By Danielle Williamson
In 2001, a series of articles published in Hankyoreh Sinmuh, a South Korean magazine, featured eyewitness accounts of Korean involvement in the Vietnamese war. They detailed Korean atrocities in a manner unprecedented in Korean society. Hankyoreh is a cry against the status quo of the cloud of silence surrounding the over 300,000 South Korean troops who fought in the Vietnam War, known as the “forgotten soldiers” of a forgotten war. This silence has been intentional, the result of concentrated efforts by both the Korean and Vietnamese governments to consolidate power as well as integrate their countries into the global economic sphere. Official commentary on the war has been limited to subtle recognitions and slight gestures of regret in the name of economic progress for the region, leaving the history of Korean involvement in the Vietnam War obscured behind a curtain of fabricated history.
The seeds for the silence can be found in the conclusion of the Korean War. Left governing an unstable infant of a nation thrown into the context of the Cold War and facing not only forming an entirely new government, but also maneuvering within the context of complex and charged geopolitics, South Korea’s leaders turned to autocratic rule, censorship, and a chain of diplomatic decisions that often came at the expense of the country’s citizens. This was done in order to consolidate power and solidify Korea’s place on the world stage.
Syngman Rhee took the lead in establishing a precedent for censorship, enacting the National Security Law in 1949. This gave the government the authority to punish citizens for thoughts, specifically those that aimed to undermine the state and private property, by “preventatively detaining” individuals suspect of “being dangerous and processing unsound thought (Lim 85). In 1950, the Joint Investigations Committee was established with the directive of scouring the countryside for communists and Northern spies. With “no clear legal basis” (Kim Ji 30), the committee prosecuted, and, in extreme cases, executed these suspects. Though the JIC was shut down after the war, it, in addition to the National Security Law, preceded a general trend in Korean politics to use the fear of the public to alter legislative and judicial processes to strengthen leaders’ grips on power in a tumultuous political environment.
Such censorship laws—what many scholars refer to as “thought-control laws” in the context of Korea—picked up in velocity and frequency after Paris Peace Accords, especially during the reign of Chung-Hee. Upon assumption of power in 1961, Chung-Hee immediately added to the canon of thought-control legislation by passing the Korean Central Intelligence Agency Law and the Anticommunist Law (Lim 88). The phrasing of these laws was even more easily abused than their predecessors’ language. They allowed for the prosecution for not only those suspected of conspiring against the state, but also any suspected collaborators or associates—even membership in the conservative party made one vulnerable to being prosecuted under the laws (Lim 85).
Censorship solved the issue of maintaining a leader’s hold on power. An entirely different issue—and perhaps a more pressing one—was how to maintain South Korea’s sovereignty in the shadow of hostile neighbors. This issue was dependent primarily upon the support of the United States, one half of a peculiarly codependent relationship that ultimately led to Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In American eyes, South Korea remaining capitalist was key to preserving the United States’ legitimacy in Southeast Asia. Note that the United States’ Cold War foreign policy prioritized economic freedoms, not social freedoms. This distinction was evident in post-war Korea’s development into a society that deeply distrusted communism—but lacked the concept of freedom of thought and speech existing as a fundamental right to be guaranteed by the government. By the time South Korea entered the Vietnam War in 1963, it had been an independent country for a mere 18 years, 14 of which had included thought-control laws as a part of normal government legislation.
And South Korea was dependent on the United States not only to maintain a military presence in the region, but also to maintain a viable economy. The war left South Korea poverty stricken, dependent on American aid to survive. Good economic conditions were not just a matter of higher standards of living, they were a matter of national security—in the Cold War era, an unstable economy was considered a breeding ground of Communism (Choi 338). Critical analysts argue that the United States, well-aware of this fact, forced Korea into entering the war by cutting back on South Korea’s desperately-needed financial aid in 1960 and then offering substantially increased foreign aid with the precondition of Korea becoming involved in America’s next front against communism. For this reason, said critical analysts have taken to calling Korean soldiers in Vietnam “mercenaries” (Kim 634).
Korea, of course, took the United States up on its offer, sending the afore-mentioned 300,000 troops abroad, a portion of its population comparable to the American force. Yet the experiences of these two forces was fundamentally different, primarily due to the culture of censorship in South Korea, which drastically altered the domestic reception to and perception of the war.
Korean veterans’ problems stemmed from not societal disgust, but rather governmental negligence—their pain, both mental (post-traumatic stress disorder was common in Korean veterans) and physical, was a dirty stain on the clean image the Chung-hee regime wanted to project. Their stories were casualties of this image, as Hwang Myung Chul, Vice President of Vietnam Veteran’s Association in South Korea, recounts: “We wanted the media to relate our pain and difficulties, but they were told not to. The Government virtually ignored our problems” (qtd. in Sterngold). This included exclusion from a 1984 court decision that guaranteed compensation for Agent Orange-inflicted damage to American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand veterans. The government responded to the veterans’ pleas for representation with a flat denial (Sterngold).
Though Chung-Hee was eventually deposed and assassinated in a 1979 coup, discussion of Korean involvement in the Vietnam War remained muffled until the late 1990s (Sterngold). While the continued existence of censorship laws plays some role in this phenomenon—the National Security Law remains on the books to this day (Lim 99)—it is also due in part to a widespread perception in Southeast Asia that Vietnam has “forgotten about the war” (Kim 627). In order to facilitate the friendly diplomatic relations with neighboring countries essential to modernization, Vietnam has adopted an official policy of “closing the past” (Kim 627).
Doi Moi, the Vietnam government’s economic policy that aims to integrate Vietnam into the world market and facilitate economic growth, has accompanied this. South Korea is among the governments Vietnam has reached out to—and South Korea has reached back, actively pursuing an economic partnership with Vietnam to facilitate mutual economic growth. Open discussion of the dark past of Vietnam and South Korea’s relationship is seen as an unnecessary hindrance to this economic development—a figment of the past that would only hamper the potential of the future. Thus, the Vietnamese Ideological and Cultural Commission ordered the Vietnamese press to “not draw attention to the war atrocities on the Korean troops” (Kim 631). On South Korea’s end, a Korean official recently declared “the massacres by the Korean soldiers of Vietnamese civilians should not arise as an issue” (Kim 631).
The end result of these economic policies and half-hearted attempts at reconciliation is the downplaying of the suffering that occurred during the Vietnam War, both as a result of the atrocities committed by South Korean troops and the sacrifices that South Korean “mercenaries” were obligated to make by their government.
The cloud of silence pervades.
Yet Hankoreh stands strong, joined in its mission by the Korean Truth Commission, a grassroots organization, which went so far as to sponsor the authorship of “Forgive us, Vietnam,” a song they proceeded to present as an unofficial apology to the Vietnamese, featuring lyrics such as “We as perpetrators, and you as injured victims/ Tomorrow’s dreams were thrown into the shadows of history” and “Forgive us, Vietnam/ For the tears that you shed in the darkness,/ For the shame that we left in the darkness” (Kim 632).
Until the culture of censorship in South Korea changes, shame of all sorts will continue to be left in the darkness. The government must remember that pushing things under the rug can only go so far—because, as Hankoreh and the Korean Truth Commission prove, people are bound to point out the lump in the carpet eventually. And when they do, they will uncover the discontent of a neglected people.
Lim, Chae-Hong. “The National Security Law And Anticommunist Ideology in Korean Society.” Korea Journal 46.3 (2006): 80-102. Historical Abstracts. Web. 31
Kim Ji, Hyung. “Political Dynamics in The Execution of Suspected Collaborators during the Korean War.” Korea Journal 52.2 (2012): 30-61. Historical Abstracts. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.
Sterngold, James. “South Korea’s Vietnam Veterans Begin to Be Heard.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 May 1992. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.