Seeking recompense for scars of warThree decades after the Vietnam War ended, South Korean veterans are still fighting to be compensated for the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. The notorious herbicide faced wide media coverage and spawned multi-million dollar lawsuits in Western countries during the 1980s. But like other atrocities that have only come to light since South Korea’s 1988 transition to democracy, recognition of the issue ― and fair compensation ― has been delayed.
In recent years, the pace of activity by Korean veterans has picked up with lawsuits, public demonstrations and a new bill before the National Assembly, which will debate the issue in its current session.
According to one veterans’ association, 100,000 Koreans suffer from illnesses or conditions related to Agent Orange. Among them, 24,000 people have been granted the special status of “war veteran” by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. This entitles them to benefits such as pensions, loans, career guidance, financial assistance for medical expenses and tuition for their children. However, another 63,000 people are recognized as “suspected” of having illnesses related to Agent Orange and receive just 200,000 won ($198) to 400,000 won per month from the ministry. Another 30,000 people claim they are ill and are awaiting medical examinations.
Yonsei University Medical Center is currently conducting a third round of epidemiological research on alleged victims at the government’s request.
The diseases caused by Agent Orange that are officially recognized range from a long list of cancers to various neurological conditions and even diabetes. The conditions recognized in South Korea are slightly different from the list of ailments recognized in the United States.
A colorless liquid herbicide developed for military use during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange is known to contain dioxin, which is thousand times more toxic than arsenic. It was named after the color of the stripes on the barrels that contained it. Around 20 million gallons of various herbicides were used in the war, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America, in order to remove plants and leaves, which provided cover for enemy forces during the war. The dangers of the chemical were unknown at that period, when the chemical was sprayed manually or dispersed from airplanes.
Korea dispatched its troops beginning in 1964 although the combat battalions arrived there a year later. Korea sent 300,000 soldiers to Vietnam on an annual basis between 1964 and 1973. The U.S. government covered the expenses related to the dispatch of troops, and gave South Korea loans for economic development while procuring war supplies from Korea. This financial assistance and military contracts were a significant boost to the Korean economy at the time.
However, decades later Korea was left out of compensation paid to victims of Agent Orange.
In the United States, 230,000 victims of Agent Orange received a $240 million settlement in 1988 from a class action suit brought against eight companies that produced the chemical, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Among the recipients were Americans, New Zealanders and Australians. However, no Koreans were included because they were never informed about the class action lawsuit for unknown reasons.
It was not until 1991 that the Korean public first learned about Agent Orange. A Korean journalist reported in 1984 that Agent Orange victims in the United States were filing a class action lawsuit, but the South Korean government ― then a military dictatorship ― immediately prohibited media agencies from further covering the issue.
In 1991, a Korean veteran living in Australia raised the issue with the Korean media and it became publicly known. Lack of information and belated awareness of the chemical caused many people to suffer from aftereffects of Agent Orange without knowing why. It is difficult to estimate how many people suffered from such conditions or died because of them.
South Korea began the first round of epidemiological studies in 1995 and 1996 and added Buerger’s disease to the list of Agent Orange related conditions, but the second phase of research on the alleged victims did not reveal any connections to the chemical.
The local veteran’s association sued the chemical companies in 1999 without success. In 2002 they appealed to the high court, but the case is still pending. Veterans also held demonstrations last year in front of the Yeouido headquarters of LG-Dow Polycarbonate, a joint venture between LG and Dow Chemical.
“We did our duty consistent with the country’s constitution, and were thrown into the Vietnam War, but now we’re abandoned,” said Kim Sung-wook, the secretary-general of the Agent Orange Disabled Korean Veterans Association of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Kim said he had no remorseful feelings against the United States for using the toxic chemical without consideration of its effects on the soldiers. The veteran’s association has even held several pro-American rallies in 2003 to counter anti-American demonstrations.
“The war was to prevent communism from spreading in Southeast Asia,” Mr. Kim said.
Meanwhile, the opposition party introduced a bill to the National Policy Committee of the National Assembly in June. However, the ruling Uri Party opposed it because of budgetary issues, according to an assistant of Kim Byung-ho, one of the lawmakers involved. The issue will be discussed again in the current session.
The government’s official position is that the veterans don’t have it so bad.
“There is no other country that provides financial and medical assistance for people who are suffering from ‘what is suspected of Agent Orange related conditions,’” said Seo Jong-mi, an official at the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans’ Affairs.
“The recipients have not realized that they are actually getting more benefits than those in other countries,” she added.
One soldier’s ordeal with Agent Orange
Condensed from “A Vietnam War Memoir by An Unknown Soldier: Agent Orange” by Cho Pan-chul
Cho Pan-chul, 57, a Kyungnam University graduate, stayed in Vietnam for 22 months through August 1972. It wasn’t until 1974 when he started feeling sick. Mr. Cho suffered from stomach pains, gastric ulcers and inflammation of his stomach lining as well as neuralgia and dental decay. By the time when he was in his early 40s he had all 32 teeth pulled out.
Skin diseases started occurring for many soldiers who participated in the war four to five years after they were in Vietnam, but they only discovered that these were caused by Agent Orange much later. Mr. Cho also suffered chronic fatigue and skin conditions such as adult acne, which grew on his face and back, giving off a watery discharge. The acne was so serious that he even needed surgery.
Mr. Cho was married in 1977 and had a daughter a year later, but he lost the next two sons because both were born without a brain. A gynecologist told him that the abnormalities were probably caused by mutations in his sex chromosomes. His third son died of a brain infarction when he was three. Later Mr. Cho had a second daughter in 1982 and son, who is healthy, in 1989.
Among his many diseases, only three of have been recognized as caused by Agent Orange: diabetes, high blood fat and seborrheic dermatitis.
In 1999, Mr. Cho was registered as suffering from what are suspected to be Agent Orange related symptoms.
Despite all he has endured, Mr. Cho sounded stoic in a phone interview, saying “Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War was to protect freedom and democracy and to earn money for Korea’s economic development.”
by Limb Jae-un