For more than five decades, no courtroom was interested in hearing the unimaginable horror that Nguyen Thi Thanh experienced as a little girl. She was just eight years old when soldiers descended upon her village, shot her in the stomach, and wiped out five members of her family in a matter of hours.
They were among 74 unarmed civilians slaughtered by South Korean soldiers that day in 1968, but it was only last week that the Vietnamese woman, now in her 60s, was finally given the chance to take the stand and tell her story before a judge. Along with her 82-year-old uncle, Nguyen Duc Choi, a witness to the same massacre, the pair became the first Vietnamese ever to be heard by a South Korean court about the atrocities committed by the country’s troops during the war in Vietnam.
As she calmly addressed the Seoul Central District Court at a six-hour hearing attended by VICE World News on Aug. 9, Thanh struggled to contain her emotions as she recalled the moment her grandmother broke the news—her mother was found dead among a pile of bodies.
“It was too painful,” the 62-year-old said in tears, struggling to continue her testimony. “It was so unbearable that I blamed [myself]; why didn’t they kill me with my mother?”
Thanh was a survivor of a massacre in the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat in Central Vietnam on Feb. 12, 1968, one of many atrocities carried out by South Korean troops against Vietnamese civilians during the country’s nine-year involvement in the conflict.
For decades, aided by South Korean activists, survivors like Thanh have been pushing to have their stories heard by the country’s authorities—demanding an inquiry, an official apology, and reparations—only to be ignored by a government that has continued to reject calls for an official investigation and turn a blind eye to the past.
But last week, the South Korean government’s official denial became that much harder. The landmark testimonies came more than two years after Thanh’s lawsuit was first filed in April 2020, the first brought by a Vietnamese survivor of South Korean atrocities against the country’s government. She is seeking an official apology and some 30 million won ($23,000)—the minimum amount required to have a written judgment issued by the court, serving as a de facto acknowledgment of the crime—according to Thanh’s legal representative Lim Jae-sung.
Ahead of last week’s hearing, Lim told VICE World News that he was confident Thanh would be successful in proving the South Korean government’s culpability.
“I don't think it will be a problem to prove that at the trial,” he said. “There are victims’ testimonies and a perpetrator’s testimony, eyewitnesses, photos, and materials from the U.S. military. On top of it, there are official documents in Vietnam because this was an unusual case.”
Seoul sent some 320,000 troops to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, the second largest foreign force supporting the U.S.’ efforts backing capitalist South Vietnam against the communist North, in a conflict that stretched from the mid-1950s to 1975.
A staunch U.S. ally reliant on Washington for security guarantees in the wake of the Korean War, South Korea would also receive payment for its participation in the conflict. Like U.S. troops, South Korea’s presence in Vietnam was accompanied by incidences of indiscriminate violence against civilians.
The U.S. military was implicated in numerous atrocities against civilians in Vietnam, most infamously the slaughter of at least 347 unarmed Vietnamese in the hamlet of My Lai. But unlike My Lai—which, after an initial cover-up, sparked widespread public outrage, resulting in the conviction of one platoon leader in 1971—South Korea’s crimes remained largely buried for decades.
Allegations of South Korea’s wartime atrocities only surfaced again in 1999, when local media, researchers, and social activist groups published exposés based on official documents and eyewitness accounts of the massacres. While these reports raised public awareness, an investigation into the massacres proved elusive for years, with South Korean authorities rejecting requests to access official documents.
Civic groups would travel to Vietnam to interview survivors of these war crimes, while “Sorry, Vietnam,” a grassroots movement launched in 2000 calling for an investigation and an apology from the government, also brought greater awareness to the issue. The Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation, a non-governmental organization raising awareness of South Korean atrocities, now estimates that around 9,000 people were killed by the country’s troops across some 80 massacres.
One of the most well-documented of these occurred in Phong Nhi, where Thanh lived. Last week, Thanh described to the court the senseless and indiscriminate nature of the violence that resulted in five members of her family being murdered that day in 1968.
“My family members and I were hiding in an air raid shelter and saw dozens of Korean soldiers coming to my house. They threatened us by shouting and showing a grenade. My brother went up first and got shot and had his buttocks blown away, and I got shot as soon as I went up too,” Thanh said.
“My intestines were out of the stomach, but I pressed it with my hand so I could look for my mother. I fainted and found out later that my brother and I were transferred to hospital by a U.S. helicopter.”
She and her 14-year-old brother survived, but photos taken by U.S. Marines who arrived at the massacre later that day depict the chilling aftermath of the attack, including the bodies of children strewn in a ditch. In one especially gruesome case, one woman was found alive with a breast and an arm cut off, with Choi telling the court last week that he saw her with his own eyes. She later died after being transferred to a hospital in the city of Da Nang.
“The U.S. forces and I entered the village and searched for survivors and they photographed [the site]. I saw my relatives’ bodies. There were two babies who were still breathing in the pile of dead bodies in the village.”
Choi wasn’t in Phong Nhi when the massacre began, only approaching the village after hearing that South Korean troops were killing civilians. He watched the violence unfold from about 300 meters away, listening to the sound of gunshots and explosions. When he returned to the village about an hour later, he found burning houses and bodies piled on top of one another.
“Many dead bodies were burned,” Choi said. “The U.S. forces and I entered the village and searched for survivors and they photographed [the site]. I saw my relatives’ bodies. There were two babies who were still breathing in the pile of dead bodies in the village.”
Less than two weeks later, violence at Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat was followed by the Ha My Massacre, where South Korean troops killed over a hundred villagers on Feb. 25, 1968—mostly women, children, and the elderly. In many of these massacres, troops would burn down the houses of Vietnamese civilians before bulldozing the sites to destroy the bodies.
In seeking to explain the massacres of 1968, some point to a brutal depopulation campaign supposedly enacted by South Korean troops, forcing villages to flee to combat the growing influence of the Viet Cong, a communist insurgency group operating undercover in the South. At another public hearing in July last year, Ryu Jin-seong, a South Korean veteran from the marine unit that allegedly committed the massacre in Thanh’s village, claimed that they had entered Phong Nhi after one of their men was hit by a bullet coming from the village’s direction. Soldiers were acting on a standing order that, if shot at, they should destroy everything in the vicinity to instil fear in the enemy.
Regardless, at last week’s trial, government representatives attempted to cast doubt on Thanh’s account, asking if the aggressors were indeed South Korean, and not Viet Cong disguised in their uniform. This was a claim first put forth by a South Korean military commander when the massacre was investigated in 1968, but was dismissed by U.S. investigators as “at odds” with the evidence. Even so, the inquiry was dropped.
“Viet Cong would’ve spoken in Vietnamese. They spoke in another language that no one could understand,” Thanh responded on the stand last week. “I had seen them before. I knew well that South Koreans dressed in camouflage uniforms and had single eyelids.”
“They were South Korean soldiers,” said Choi, her uncle. “They looked just like the people here [in court].”
For years, Korean activists have campaigned fervently for the stories of Vietnamese victims to be heard. In 2018, Thanh testified in a mock tribunal held by social activist groups in front of a panel of judges, who concluded that the massacres were a “grave human rights violation and war crime,” and urged the Korean government to launch an investigation.
Used by activists in South Korea to raise public awareness about social issues, mock tribunals are not legally binding. But according to Kwon Hyun-woo of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation, it publicized the case enough to pave the way for Thanh’s official lawsuit, which commenced in 2020.
“[In the beginning] people started with calling for an investigation by the government, but wouldn’t dare to bring it to trial,” he told VICE World News. “Then Korean civil society held a mock tribunal in 2018 after being inspired by a 2000 mock tribunal for ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese colonial era. In doing so, it developed into filing a lawsuit.”
The ongoing “comfort women” issue between Seoul and Tokyo is one that continues to shape discourse around South Korea’s atrocities in Vietnam.
In 2017, the Vietnam Pieta, a statue commemorating the lives lost in these civilian massacres, was erected by local civic groups in Jeju—known in South Korea as the “island of peace.” A sculpture of a woman cradling a newborn baby, eyes closed, it was meant to serve as an apology for South Korea’s role in the war in Vietnam.
In downtown Seoul, a bronze statue of a girl made by the same sculptors has sat in front of the Japanese embassy since 2011—an installation that points to what some regard as South Korea’s double standards as it treats Vietnamese survivors with indifference.
The Statue of Peace is one of numerous “comfort women” memorials around the country, as activists call for an official apology from Tokyo for forcing Korean women into sexual slavery under Japanese occupation before and during World War II. The issue has become a longstanding flashpoint in bilateral relations. While a 2015 deal, in which Japan offered an apology and one billion yen ($8.26 million) in compensation, was agreed, South Korea attempted to withdraw two years later, questioning the Japanese government’s sincerity in honoring the victims.
“South Korea is used to playing the role of a victim of Japanese imperialism and North Korean aggression, so recognition of [South] Korean war crimes, especially towards the civilians of a communist enemy, is particularly jarring.”
But unlike the soured relations between South Korea and Japan, the atrocities committed by South Korean troops appear to be a mere blip in bilateral ties with Vietnam, one that both governments seem happy to brush aside. The Vietnamese government has chosen not to amplify South Korea’s wartime atrocities, rarely discussing it in public. The lack of pressure from civil society, which has little space to flourish in Vietnam, and a diminishing awareness among younger generations, has also made it easier for the government to ignore the issue.
“The role of Koreans in the war is less well-known among the younger generation,” Vu Minh Hoang, a faculty member in history and Vietnam studies at the Fulbright University Vietnam, told VICE World News. “To the victims and those who remember, it is of great significance, but not to the general public who is largely unaware [of it].”
Today, South Korea is one of Vietnam’s largest foreign investors, and Hoang said that since the Doi Moi economic liberalization reforms of the 1980s, Hanoi has prioritized political and economic ties with South Korea, and is “willing to play down the past atrocities.”
“This is true both of the national government, which actively courts Korean investment, and local governments willing to remove or cover up memorials of Korean war crimes in exchange for aid and investment,” Hoang said.
In 2000, when South Korean diplomats voiced their displeasure with a heartfelt poem inscribed on the back of a new monument to the massacre in Ha My, local officials covered it up with a marble slab adorned with carvings of lotus flowers. One villager was said to have described this act at the time as like a second massacre—“killing the memory of the killing.”
“Playing down the past is a temporary measure that allows South Korea-Vietnam relations to move forward in blissful ignorance,” Hoang said. “This is a relationship that on the surface may be rosy, but is fundamentally unequal and built on unsound foundations.”
While some South Korean presidents have made apologetic statements regarding the country’s participation in the war, they fell short of acknowledging the massacres. In response to a 2019 petition submitted by Vietnamese victims calling for reparations and a formal apology, Korean authorities claimed to have no records of civilian massacres conducted by its forces.
“South Korea is used to playing the role of a victim of Japanese imperialism and North Korean aggression, so recognition of [South] Korean war crimes, especially towards the civilians of a communist enemy, is particularly jarring,” said Hoang.
According to activist Kwon, for many in South Korea, especially among the older generation, acknowledging their country’s role as perpetrators of atrocities, and not just victims, is hard to accept.
“The older generation, including myself, has a strong sense of nationalism,” Kwon said. “They seem to have been shocked to learn [about South Korean crimes] because they think Koreans are a good ethnic group that have never done harm to other nations or people.”
But while many have drawn parallels between South Korea’s demands for an apology from Japan and its failure to apologize to Vietnam, Vicki Sung-yeon Kwon, a researcher at the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University, who studies postwar memory in South Korea, emphasized that apologies “should not be used as a political bargain.”
“[The ‘comfort women’ issue] is a powerful tool to formulate a public discourse about the need for [South] Korea to apologize to Vietnam, but it also weakens the sincerity of any apology by treating it as an exchangeable commodity,” she told VICE World News. “This kind of apology alienates the victims from the apology.”
An earnest apology would go a long way to healing Thanh emotionally, who says that she is still seeking closure for the ordeal she endured that day in 1968. Physically, Thanh continues to suffer the effects of her injuries, and will likely do so for the rest of her life.
“All I want is that the government and the war veterans admit that what I’ve testified is true,” said Thanh. “I’ve suffered badly since I was eight years old. The wound still brings me pain. It’s unforgettable.”
“If I ever meet the soldiers who fired the shots again, I would like to ask them why they had to shoot at the young people who didn’t know anything—why they had to kill the innocent, not the enemy.”
Follow Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.