[Viewpoint]Acknowledging past wrongsOne of Roh Moo-hyun’s final acts as president was to formally apologize to surviving descendants of people who belonged to Bodo Yeonmaeng. Members of this vaguely leftist organization from the late 1940s and early 1950s were persecuted during the Korean War. Then-president Syngman Rhee accused its advocates of collaborating with North Korea. Even with little concrete evidence, its members, their families and friends were hunted down and, in many cases, executed without charge or trial. This recent gesture by the Korean government goes a long way toward reconciliation and is a further mark of South Korea’s maturing democratic institutions. The Republic of Korea needs to make a similar gesture to the people of Vietnam.
At Lyndon Johnson’s urging (and with the promise of substantially increased economic and military aid), Park Chung Hee sent tens of thousands of South Korean troops to fight against North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong. Johnson wanted the presence of at least other anti-communist Asian troops in the war the United States was fighting at the time. The vast majority of Korean troops who were stationed there could not speak either English or Vietnamese. This handicap, coupled with the unfamiliarity of Vietnamese culture practically guaranteed growing misunderstanding and resentment. Although South Korean soldiers fought with great skill and bravery, their record is not without blemish and controversy.
Binh Dinh is a province in central Vietnam, not far from the old border between North and South Vietnam. This area had one of the highest concentrations of South Korean soldiers in the country at that time. During a February 1966 sweep of the province, South Korean troops killed at least 1,000 civilians in addition to a much smaller number of combatants. This information was well known then to the governments of South Vietnam, South Korea and the United States. They chose to say or do nothing that might detract from their combined war effort, regardless of the moral consequences.
Other atrocities were committed by the Korean army against Vietnamese civilians, but Binh Dinh is the most documented and beyond refutation. Over the years, various nongovernmental organizations and civic groups have gotten involved in the issue. Even some South Korean veterans have come forward to admit wrongdoing and express remorse for some of the actions taken during that period.
The current Korean presence in Vietnam is widespread and mainly economic. According to the November edition of the Vietnam Investment Review, trade between South Korea and Vietnam has gone up by a factor of 10 within the last 10 years and is still growing by leaps and bounds. Vietnam’s economic growth rates are in large part fueled by foreign direct investment from industrialized nations, including South Korea. Nevertheless, there is some lingering hostility that Vietnamese feel toward Koreans. Like China, Vietnam now has extensive ties with both South and North Korea. Seoul’s diplomatic relations with Hanoi are at a satisfactory level, but the subject of South Korea’s past deeds remains largely unspoken. Clearly, Seoul could initiate a bolder move to put the past behind by issuing a clear, straightforward apology to Hanoi.
Germany is still the modern-day model on the subject of national contrition. Its government stated in no uncertain terms that the German people were wrong to have allowed Hitler to come to power with the intent of establishing fascist domination of Europe. The German government and people largely accept responsibility for the Nazi holocaust. Germany’s contemporary relations with its neighbors and Israel are excellent. Unlike Germany, Japan has equivocated and denied responsibility for the outrages it committed during World War II. Predictably, its relationships with other East Asian countries are rather strained politically.
If the Japanese government cannot atone for its crimes in Korea from 1910-1945 as well as for its wartime conduct throughout Asia, Seoul can be magnanimous enough to admit wrongdoing and express apologies to Hanoi for past outrages committed by its armed forces during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some would argue that South Korea’s transgressions were on a much smaller scale ― of shorter duration, affecting fewer people over a smaller area, with less control. That is true; yet such a move by the Seoul government would earn it increased stature, trust and credibility in the eyes of the world. It would be the first Asian government in modern history to issue such an explicit apology.
As a Korean veteran of the Vietnam conflict, Kim Young Man compared Japanese depravity on the Korean Peninsula to Binh Dinh in a recent phone interview with Vietnamese reporter Ngoc Nguyen, who writes for the Pacific News Service:
“We were seriously angry about that, but we did the same thing. Of course, what we did in Vietnam was smaller in scale and shorter in time span than what the Japanese did to us, but if we do not intend to extend a sincere apology to the Vietnamese people, how can we ask the Japanese government to apologize to us?”
Admission of wrongdoing by Seoul does not discount atrocities and other crimes committed by the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese or U.S. forces. There is plenty of blame to go around. This is simply a way for South Korea to own up to its past. Will some form of financial compensation be expected after a clearly stated, formal apology? Perhaps some. These types of details could be best worked out through negotiation.
The Korean government would be getting ahead of the curve if it took the initiative on this.
*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.
by Joseph Schouweiler