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Vietnamese woman sues Seoul for 'wartime massacre'

April 27, 2020

"Long-overlooked mass killings" by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War will "reopen old wounds," while Seoul's response will, in turn, define demands for compensation from Japan for forced laborers before WWII.

outh Vietnamese troops are evacuated by helicopters during an operation against Vietcong troops in Quang Tri 30 June 1972
Image: Getty Images/AFP

A Vietnamese woman who was eight years old when "she was severely wounded and saw her mother, a sister, brother, aunt and cousin killed in a massacre by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War" has filed a compensation suit with the South Korean government.

Titan Nguyen, now 60, is being supported by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, which has filed the suit with the Seoul Central District Court on her behalf. Analysts say the case — the first of its kind — will inevitably reopen old wounds and shine a spotlight on a series of atrocities that were allegedly carried out by South Korean troops fighting alongside the Americans in Vietnam.

In the suit, Nguyen claims she was shot in the stomach by South Korean Marines in the Vietnamese province of Quang Nam on February 12, 1968.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to the National Assembly in Seoul in April 2018, Nguyen said, "I want to ask, why did South Korean troops fire guns and throw grenades at our families, then just women and children? Why did you even set our houses on fire and bulldoze through the dead bodies?"

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'Five decades'

"Five decades have passed since the killings, but we still do not know why this happened," she added. "I ask this question on behalf of the other victims and their families. Why does the Korean military not recognize this wrongdoing and apologize?"

Troops from the 2nd Marine Division entered the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat in February 1968 after taking over in the region from US forces. An estimated 79 unarmed villagers were killed in the attacks, with photographs taken by US forces and submitted to a subsequent investigation showing dead children in ditches and a young woman with her breasts cut off.

Similar incidents were reported in five other Vietnamese hamlets over the next two months. Some estimates put the number of civilians killed in massacres at 9,000 individuals. An investigation by South Korean commanders in the field ignored survivors' testimony and evidence provided by US troops and concluded that all the massacres had been carried out by Viet Cong insurgents loyal to the government in North Vietnam.

Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin, the commander of the 300,000 strong South Korean military in Vietnam, stood by that finding in 2000, when the Korean media raised the issue as the two governments moved to normalize their diplomatic relationship and put the conflict behind them. In the last 20 years, however, the massacres have largely been forgotten again.

Read more: Vietnam War posters become souvenirs

Sensitive for society

"This is going to be very sensitive," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University. "This lawsuit could open Pandora’s box and force South Korea to confront its own turbulent history in Vietnam. It is going to put a lot of very uncomfortable truths about what Korean troops did in Vietnam front and center."

Korean society has tried to "push aside" criticisms of its actions and policies in Vietnam as the work of the military governments that ruled in Seoul at the time, Nagy said, but a court case will make the debate unavoidable — and may very well lead other Vietnamese to file similar compensation suits against Seoul.

It also puts the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a difficult position, he suggested. Moon, who was a human rights lawyer before turning to politics, apologized during a state visit to Hanoi in 2017 for the "unfortunate history" between the two countries but made no specific mention of the massacres.

"He was a human rights lawyer previously, so it is very possible that Moon will support this lawsuit," said Rah Jong-yil, who previously served as South Korean ambassador to both Tokyo and London. "And it is equally possible that a successful case in the Korean courts will lead to more similar compensation suits, but it is important that it does go through the appropriate legal processes as this happened a long time ago, and there may be conflicting reports of what happened."

Read more: Lessons for the US from My Lai, 50 years after the massacre

Undermining Japan cases

Rah concedes that if Seoul resists court proceedings and disputes any compensation rulings, it will inevitably undermine, both legally and morally, similar cases brought by Korean civilians against the Japanese government and companies that used forced laborers in the early decades of the last century, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule.

"South Korea needs to practice what it has been preaching against Japan," said Nagy. "Because while this court case is going to reveal a lot of truths that are going to be uncomfortable for Korean society, they cannot afford to be hypocritical if they do want to move forward in the relationship with Japan," he added.

"This could become an opening and opportunity for Tokyo and Seoul to rebuild their diplomatic ties."

Read more: Vietnam's reformist ex-PM Phan Van Khai dies at age 84

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Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea