regions left a trial of smoldering villages, thousands of dead civilians, and unmarked graves. South Korea’s forgotten civil war claimed 100,000 lives—thanks in large part to demented “bandit suppression” experts imported from Manchuria. (Kim, 2004: 523-528)
North Korea’s invasion in June 1950 gave the ROK army another excuse to eradicate “communist” sympathizers and traitors without inhibition. Mass killings ensued wherever “cleansing” operations took place. The Guchang Incident saw ROK troops gun down 700 women, children, and elderly for supposedly aiding and abetting leftist guerillas in Keongsang province. (Kim, 2010) The commander answerable for this atrocity was Choi Duk Sin, who fought for Chiang Kei Shek’s Nationalists in China. Evidently, Choi learned a lot about senseless butchery from the Kuomintang. In the thirties, the KMT “went so far as to kill anyone they felt cooperated with the communists or had been tainted by them” and may have starved or murdered around a million people. (Rummel, 1991:4) Choi also applied the Japanese Imperial Army’s preferred “three-cleanse-all” tactic to quell rebels in Keongsang: namely the killing, burning, and looting of everything in sight. (Kim, 2004: 532-533)
These measures killed approximately ten thousand civilians in less than a year and prefigured South Korean war crimes in Vietnam. Anthropologist Heonik Kwon put it best when he argued ROK troops, like their predecessors in the Korean War, were brainwashed into thinking there was no distinction between non-combatants and the Viet Cong: “they could have seen the woman clearing the bed, where her VC husband slept, as VC, her children breaking coconut shells at the back of the house as VC, their house and their chickens and buffalos as VC, the tombs of their ancestors and the temple they worshipped as VC, and the entire world they lived in and relied on as entirely VC.” (Guichard, 2019: 27)
Yet the preeminent reason why ROK troops acted so barbarically was because they wanted to prove themselves as efficient warriors. Mimicking US soldiers allowed Koreans to overcome their ambiguous position as Asians caught in-between “colonizing” Americans and “colonized” Vietnamese. This warped quest for validation and differentiation encouraged South Koreans to treat Vietnamese foes and civilians alike with utter hatred and contempt. (Armstrong, 2001: 535)
Worst of all, American soldiers set a woeful example for South Koreans to follow. Journalist Nick Turse amply demonstrated that atrocities like the My Lai massacre, which saw American troops killing hundreds of civilians, were not exceptional aberrations or the handywork of renegade “bad apples” but almost daily occurrences throughout the war. “Kill anything that moves” was the modus operandi of every American infantry, cavalry, and airborne division deployed to Vietnam. The War Crimes Working Group documented in painstaking detail the litany of mass murders, gang-rapes, and mutilations that Americans committed—and often without question or regret. Superiors incentivized the accumulation of high “body counts” in return for promotions, raises, and petty comforts. Officers and brigades competed to see who would kill the most “dinks, gooks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters”. Patrols even mowed down civilians and planted grenades or rifles on their bodies to inflate lackluster kill counts. (Turse, 2013: 14-48)
South Korean troops, hard-wired to expect enemies lurking anywhere and everywhere, fighting alongside allies poisoned with virulent racism, and surrounded by the unavoidable “ubiquity of atrocity” adapted accordingly to this hellish environment. Innocent Vietnamese paid the ultimate price in droves. Yet wanton violence refined in Vietnam tended to “come back home” in a variety of unsettling ways.
Multiple scholars argue that imperial hegemons like Britain, France, and the United States have and frequently still do use conflicts or occupations in the Global South as opportunities to test innovations in weapons technology, policing methods, and social control. These tools and tactics, originally designed for foreign warfare, are then applied to domestic “threats” in the metropole—with often disastrous consequences. (Rosenau, 2014: 111-112)
Examples abound since the late 19th century. American colonists in the Philippines perfected intelligence gathering and surveillance techniques that laid the foundations of the FBI and CIA’s domestic intelligence apparatus. The US military’s “Banana Wars” and interventions in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua also produced counter-subversion practices that national security agencies later replicated in the United States to suppress criminal syndicates and leftist movements. In the eighties, the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs”, seemingly waged in faraway heroin or cocaine dens in Burma and Colombia, accelerated the proliferation of paramilitary SWAT teams in American streets. (Rosenau, 2014: 111-120)
The Vietnam War proved quite inspirational for political scientists, policymakers, and police chiefs confronting widespread urban rioting in the mid-sixties, particularly in African American neighborhoods and college campuses. Army intelligence operatives based in Baltimore even planned to gather “counterinsurgency information on black communities similar to that collected on Vietnamese guerilla organizations”. While most policemen refrained from adopting the military’s more unhinged recommendations, others, like former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, became keen adherents of counterinsurgency doctrine and began to perceive America’s ghettos as “foreign territory” teeming with actual or potential insurgents. (Rosenau, 2014: 109-119)
Furthermore, unstable veterans afflicted with untreated PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) are at great risk of re-enacting at home the kind of ultra-violent scenarios which permeated their tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. David Swanson, executive director of World Beyond War, discovered at least 38 out of 106 mass shooters were veterans. Though most mass shooters are not veterans, it is probable that individuals trained to kill, conditioned to accumulate a high body count, and habituated to receiving praise from superiors for doing so are more likely to commit a massacre than the general population. (Swanson, 2021)
The same phenomenon unfolded in South Korea. In response to upheaval in the metropole, veterans did not hesitate to unleash counterinsurgency techniques honed in Vietnam on their own people. Following Park Chung Hee’s assassination in a brothel, General Chun Doo Hwan, a former White Horse regiment member in Vietnam and nicknamed “the slaughterhouse butcher”, staged a putsch in December 1979 and seized control of the country. Hwan’s accomplices included Vietnam vets like future president Roh Tae-woo and future Defense Minister Chong Ho-yong. The latter, alongside other special forces leaders who plied their trade in Indochina, quickly subdued the “old guard” in the South Korean military and consolidated Hwan’s authoritarian rule. (Noh, 2021)
In May 1980, mass protests erupted after President Hwan imposed nationwide martial law, suspended the National Assembly, and arrested numerous politicians, dissidents, and students. Peaceful demonstrations devolved into an armed uprising in Gwangju when special forces, convinced that communist North Korean agitators were fomenting rebellion, arbitrarily attacked, murdered, and raped innocent civilians. Though the rebels eventually offered to surrender their weapons, special forces brigades proceeded to “make an example” of them anyway and massacred hundreds of people while retaking the city. Historians emphasize that terror tactics the brigadiers deployed in Gwangju bore an eerie resemblance to the Korean army’s indiscriminate pacification campaigns in Vietnam. (West, 1997: 96)
The Vietnam veteran junta, drunk on power and suffused with delusions of superiority, saw protestors not as ordinary citizens expressing legitimate grievances, but as insubordinate internal enemies to be imprisoned, silenced, or eliminated. Government propaganda portrayed Gwangju residents as fiendish gangsters or mindless monsters devoid of humanity. Consequently, troops savagely beat marchers like Mr Gi, who later spent days being tortured by police, months in a reeducation (read concentration) camp in Samchung, and a year in the notorious Cheongsong prison. Mr Gi, among many others, suffered from terrible physical and psychological ailments long after his ordeal. (Dae-ha, 2021)
President Hwan and his coterie brought home the kind of brutality nominally reserved for battlefield combat. He permitted military-style discipline to trickle down into the organizational structures of institutions and bureaucracies that should have nothing in common with totalitarian army hierarchies. For example, former soldier Park In-geun, owner of the infamous Brothers’ Home “welfare centre”, ran the facility like a boot camp. Thousands of children, teenagers, disabled people, and supposed “vagrants” were detained there for years and outsourced to work as slave labour in farms, factories, and construction sites. Witnesses say managers pitted the inmates against one another by press-ganging them into “platoons”. Platoon leaders, tasked with “educating” fellow inmates, often subjected underlings to degrading punishments, torture, relentless beatings, and sexual abuse. Those who dared complain too loudly about these infernal living conditions were killed. Multiple reports since 1987 attest that more than five hundred detainees died in custody over twelve years. (Jung, 2020)
Park In-geun, however, got off very lightly for his heinous crimes. The military government pressured judges to sentence Park to only two years in prison on charges unrelated to the endemic human rights abuses he oversaw (and allegedly indulged in) at the Brothers’ Home. After all, Park, ever the obedient and diligent soldier, performed his duty: much like how special forces pacified Gwangju, he helped “purify” the streets of South Korea, cleansing them of the needy, sickly, vulnerable, and unwanted just in time for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. (Jung, 2020)
Vietnam “blowback” is also apparent in Thailand. Successive governments in Bangkok, like in South Korea, have refused to investigate Siamese misconduct during the war. It is generally unknown that around 37,644 Siamese military personnel, equipped with American-made uniforms and weaponry, fought alongside US and South Korean troops against the Vietcong between 1965 and 1972. Siamese elites and the press invariably romanticized volunteer soldiers, who embodied patriotic Buddhism and everything “intrinsically good” about a newly assertive, modernizing, and self-confident Thailand. This sanitized image of a noble and infallible expeditionary force, sacrificing life and limb to defend the Thai monarchy and spiritual values from communist hordes, persists today and remains largely unchallenged—despite mounting evidence to the contrary. (Ruth, 2010: 1-4)
Tasked with containing Thailand’s own communist insurgency in the countryside, General Prem Tinsulanonda found, to his horror, that Vietnam veterans stationed in the rural Isan province were “arresting innocents, raping girls, and creating a general climate of distrust”. Prem also observed that veterans imitated the US army’s body count rampage and went about executing villagers with impunity. This begs the question: if some Thai veterans behaved so abhorrently at home, was their conduct any different when facing a dehumanized enemy in Vietnam? How could these proud warriors be immune from the brutalization which infected their American and South Korean comrades? Did a guilty conscience skulk beneath “humanitarian compassion unrivalled among the allied armies”, to paraphrase state propaganda? (Ruth, 2010: 3-13)
Vietnam vets flocked under the banners of far-right wing paramilitary groups as well. Richard Ruth says veterans featured prominently in the leadership and membership of royalist, anti-leftist, and ultra-violent movements like the Red Gaurs and Village Scouts. These vigilantes received funding, training, and arms from the government’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to smash farmer protests and strikes.(Suksamran, 1982: 79) The Red Gaurs were reportedly involved in the lynching of dozens of student demonstrators in Thammasat University in October 1976– another crime that Bangkok is eager to ignore and forget.(Winichakul, 2020)
Moreover, the Vietnam War’s imprint is strongly felt today in Thailand’s “Deep South”. An ongoing insurgency among Muslim Malays is giving veterans like Pallop Pinmanee a chance to relive their youth. Pallop, as an ISOC chief in 2004, ordered troops to slaughter thirty-two insurgents hold-up in a mosque. In his memoirs, he cited his counterinsurgency exploits in Vietnam as justification for condoning excessive force against Islamic guerrillas. (Ruth, 2010: 13-14)
Violence incubated in Vietnam had profound ramifications in South Korea, Thailand, and other nations implicated in the United States’ crusade against communism in Indochina. Yet this troubling history, rather than being freely debated or dissected, is censored, omitted, whitewashed, or downplayed. In certain cases it is quite literally kept under lock and key. As long as Seoul and Bangkok stay silent, the longer the Vietnam War’s afterlives will fester and resurface at the most inopportune moments. No genuine reckoning is foreseeable, nor meaningful healing possible, until Seoul concedes that war crimes in Vietnam informed and facilitated the military’s crimes at home.
The next section will examine the gendered aspect of this legacy of violence. ROK troops raped tens of thousands of Vietnamese women, deserted their children, and disappeared without a trace.(David, 2021)
Tran Thi Ngai was only twenty-four years old when a Korean sergeant repeatedly raped her at her home in Vietnam’s Phu Yen province. When Tran became pregnant, he abandoned her. Tran gave birth to a third child after another Korean soldier raped her sometime later. Scholars estimate around five thousand “Lai Dai Han”, children born of South Korean men and Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War are scattered across the world today. Most have never known their absentee fathers and a growing number are now asking Seoul for recognition, apologies, compensation, and Korean citizenship. (Hyun-ju, 2019)
Tran paid dearly for her assailant’s crimes. Vietnam’s communist regime ostracized her, confiscated her property, and imprisoned her for a year. An outcast, she moved to another city upon release to avoid further stigma and persecution. Tran’s son, Tran Dai Nhat, went through a tough upbringing. Schoolmates ruthlessly bullied him for being mixed race, calling him a son of a dog, cow, or whore. He eventually tracked down his sister’s South Korean father in Seoul, but the veteran refused to acknowledge he ever fathered children in Vietnam. (Hyun-ju, 2019)
A South Korean pastor warned the Korea Herald that not all Lai Dai Han are the result of rape or coercive sexual relations. ROK soldiers and laborers also engaged in consensual relationships with Vietnamese women. When South Korean forces pulled out, they left entire families behind and continued their lives back home as if nothing happened. Tran Tri Dung’s father worked in a Vietnam-based American factory before moving to Washington DC. He never contacted his Vietnamese family after 1975. Korean musicians performing in Saigon abandoned their son Nguyen Duy Cuong after breaking up. Fortunately, a Vietnamese maid raised him as her own. (Hyun-ju, 2019)
The fate of the Lai Dai Han mirrors that of Amerasian children born to Caucasian American, African American, and Latino American soldiers and Vietnamese women. Hanoi also denied them an education, employment, accommodation, and sometimes even a family after the unification of Vietnam. Tarred as the offspring of local collaborators and enemy troops, the “Con Lai” (half-breeds) weathered a lifetime of discrimination. Le Ha, a white Amerasian, said post-war Vietnamese society treated Amerasians “like slaves or animals, as if they had no heart or soul or feelings”. Thi Hong Hanh’s step-parents refused to let him attend school or university. They were both teachers. (Olmsted, 2004: 76-97)
Life was very hard for Vietnamese mothers of Amerasian children as well. They became targets for relentless harassment. Police barged into homes in the dead of night, dragged women out of beds, interrogated them, and threw them in jail for days, weeks, or months. Mothers of Con Lai children ranked among the first to be “redistributed” to far-flung economic zones. The few good Samaritans who dared adopt a mixed-race child could face up to a year in prison. (Olmsted, 2004: 90-92)
Memories of French imperialism, American aggression, and South Korean opportunism exacerbated xenophobia in Vietnam and intensified the marginalization of people with unusual origins, complexions, and identities. Conscripts from France’s West African colonies like Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, for example, took to binge drinking to cope with the stresses of an unfamiliar climate and the omnipresent danger of guerrilla ambushes during the First Indochina War in the fifties. (Zimmerman, 2011: 112) Some lashed out in anger and incited violent clashes with civilians. (Ginio, 2010: 70) These bruising encounters left a lasting impression and ingrained an intense fear and suspicion of foreigners. Vietnamese viewed the Lai Dai Han and Amerasians not as unfortunate victims but as reminders of this painful and humiliating past.
Vietnam’s cult of filial piety, inherited from Chinese Confucian thought in the 17th century, is another reason why the Lai Dai Han were seen as unassimilable. Scholars like Daniel Goodkind and Ellen Hammer explain that the endurance and importance of the patrilineal family structure in Vietnamese culture, where the father is endowed with tremendous sway over the household, should not be underestimated. Ancestor worship includes all family members descended from the male line. The fatherless Lai Dai Han, therefore, are considered unacceptable deviations from sacrosanct theological and societal norms. (Olmsted, 2004: 43-79)
Finally, it is possible that some Lai Dai Han were the products of liaisons between South Korean soldiers and Vietnamese comfort women– another vexing topic neither Seoul nor Hanoi are willing to investigate. A Japanese journalist spent fifteen months interviewing veterans, conducting field work, and rummaging through US government archives, military police files, court documents, criminal records, and State Department correspondence before stumbling upon a letter stating that a “comfort station for Korean troops” masqueraded as a Turkish bathhouse in downtown Saigon. (Yamaguchi, 2015)
Further digging unearthed more disturbing details. Andrew Finlayson, a former US Marine who fought in southern Vietnam, said ROK troops ran an even bigger brothel elsewhere in Saigon—a facility divided into blocs containing twenty Vietnamese women in each: “This was to prevent South Korean soldiers from raping Vietnamese women or having individual sexual relations with them. There was also concern that South Korean officers might keep prostitutes as mistresses in Vietnamese villages.” The armed forces also felt that sequestering women in comfort stations would keep venereal diseases like syphilis at bay. An anonymous US veteran added “most of the women who worked in the Turkish Baths were girls from the rural villages under 20 years old. Some said they were 16 and others looked even younger.”(Yamaguchi, 2015)
More research is needed to corroborate these findings. However, if true, these revelations have explosive implications: Seoul has taken Tokyo to account for crimes South Koreans may have carried out in Vietnam. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council for short), founded in the early nineties, demands an official apology and compensation from Tokyo for the Japanese Empire’s sexual enslavement of around 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino, Taiwanese, and Dutch “comfort women” during the Asian and Pacific Wars (1931-1945). Imperial troops and police abducted impoverished Korean women, confined them in brothels, and forced them to have intercourse between ten and thirty times per day. Survivors returned to a traditional, religious, and patriarchal society that prized chastity over compassion. Many former comfort women kept silent for half a century. Those who did not were shunned by family or friends and condemned to eke out a living in seclusion. (Min, 2003: 938-950)
This redress movement has morphed into a powerful and influential symbol of Korean nationalism and international anti-colonial solidarity. If the South Korean government was guilty of managing comfort women bordellos in Vietnam, a system identical to what the Imperial Japanese Army implemented in World War II and all under the watch of Commander Chae Myung Shin to boot, who admitted in his autobiography that South Korean forces set up comfort stations during the Korean War, then Tokyo will never take Seoul’s or the Korean Council’s demands for reparations seriously ever again. (Yamaguchi, 2015) This process is already underway. In 2021, Amnesty International reported that a court in Seoul dismissed lawsuits claiming damages from the Japanese state. (Amnesty International, 2021)
Seoul’s reluctance to address these allegations, never mind help Lai Dai Han find their parents, is glaring given politicians are prone to outrage whenever Vietnamese women “abandon” their half-Korean children in Vietnam after divorcing South Korean men. Saenuri Party member Lee Jung-hyun ranted in 2010 that Vietnamese childcare support programs were incapable of caring for Korean-born children and proposed “both Korean and Vietnamese governments should work together to improve the welfare of children born between Korean and Vietnamese people, and sign an accord to make it easier for the children to come to Korea.”(Hyo-sik, 2010) Sheer embarrassment, and the dread of uncovering a geopolitically inconvenient past that Hanoi or Tokyo could easily manipulate and use as ammunition to derail South Korean interests, halts Seoul from extending the same level of concern to the Lai Dai Han.
Authorities in Seoul and Hanoi are directly and indirectly responsible for ruining the lives of thousands of Vietnamese women and their half-Korean children. Apologies and compensation are long overdue. Yet, another grave injustice needs to be addressed: Seoul’s wartime economic pillaging and how it fueled the rise of South Korea’s current affluence at the expense of the Vietnamese people.
The Spoils of Defeat and The Ravages of Victory
South Korea emerged from the Korean War as one of the poorest nations on the planet. Three years of constant warfare demolished the fragile infrastructural base the Japanese Empire left behind. Economist Kwan Kim says per capita income in the early sixties was even lower than in Haiti, Ethiopia, Yemen, and India. A desolate economy rooted in subsistence agriculture utterly failed to curb spiraling rates of underemployment, unemployment, and destitution as 40% of the population faced “absolute poverty”. (Kim, 1991: 1)
The US military’s scorched earth policies laid waste to villages and towns throughout the Korean peninsula, not only in the communist North. The incineration of precious crops annihilated livelihoods ordinary people relied on to survive for generations, leaving as much as 25% of the population without the means to provide for themselves after the war. Bleak prospects pushed hundreds of thousands of South Korean women into prostitution so they could afford to feed their children and incapacitated husbands. (Abrams, 2020: 318)
President Syngman Rhee’s notoriously corrupt and incompetent twelve-year dictatorship did nothing to help matters– his administration never formulated an effective national economic policy. Ministers had almost no training or experience in economic planning before entering office, while Rhee himself had little interest or expertise in economic development. Most shockingly, prostitution amounted to 24% of South Korea’s GNP (Gross National Product) by the early sixties. In short, Seoul sanctioned a comfort women scheme, replete with all the cruelties and indignities inherent to human sex trafficking, on an unfathomable scale to accrue foreign currency and keep the country afloat. Studies estimate that around one million women, of whom the overwhelming majority became prostitutes against their will, serviced American GIs between 1950 and 1971. (Abrams, 2020: 318-325)
Election-rigging precipitated the downfall of Rhee’s gangrenous regime in 1960. Yet military strongman Park Chung-hee brought a swift end to Seoul’s flirtation with parliamentary democracy a year later. President Park adamantly believed that participation in the Vietnam War would secure the necessary funding to revitalize and industrialize South Korea’s fledgling economy via US military aid, lucrative offshore contracts, and revenue from soldier’s labor. (Man, 2018: 104) A bureaucrat in the Park administration put it bluntly when he said Vietnam was “Korea’s El Dorado, where riches could be gained instantly”. (Breuker, 2009: 39) Park’s Minister of National Defense, Kim Sung-eun, also admitted that the Vietnam War “was the one and only golden market for the Korean government to export its unemployed men and manufacturers”. (Man, 2018: 110)
These revealing quotes capture the motivations of thousands of South Korean and Filipino “citizen-workers” dispatched to southern Vietnam. Fervent anti-communism ranked low on the priority list and served more as an ideological veneer for rapacious greed, personal enrichment, and state-backed plunder. A Vietnamese woman from Quang Nam province said the following regarding this invasion of hired guns: “Korean mercenaries have no ideology. They get paid a lot of money by the Americans to come to Vietnam and kill people, and the more people they can kill, the more money they will get”. (Man, 2018: 126)
US commercial assistance encompassed the procurement of construction service contracts for more than eighty South Korean firms based in Vietnam. Korean business ventures also included engineering, transportation, laundry shops, and night club entertainment. The main beneficiaries were the 16,000 contract workers who earned an annual salary of 8,400 dollars. Back home, they earned around 200 dollars. Korean exports to the United States increased exponentially during the war as well. Overall, Washington rewarded Seoul very handsomely for its loyalty: South Korea pocketed over a billion dollars between 1966 and 1972. Adjusted for inflation, this amounts to approximately 6.6 billion dollars today. (Baldwin, 1975: 39-40)
The ROK’s transformation from a traumatized, battle -scarred, feudal, and stagnant backwater in the 1950s into one the most formidable and technologically advanced “Tiger” economies of 21st century Asia would be unthinkable without Seoul’s profiteering in Vietnam. War income gave an incredible boost to South Korea’s emergent steel and chemical industries. Household names like the car-manufacturer Hyundai, container carrier and Korean Airlines parent company Hanjin, and the electronics conglomerate Daewoo began their rapid ascent during the war. Vietnam even bankrolled the construction of the Seoul-Pusan highway between 1968 and 1970. Ultimately, the fiction of a home-grown and self-made economic “Miracle on the Han River” conceals a most uncomfortable fact: blood money paid for South Korea ‘s prosperity. (Armstrong, 2001: 531-533)
While Seoul reaped the spoils of defeat, a victorious Vietnam teetered on the brink of collapse. A vengeful Washington waged unremitting economic, political, and even cultural warfare on Hanoi for nearly two decades after the Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975. Vindictive policymakers in the Ford administration imposed sweeping sanctions that cut Vietnam off from humanitarian aid, development loans, and financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. “We’ve been penalized for winning the war” rued economist Nguyen Xuan Oanh, “It’s been a very bitter pill to swallow.” (LA Times, 1990)
As usual, civilians still reeling from thirty years of incessant bombings and destruction shouldered the brunt of this invisible onslaught. Food shortages, hunger, and famines plagued Vietnamese society throughout the 1980s. Novelist Kim Fay claims almost everyone she met while living in Vietnam remembered collecting ration coupons, dabbling in clandestine black-market dealings, eating rancid rice on a daily basis, and queuing in endless food lines: “I remember once, the oldest sister in my Vietnamese family looked at me while a single tear slipped down her cheek as she said “We were just so hungry all the time”. (Fay, 2010: 68-70)
Commentators and academics often minimized the trade embargo’s role in this tragedy and blamed droughts, typhoons, and the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) flatlining land collectivization programs instead. Additionally, China’s US-backed border war against the Vietnamese in 1979, launched in response to Hanoi’s toppling of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, caused untold damage. The Chinese incursion, according to officials on the ground, displaced a million people, decimated around 85,000 hectares of rice fields, killed several hundred thousand cattle, and obliterated countless bridges, factories, farms, and mineral mines, among other vital infrastructure. (Martini III, 2004: 209)
This devastation is the predominant, though by no means only reason why famine was so rampant in Northern Vietnam. In July 1988, newspapers like Tuoi Tre reported that dozens of people had starved to death, while another four million endured severe hunger in Thanh Hoa province. (Asian Bulletin, 1988: 81) Radio stations in Hanoi blared that acute shortages afflicted “many localities”, which forced authorities to withhold rice rations from government employees and even military personnel. (Crossette, 1988)
Vietnamese officials, starved of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery parts needed to grow crops due to the trade embargo, pleaded far and wide for emergency food supplies abroad. Yet Vietnam’s urgent demands for food aid fell mostly on deaf ears. The United Nation’s World Food Program could barely muster 65,000 tons of food, while communist allies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were too preoccupied with their own crumbling economies to be of much help. Vietnam required 1.5 million tons of grain to feed 65 million mouths. (Hiebert, 1988)
Western reactions to Vietnam’s plight veered from indifference at best to perverted glee at worst. A White House obsessed with fulfilling its vow to “bleed Vietnam white” dissuaded relief agencies and foreign capitals from allocating food aid, citing “skepticism” about famine reports. The State Department exclaimed that, although “sensitive to the suffering of the Vietnamese people”, it had “no intention of providing food assistance to Vietnam”. (Hiebert, 1988) These statements betrayed the Reagan Administration’s selective humanitarianism. Washington sent 460 million dollars’ worth of food and relief aid to famine-stricken Ethiopia between 1985 and 1986, mainly to discredit the communist-aligned Derg regime in Addis Ababa. (Bello, 1990: 112) Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese through their stomachs, along with other food-deprived, anti-apartheid, and Soviet-leaning peoples in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, was clearly not on the agenda. (Steele, 1989: 263)
Some analysts went further and implied the likelihood of innumerable Vietnamese dying of hunger was a price worth paying if such a catastrophe persuaded Hanoi to abandon socialism once and for all and embrace the miracles of the free market: “Maybe the food squeeze will convince the obstructionists that real reform has to come”. (Wedel, 1988) Weaponizing food aid to strangle uncooperative regimes, regardless of the immense collateral damage inflicted on civilians, is a recurring theme in US foreign policy. The same rationale compelled the Kennedy Administration to impede grain exports headed from Canada to Maoist China in the sixties, at a time when millions perished due to famine. (Luedi, 2020) The Obama Administration may have adopted a similar strategy in the Horn of Africa. Aid workers accused the US of blocking food aid and engineering a famine in southern Somalia to suppress Al-Shabab fundamentalists. (Perry, 2015: 16-17)
Vietnam, as a country isolated on the world stage, encircled by hostile nations or intergovernmental bodies like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), bereft of the means to chart a truly autonomous path towards economic sovereignty, and struggling to recover from an apocalyptic conflict, degenerated into an insular, paranoid, and autocratic garrison state. Hanoi erected a vast network of reeducation camps known as the “Bamboo Gulag”. Survivors like Tran Tri Vu recalled spending years undergoing political indoctrination and hard labor as they watched fellow detainees succumb to malnutrition, beatings, diseases, mine detonations, and suicide. Human Rights Watch added that by the late 1990s, Hanoi gradually ceased to rely on overt repression like camps to crush dissent and switched to subtler forms of coercion. (Nguyen, 2022: 158-159)
The VCP’s “Doi Moi” reforms, which hastened Vietnam’s transition from a centralized to mixed economy in the late eighties and early nineties, set the country down the road to stability and recovery. For the sake of economic growth, Hanoi buried the hatchet with a wealthy and democratizing South Korea and opened its markets to South Korean investment. A tacit “pact of forgetting” prevails ever since. (Guichard, 2019: 29-30) Yet Seoul’s increasingly neocolonial presence in Vietnam is reawakening awkward memories.
Prosperous South Korean businessmen flocked to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to find “El Dorado” all over again. In peacetime as in wartime, Korean manufacturers and financiers saw Vietnam as a quasi-colony brimming with cheap labor and weak regulations. Yet despite this renewed interest in anything and everything Vietnamese, as evidenced by lengthy travelogues in weeklies and monthlies, South Korean tourists, expats, and journalists hardly said a word about Seoul’s profiteering or complicity in war crimes. Only fleeting indignation about the fate of children born to South Korean soldiers and Vietnamese women made the headlines. (Breuker, 2009: 52-53)
South Korean subcontractors and subsidiaries of famous brands like Nike established factories renowned for violating safety standards and workers’ rights in Vietnam. Supervisors in the Tae Kwang Vina plant, a sweatshop staffed with thousands of mostly young women fleeing remote villages in search of better lives, treated employees like disposable cogs. They forced workers to toil over legal overtime limits every day, turned a blind eye to child labor, prevented staff from drinking water more than twice during an eight-hour shift (or from using the bathroom more than once), and disciplined disobedient workers by making them kneel with their hands for twenty-five minutes. A Vietnam Labor Watch (VLW) survey conducted in 1997 also noted that foreign supervisors sexually harassed female workers. (Bhatnagar et al, 2003: 1-8)
Many years and multiple audits later, South Korean-run and Nike-affiliated sweatshops are still in no hurry to improve deplorable working conditions. The Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) and Fair Labor Association (FLA) compiled reports between 2015 and 2016 on Hansae Vietnam, a factory which specializes in producing garments for dozens of international clothing lines. Their findings were damning: violations included extensive wage theft, incessant verbal and physical abuse, extortion of workers’ recruitment fees, denial of sick leave, stacking factory unions with managers, the spraying of toxic cleaning solvents, and employees fainting due to overwork in scorching temperatures. (Brown, 2016) Supervisors even instituted a yawning ban—the merest hint of fatigue earned workers a reprimand. (WRC Factory Investigation, 2017)
No wonder South Korean-owned factories are lightning rods for disruptive strikes and discontent. Korea Transnational Cooperation Watch (KTC Watch), an NGO network which monitors corporate malfeasance, discovered that around 800 strikes assailed South Korean companies between 2009 and 2014 alone, amounting to 26% of all strikes taking place in Vietnam at the time. Unpaid wages and unbearable working hours are the most likely triggers of industrial unrest. One firm forced employees to work from Saturday 8am until Sunday 8am, while another in Bac Ninh province pressured employees to slave away for 20 hours a day. (Dong-chan, 2015)
Intolerable and hazardous conditions deteriorated further during the Covid pandemic. As the planet shut down to lower infection rates, Samsung’s production lines in Vietnam churned out mobile phones, tablets, washing machines, and fridges without interruption. Thousands of employees already stacked in crowded and insalubrious accommodation near Samsung plants had no choice but to make the workplace their home if they wanted to keep their jobs. An anonymous environmental safety employee said that, after moving out of a company-designated and abandoned classroom without beds or air-conditioning, he had to eat, sleep, and work in a warehouse on factory premises. These forbidding living arrangements had a detrimental impact on workers’ lives. (Le, 2021)
Politicians in Hanoi, however, rarely challenge Seoul’s exploitative economic hegemony in Vietnam. Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer at Advocates for Public Internet Law, neatly explained why the VCP has nothing to gain by standing up for the dignity of their own people: “The Vietnamese government has turned a blind eye to Korean companies’ violation of its labor law because it acknowledges the decisive role of foreign investment for its economic development”. (Dong-chan, 2015)
The objectification, fetishization, and borderline exploitation of Vietnamese women in South Korean society is another neglected facet of this neocolonial relationship and a direct consequence of the Vietnam War. In Ahn Jung-hyo’s popular novel White Badge, a fictionalized account of the author’s service in the 9th White Horse Division, Vietnamese women symbolized temptation, sinfulness, vice, promiscuity, and disease. (Zhang, 2022: 1-2) These misrepresentations never fully dissipated after the war. Rather, they mutated into harmful stereotypes that linger today.
Historian Remco Breuker says there are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 marriage agencies operating in South Korea that “mediate” between young Vietnamese women and generally much older South Korean men. Billboards and signs advertising “Vietnamese Virgins” are quite common outside of urban centers like Seoul. Some agencies even guarantee that a man can marry a loyal and servile Vietnamese bride within three days. (Shay, 2010) Both legal and illicit brokerage firms are hugely successful and have matched around five thousand Vietnamese women, often dazzled by glamourous lifestyles exhibited in Korean soap operas or K-pop music videos and seeking an escape from a poverty-ridden and monotonous existence, with relatively well-off South Korean farmers every year since 2006. (Breuker, 2009: 54)
These arrangements can be extremely problematic. Kang Sung Hea, the chief director of the Emergency Support Center for Migrant Women in South Korea, worries Vietnamese women have virtually no say in the decision-making and that South Korean men and their families are essentially buying a wife. Andrew Bruce, a regional director at the International Organization for Migration (IMO), added that while men are entitled to enquire about every intimate detail of their future brides, Vietnamese women are left in the dark about who their husbands really are. Moreover, although potential brides can in theory reject a proposal, women have no choice but to accept and are held captive until they consent. (Shay, 2010)
A skewed vetting process is a recipe for disaster. In July 2010, twenty-year old Thach Thi Hoang Ngoc was butchered by her forty-seven-year-old husband barely eight days after arriving in South Korea. Unbeknownst to the victim, the man was a schizophrenic who allegedly told policemen that a “ghost’s voice” urged him to kill his wife. (Shay, 2010) Though most Korean-Vietnamese couples lead normal lives without incident, it is also true that 42% of foreign wives in South Korea regularly face physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. (Duong, 2022) Since Vietnamese women constitute one of the largest, if not the largest contingent of foreign brides in South Korea, one can safely assume they are disproportionately affected by domestic and other forms of abuse. (Vu, 2017)
Nguyen Hai Van’s case is another illustration of what happens when vulnerable young women are duped into marrying complete strangers. Her husband, who turned out to be a farmer instead of the architect he initially claimed to be, forbid her from spending money, going out, using the phone, and much else without strict supervision. He also started beating her and refused to let her return to Vietnam until she gave birth to a son. Lawyer Le Hong Hien of the Hanoi Bar Association managed to bring her home, although he cautioned that many brides who want a divorce face an uphill battle. Husbands withhold crucial documentation and shut them away in “remote rural areas where they must serve their husbands and care for their elderly in-laws. In many cases, they are like maids”. (Duong, 2022)
A booming marriage brokerage business, combined with residual prejudices leftover from the Vietnam War, have normalized the deeply troubling stereotype of the “easy” or submissive Vietnamese mail-order bride. Women treated like products to be consumed, conquered, or possessed live in misery as a result.
Numerous civil society organizations have gone to extraordinary lengths to shine a light on these egregious crimes and to give a voice to victims unheard for decades. Members of the Korean Vietnamese Peace Foundation and academics like Ku Su-jeong, whose scholarship in the late nineties did more to debunk the myth of South Korea’s benign involvement in Vietnam than any government inquiry is ever likely to do, merit praise for their bravery and commitment to the pursuit of truth and reconciliation in the face of ferocious opposition from veteran associations. The Peace Foundation even commissioned the erection of a sculpture on Jeju island in 2017, displaying a Vietnamese woman cradling the lifeless body of her child in honor of the victims. (Guichard, 2019: 24-26)
Yet these admirable efforts are largely symbolic. The 2018 People’s Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War ruled unequivocally that the South Korean state must be held accountable and should immediately pay reparations to survivors. Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense and National Intelligence Service cannot afford to dismiss the court of public opinion for much longer. Grassroots demands for justice are becoming louder and harder to ignore with each passing year. (Kwok & Kwon, 2022)
Finally, a Hanoi petrified of alienating South Korean investors and a Seoul hostile to facts liable to undermine its own hallowed narratives and demands for reparations from Japan must set aside these apprehensions, pool their resources, and sign a pledge to conduct joint and impartial investigations into ROK massacres and the case of the Vietnamese comfort women. Only then will these thorny issues be put to rest and serious diplomatic rifts be averted.
Survivors and their descendants have waited long enough for Seoul and Hanoi to make amends. What they want above all else is truth and closure. It is the very least they deserve.
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