Killing Memory – Korean War Crimes in Vietnam

Until last summer, I worked as an English language teacher at an elementary after-school academy (or ‘hakwon’) in Seoul, South Korea. In my time teaching Korean students I discovered three foolproof methods for deafening myself with the noisy protestations of enraged pre-teens. In descending order of effectiveness those techniques were:
1.    Dancing  (my bewitching moves do not seem to translate to East Asia).
2.    Suggesting that Kim Yuna is not the best figure skater in the world.
3.    Saying anything even vaguely positive about Japan.

The enmity for Japan amongst patriotic Korean children is not surprising. The most painful event in modern Korean history, excepting the Korean War, is Japan’s thirty-five-year occupation of the Korean peninsula. Korea, already under effective Japanese control since the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876, was formally annexed by the Japanese Empire in 1910. Japanese rule in Korea did not end until Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Allies in 1945.

Japanese imperial rule was brutal. During World War II, the Japanese conscripted millions of Koreans into forced labour. Hundreds of thousands were forced to leave Korea to work in Japan and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in North Eastern China. Hundreds of thousands died and in 1944 the Japanese military, desperately short of manpower, began conscripting Koreans into the Imperial Army.  An unknown number of so-called ‘comfort women’ in Korea and elsewhere in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, were forced into military brothels for use by Japanese soldiers.

In recent years, the provocative comments of Shinzō Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, have inflamed hostilities. Abe has questioned whether Japan’s occupation of Korea and much of China in the early twentieth century should accurately be described as an invasion. He has also claimed that the Japanese did not coerce Korean women into the military brothels. Adding to the outrage, in 2013 Abe visited a shrine in Tokyo, Yasukuni, built in honour of Japanese war dead including Class A war criminals.

In spite of the deep economic and cultural ties between Korea and Japan, the Japanese occupation remains a core part of Korean identity. The decades of shame and dishonour thrown into relief by the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ – the extraordinarily rapid development of the South Korean economy from the early 1960s onwards.

The crimes committed by the Japanese were undeniably egregious. However, as a general rule, citizens of any given country will know far more about the wrongs perpetrated against their nation than criminal acts committed by their own country. One thinks of the British fixation on the crimes of Nazi Germany and the supposedly unambiguously valiant role of Britain during World War II. Seventy years since the end of the war, British popular culture remains saturated with references to Britain’s ‘finest hour.’ Whilst writing this article, I had a quick look at the documentary section of the BBC website. Predictably enough, five out of six of the most recent BBC documentaries on the twentieth century were about the Second World War.

Britain’s Nazi monomania is sometimes just plain embarrassing – during the 1996 European Championships, to the bemusement of the German public, The Daily Mirror greeted England’s semi-final match against Germany with a front page declaring: ‘ACHTUNG! SURRENDER For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over’.
British preoccupation with WWII is coupled with silence regarding the crimes of the British Empire and subsequent misdeeds. For instance, credible estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands (and likely more than a million) Iraqis died in the aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion in 2003. However, an opinion poll by ComRes found that two-thirds of the British public estimated that 20,000 or fewer Iraqis died post-invasion. Incredibly, according to the poll more than fifty per cent of British women (and thirty-five per cent of British men) believe that 5,000 or fewer Iraqis died in the war.

Preoccupation with the misdeeds of the other guy is hardly peculiar to the UK. Atrocity denial is chronic the world over: from the Russian media’s obsession with the crimes of the West while downplaying its own depredations in Chechnya and elsewhere to America’s focus on the crimes of the Soviet Union coupled with ignorance regarding its own criminal actions within the American imperial sphere during the Cold War.

The only exceptions to the rule are those countries where the ruling elite were either discredited or displaced so that it is either impossible or of no utility, to downplay the crimes in question. Of the latter case, one thinks of Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War or Cambodia following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

It is instructive to compare the treatment of imperial crimes in Britain, Germany and Japan. In the case of the British Empire the imperial power withdrew from the conquered territories partially of its own volition (it was not defeated by an imperial adversary) and there were no trials for the architects of empire. Consequently the crimes of the British Empire –mass murder, torture, and imposition of economic policies that caused millions of deaths by famine in the British Raj are scarcely known in the UK. In 2005 Britain’s then Chancellor and future Prime Minister Gordon Brown declaimed that it was time to ‘stop apologising’ for the crimes of empire. This must have come as something of a surprise to the citizens of former British colonies who were surely unaware of any such contrition. By contrast, in post-1945 Germany the Nazi elite were so comprehensively discredited that the post-war German elite was largely compelled to acknowledge the scale of Germany’s crimes during the war. On the other hand, whilst Japan does not approach Britain or the United States in the extent of their denialism, within Japan open public debate still persists regarding the nature of Japanese imperial rule. Such talk exists only on the fringes of German politics; it is presently unthinkable to imagine a German Chancellor making comments similar to those of Shinzō Abe. The degree of equivocation that persists in Japanese is a consequence of the lesser scale of the delegitimisation of the Japanese imperial elite. The process of denazification that occurred in Germany was not carried out on a similar scale in Japan, and, crucially, the Japanese Emperor and a significant number of the Imperial elite who were directly implicated in Japanese war crimes escaped prosecution.
Korea, of course, was one of the victims of inter-imperial rivalry (Japanese empire building was in part inspired by fear of becoming subordinated to the European imperial states). However, there is one very significant crime for which South Korea is responsible, and which is little acknowledged within the country.

April 30th marked the fortieth anniversary of the ‘fall of Saigon’ and the end of the Vietnam War. The war was the most violent conflict since the WWII – some estimates suggest that more than 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives and millions more died in Laos and Cambodia. The largest contingent of non-American troops present in Vietnam were the more than 300,000 troops from the Republic of Korea (ROK) sent to fight alongside the Americans as part of the ‘Free World Military Forces’.

While the Americans committed an appalling series of massacres in Vietnam, ROK forces were no slouches on the atrocities front either. The most notorious instance was the massacre conducted by the ROK Blue Dragon Brigade in the hamlet of Ha My near the city of Danang in February 1968. After herding villagers to two killing sites, ROK forces opened fire with machine guns and fragmentation grenades. The killing went on for two hours and by the time they had finished their work 135 Vietnamese lay dead. Only three were males of combat age – the rest were women, the elderly and children. In all, ROK forces carried out more than forty massacres in Vietnam during the war.

Korean involvement in the war was a significant factor in Korea’s post-war development. Korean troop commitments led to billions of dollars in grants, loans and subsidies from their American patron, and served to bind the ties between the two virulently anti-communist nations.

Today ROK involvement in the war is little acknowledged within Korea. There are no memorials dedicated to the conflict, and the anniversary of the war’s end passed off without ceremony. While Korea has rightly demanded that the Japanese government show proper contrition regarding its crimes in Korea, the Vietnamese government has remained largely silent on the issue of ROK war crimes. The reason for the relative quiescence of the Vietnamese government is not hard to discern – Vietnam is very much the junior partner in the burgeoning economic relationship between the two nations. Vietnam is Korea’s sixth largest export market and the fourth largest recipient of direct investment. Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $27.3 billion in 2013. At a much earlier stage of economic development, Vietnam has little incentive to rock the boat with its wealthier neighbour.

Vietnam’s subaltern status in the Asian economy has shaped memorialisation of atrocities such as those committed by ROK forces within Vietnam. In Ha My, thirty years after the massacre, a monument was built to commemorate the victims. To their credit, the memorial was paid for by Korean veterans of the Blue Dragon Brigade. When first erected, the memorial carried a vivid description of what had occurred at the site in 1968. However, in April The Guardian reported that the description of the massacre had been removed from the monument prior to its official opening. According to the inhabitants of Ha My, South Korean diplomats had insisted that the words be removed, and Korean investors offered to pay for the construction of a local hospital if the Vietnamese authorities complied. The Vietnamese acceded to Korean requests and the description was replaced with a tableau of lotus blossom. The Guardian reported the comments of Korean anthropologist Heonik Kwon who described the actions of the diplomats and investors as ‘killing the memory of the killing’.
In 2013 Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose father, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee deployed Korean troops to Vietnam, visited the country. Although she laid a wreath at the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, she did not offer an apology for Korean atrocities during the Vietnam War. South Korea can petition Japan to atone for its crimes in part because it is at a comparably advanced stage of economic development. By contrast, Vietnam remains a relatively poor society significantly dependent upon outside investment. It tells us much about the way money structures our world that Vietnam will not be able to gain its dignity until, in effect, it is rich enough to buy it. Walter Benjamin once wrote that ‘of all that happens, nothing should be considered as lost for history. Doubtless only a redeemed humanity will take full possession of its past.’ It will likely be a long time before Korea takes possession of the crimes its armed forces committed in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7

1 comment

  1. Kelvin Yearwood June 3, 2015 10:06 am 

    Excellent piece. I couldn’t agree more with the comments about contemporary UK and how we are saturated with this sanitised WWII heroism to the exclusion of our crimes.

    I first heard about the South Korean atrocities in Vietnam in Nick Turse’s recent book “Kill Everything that Moves…” Definitely worth a read.

    The points about subaltern status of nations and the ability or inability of nations to buy and gain international honour due, with the concomitant pressure on other nations to admit historical crimes, is effectively made. In fact I don’t remember the point being voiced with such clarity before.

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