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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

Vietnam War - Supreme Court decision to release public information

Opinion - Road to Supreme Court decision to “release public information on National Intelligence Service’s Genocide in Vietnam War”

The third division of the Supreme Court (presiding justice: Justice Lee Dong-won) decided in favor of the plaintiff in the case filed by attorney Lim Jae-song, a member of the group of Lawyers for a Democratic Society “MINBYUN”, against the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to verify that the NIS’s decision to reject releasing information was null and void. The decision was declared final on the 26th.

Attorney Lim, who is known as the host on the KBS1 news program “Sisa Jiggyeog” since 2019, has represented cases like the military retrial of the Jeju April 3rd incident and the case to seek reparations for forced mobilized workers during the Empire of Japan. On Noveber 2017, he requested the NIS to release information related to the murder of about 70 civilians in the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất villages in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam, but the request was denied. In the past, he also requested that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)’s interrogation records of three individuals, including the platoon commander who was involved in the massacre be made public, but the NIS declined it. Even though the NIS had lost in the administrative litigation, it cited some other reasons to determine that the information would not be disclosed.

Then, MINBYUN made another administrative lawsuit to cancel the denial of information decision, and the Supreme Court decision was reached after three and a half years. Currently, regarding the suspected Korean army massacre in the Phong Nhị village, a Vietnamese woman named Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh’s lawsuit against the Korean Government is now in progeress.

The Korean army was in Vietnam from 1964 to 1973. Civilian massacre incidents are concentrated between the period of 1968 and 1970. It matches the timing of the spark that was ignited in 1968, when North Vietnam launched the Lunar New Year offensive. In that war, there was no clear line separating the villages from the war zones. Since there was no easy way for the soldiers to differentiate civilians from Vietcong, they were trained to be on alert all the time. That year, in February, the Blue Dragon Division of the Korean Marine Corps was sent into the area including the two villages. As one soldier walked past Phong Nhất village, he touched a landmine. Immediately after his foot was blew off, a massacre took place against the 70 civilians in the two villages. Young children were found dead with no clothes, and there was even a corpse holding onto its both feet.

This was one of the earliest incidents of the Korean military’s massacre. Because a relative of a member of the South Vietnam military was included in the victims, the South Vietnamese government protested, which was picked up by the US media, such as the New York Times. This became an international issue. If the Park Chung-hee administration or the military leaders took this seriously and penalized the aggressors harshly, it might have been possible to prevent the massacre there after. However, not only did they completely deny any knowledge of wrongdoing, they spent their time busily inflating their military achievements, calling their marines “invincible”, “ghost catcher”, or 10 vs 1 Lai Dai Han.

The media was silent. In the book “The Sphinx’s Nose” by deceased professor Lee Young-hee, there is mention of a confession from a foreign news reporter with the Chosun Ilbo. “Every day, I had to leave the office with a melancholy feeling, thinking about the countless deaths of the innocent Vietnamese. To soothe my pain, I sometimes had to grab a drink on my way home.”

The administration was too busy justifying its decision to join the war by saying that, even though 5,000 Korean soldiers were killed in Vietnam, they killed 8 times that number - 40,000. In truth, 9,000 of them were innocent civilians. Civilians hiding in tunnels were labeled as Vietcong and killed, for the purpose of self-hypnosis. Some soldiers were on good terms with villagers, but suddenly turned violent if ordered. While American soldiers always took along a soldier who could speak the local language, the Korean army never tried to communicate with the locals. Because they were exposed to the Korean War at an impressionable age, they continued to nurture the belief to fight in the forefront of the battle against Communism. They sometimes raped women and used flame throwers. They crushed corpses with bulldozers to make them unidentifiable. The content of Ahn Jung-hyo’s “The White Badge” was somewhat purified, and the truth was actually far more brutal.

This is the reason why there are monuments of hatred against the Korean military all over Vietnam. There are names and ages written on them. The letter “T” represents a woman, and next to the name which means “dog turd” in Korean, the age “0” is sometimes displayed.

Vietnamese tourism spots frequented by young Koreans before the COVID pandemic, such as Da Nang and Hoi An, were all places where brutal acts by Korean soldiers took place. I sometimes overhear young Koreans, who are taking photos of diners and good scenery to put up on Instagram, call Vietnamese “sad, poor folk” or say “I hear a girl has to sell her body to feed her whole family”. The reason why Vietnam is sometimes called the nation with the youngest population in the Asia is because so many people died during the war. The reason why they are so poor that they couldn’t afford to put toilets in school is because the war completely demolished the infrastructure for industry. We are at the very least partially responsible for this, yet we cause them the secondary harm.

Starting from Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the leaders of the liberal administrations up to President Moon Jae-in have apologized, but it is far from enough. It is simply nowhere near enough to console the hearts of the Vietnamese people, who vow never to forget, across generations. I have personally visited Vietnam about three times, and in every visit, I met at least one or two people who mentioned the brutality of the Korean army. When I apologized, they said that they understood, but they also added that they would never forget.

To soothe their hearts, the Korean Government, society, and people must all unite under one consistent wake-up call. It has been revealed that the NIS will accept the spirit of the decision from the court. Lim has decided to go a step further, and demand that these relevant documents be released to the public. My wish is that the NIS does not just passively respond to the court’s decision, but proactively and progressively release documents showing the mistakes made by the government authorities and military commanders to issue sincere apologies on the right occasion. I have high hopes for Park Jie-won, Director of the NIS.


Seoul Shinmun (March 26th)

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