For many in the West, the recent upsurge of antiwar protests was reminiscent of the mass campaign of 1960s against the Vietnam War. However, it is little known South Korea, under military dictator Park Chung Hee, sent the second largest number of troops to the war after the U.S. A total of 320,000 Korean soldiers, paratroopers and, marines fought in Vietnam between 1964 and 1971. At the peak of the conflict in 1969, more than 50,000 South Korean combatants did battle in the war, outnumbering the North Vietnamese regular army. For South Korea, the economic gains were very generous as the U.S. footed all the bills for it. The revenues from soldiers’ paychecks and procurements and contracts with the U.S. made up about 40% of South Korea’s foreign exchange earnings during the intervention while South Korean soldiers gained a reputation for swift action among their allies, and brutality among the Vietnamese people. However, the South Korean military government did not achieve what probably topped its Vietnam wish list: a stronger US military presence on the Korean peninsula, as Nixon decided to reduce U.S. troops in Asia.
When South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun, a former human rights lawyer who was elected late last year on the promise that, in his own words, he wouldn’t kowtow the U.S., decided to send troops to Iraq for U.S. military action, it enraged South Korean civil society. On April 2, after fervent protests deterred the congressional vote on the approval twice, Roh made a speech before lawmakers appealing for swift approval of the Iraqi action. He got it on the same day in a 149:68 congressional vote. Mr. Roh knew well that the threats of weapons of mass destruction could not make a good case for the war to his countrymen since they are facing a possible nuclear threat from north of border. Rather, he wrapped the justification of his support for the war in Iraq in national interests. That is, support for the war will reaffirm South Korea’s ties with the U.S.
Han Hong-gu, a history professor at Sungkonghoe Univeristy in Seoul, attacks this very rationale by bringing up the fact that young South Koreans went to war in Vietnam a generation ago for the same reason Roh are sending their sons and daughters to Iraq. Prof. Han is a leader of a burgeoning campaign for conscientious draft resisters in South Korea.
Did We Forget the Past?
With the dispatch of troops to Iraq approved at the National Assembly, South Korea ended mired in an international conflict — yet again. This is an unfortunate turn of events.
The South Koreans have played a leading or supporting role in the three major theaters of war of the late 20th century: on the Korean peninsula, in Vietnam, and in the Gulf. Into the 21st century, South Korea joined a new war of aggression by the U.S.
Except for the U.S., no country on earth has been involved in all modern wars on as a deep level South Korea has in the last 50 years.
The South Korean government, together with lawmakers who voted for the approval, insists that the deployment of 600 engineer and 100 medical personnel would reaffirm relations with the U.S. The gains, they say, would put them in better position to dissuade the U.S. from using force in settling the nuclear issue with North Korea. They also stress that the dispatch of engineer personnel would allow South Korea to pick up more windfall during the postwar reconstruction.
Can a 700-strong noncombatant contingent from South Korea exert influence on the global strategy-driven use of military force by the U.S.? If the South Korean government really believes it can, it is engaging in wishful thinking. The U.S. did not learn any lessons from Vietnam. Evidently, neither did South Korea.
In 1964, when the Park Chung Hee military regime sent troops to Vietnam it aimed mainly to upgrade the ROK (Republic of Korea)-U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement of 1954 to a treaty on par with NATO, designed to secure a U.S. military presence in South Korea. The regime justified getting its hands dirty in the unjust war with the rationale that a decision against dispatching the troops could lead to the U.S. sending its forces around the border with North Korea to the Indochinese country. However, in 1971, the U.S. unilaterally notified the South Korean government that it would pull about 20,000 military personnel out of the country and that it would send them not to Vietnam, but home.
This was what South Korea achieved after it sent a total of 320,000 military personnel — a majority of them combatants, not engineers as now planned — to Vietnam in the seven years of 1964-71. It is just naive to believe that several hundred engineers and medical personnel would influence the U.S. use of force against North Korea, and cause the realignment of U.S. forces in South Korea in favor of South Korean national interests. It is reckless to the point that it would hurt “national interests.”
If the war drags on and the U.S. fails to provide sufficient protection for the South Korean contingent, its commander will suggest additional troops for security even before US demands for enforcements. The Park regime itself did not initially intend to send a force of 320,000.
The government said it would pay soldiers of the Iraqi contingent $2,000 a month and reduce their compulsory service terms by three months. Their pay alone amounts to about a 100-fold of what an average military draftee is paid. This unfair treatment will add insult to injury for the majority of draftees quietly doing their services for less than the value of a subway fare in debilitating circumstances.
We should stop betting that 700 noncombatants can achieve more than what 320,000 combatants could not.
Originally published in Hankyoreh on April 3.
Translated and edited by Kap Su Seol