South Korea’s government is finally being held to account for the carnage its mercenary troops inflicted on Vietnamese civilians. But no one seems to be reckoning with our complicity in the atrocities.

By John Summers at the Boston Globe

One day after my mother informed my father of her pregnancy with me, he received orders from the US Marine Corps to report to Vietnam. One month later, he was patrolling Quảng Nam Province with a brigade of South Korean Marines nicknamed the “Blue Dragons.” I’ve long yearned to piece together a story of how the faraway events coinciding with my gestation shattered our family after his return. The war’s brutality has never been anybody’s secret. By now, the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, no aspect of any feature of the conflict would seem to remain unexplored. Yet my boyhood quest to mine the details of what my father did in Vietnam has foundered over the first and most general question: What were South Korean Marines doing there?

A clue tapped me on the shoulder earlier this year. In February, a district court in Seoul ordered the government of South Korea to pay compensatory damages to Nguyễn Thi Thanh, a Vietnamese woman, in a lawsuit she brought over an event that had taken place 55 years earlier, nearly to the day. On the morning of Feb. 12, 1968, about 100 combat troops from the Republic of Korea’s 2nd Marine Brigade poured into Phong Nhị in Quảng Nam Province. The Blue Dragons set homes ablaze and then proceeded to shoot, stab, drown, and hack to death 70 women, children, and infants. The butchery left no uninjured survivors. Nguyễn, 8 years old, took a bullet to the stomach. The rest of her family perished.

The South Korean government has appealed the verdict, which marked the first time any court in South Korea had attributed culpability for a massacre of Vietnamese civilians. More such lawsuits are likely to be brought. Since 1999, journalists, scholars, and veterans in Seoul have documented more than 80 similar massacres of a total of (at least) 9,000 civilians in three provinces. “There’s a strong sense among the survivors that the problem has to be resolved before their generation passes on,” Ku Su-jeong of the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Foundation said in 2016.

Between 1965 and 1972, South Korea contributed 325,517 combatants at our behest. (Australia’s 60,000 rated the next highest contribution by an American ally. Some 2.7 million Americans served.) South Korean belligerents formed the largest phalanx of foreign fighters in Vietnam other than ours, and they even outnumbered ours in the final two years. Most Americans today, however, have forgotten the little our predecessors learned about this feature of the conflict at the time. Of tens of thousands of books in English about the Vietnam War, not one is dedicated to South Korea’s participation.

The Vietnam commitment marked the first time in Korea’s 4,000-year history that its fighters left the peninsula to wage war. The American and South Korean governments conspired to make it appear as if these deployments answered a call that came directly from South Vietnam. But in 1970 a US Senate committee detailed a mercenary motive in 2,000 pages of documents appended to its report of hearings into the matter.

Our government footed the entire cost of the South Koreans’ ammunition, aircraft, and weapons, trained and quartered their officers, built barracks for their infantry, and paid bonuses at a rate 23 times as high as their base pay for the duration of the war. A document called the Brown Memorandum — named for Winthrop G. Brown, the US ambassador to the Republic of Korea — codified the terms of a business transaction. In addition to paying for war materiel and troop bonuses and providing security guarantees against North Korea, our government agreed to purchase all goods and services for the South Korean forces exclusively from South Korean businesses. The windfall, totaling more than $1 billion, rapidly modernized the country’s heavy industry. Our money contributed 4 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product and 20 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. President Park Chung Hee, having seized power in a 1961 coup d’état, fortified authoritarian rule in the bargain.

In March 1973, our aircraft removed the last of the South Korean troops to a home country rejuvenated by war profiteering. With its end, President Park turned to formal dictatorship. Western economists have been calling the transformation of South Korea a “miracle” ever since.

Read the rest at the Boston Globe

Photos: Memorial to villagers killed in the 1968 massacre in Quảng Nam Province, Vietnam, by Linh Pham.