On February 7, 2023, the Seoul Central District Court reportedly ordered the Korean government to pay 30 million Korean won (about US$24,000) in compensation to a Vietnamese woman who survived a massacre of civilians by South Korean troops in Vietnam in 1968.
Background: The Ignored Past
The atrocities committed by the South Korean military in Vietnam during the Vietnam War came to heightened public awareness only with the publication of a series of investigative articles based on official documents and eyewitness accounts in South Korea’s Hankyoreh Sinmun and Hankyoreh 21 magazines beginning in May 1999. U.S. military reports declassified in June 2000 also proved the atrocities. An academic article published in 2001 states that “the Vietnam War is a forgotten, even forcibly suppressed, experience in South Korea” and that “the [South Korean] government has yet to make any attempt to look into the actions of its own troops in Vietnam.” According to the Guardian, in 2015 South Korean diplomats applied economic pressure on local Vietnamese officials to cover over a poem on a memorial statue in Vietnam about an atrocity committed by the South Korean military. In addition, when Vietnamese victims submitted a petition in 2019 calling for a formal apology and reparations, “Korean authorities claimed to have no records of civilian massacres conducted by its forces.”
The Massacre Victim’s Lawsuit
In 2020, the woman who survived the 1968 massacre filed a lawsuit against the Korean government seeking modest compensation, with assistance from a South Korean civil society group. Though the government argued that the statute of limitations prevented its liability, the court decided that the government’s claim constituted an abuse of the woman’s rights. The government also argued that even if South Korean soldiers did kill or injure civilians, this should be seen as a legitimate act in the context of the Vietnam War, where the specific nature of guerrilla warfare had to be taken into account. The court, however, dismissed this argument as well.
Sayuri Umeda, Law Library of Congress
March 8, 2023
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