Apocalypse Then

On the morning of April 1, 1967, Nguyen Van Thoi was working in his rice fields in the rolling hill country of central Vietnam's Phu Yen province. Thoi was nervous: in recent weeks, South Korean Army units had been sweeping through the area. They were rounding up peasants at gunpoint and forcing them to move to "New Life Villages"--essentially barbed-wire enclaves near Vietnam's eastern coast, in territory firmly controlled by Saigon. But many people--including those in Thoi's five-village commune of An Linh--were resisting the idea. They didn't want to abandon their agricultural livelihood and ancestral lands.

Suddenly, Thoi heard the loud staccato of automatic-weapons fire and the dull thud of exploding hand grenades. The noise was coming from the direction of his village of Vinh Xuan. Frightened, Thoi hid in the fields for the rest of the day, only daring to return home around dusk. When he got to the village, what he saw was horrific: homes were smoldering, and sprawled in great pools of blood on the ground were the lifeless bodies of at least 15 people--among them his wife and three of his four children (10 and 8 years old and a 4-day-old). The baby, who had been shot in the back, was still in his mother's arms. Most of the victims had been shot in the stomach and back, says Thoi, now 71. Many, he adds, had been disemboweled with bayonets. Thoi found his 4-year-old daughter, Diem, bleeding from five bullet wounds--but she had miraculously survived. She later told him that a Korean patrol had burned the village, rounded up the inhabitants and murdered them. Thoi dragged all of the bodies into a nearby bomb shelter and then covered the opening with dirt. It became their tomb. Neither he nor anyone else ever reburied the victims. "I'm simply too sad," he says.

The massacre at Vinh Xuan was not an isolated event. In an exclusive investigation, NEWSWEEK has uncovered a pattern of atrocities survivors say were perpetrated by South Korean soldiers. The Korean Army was active in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. The killing seems to have been part of a campaign to depopulate three central Vietnamese provinces--Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai and Phu Yen--moving peasants beyond the reach and influence of Viet Cong guerrillas. The survivors say Korean soldiers used threats of violence and military force to carry out the plan. According to Vietnamese provincial officials, those who refused to leave--old men, women and children, mainly-- were cruelly and systematically killed by elements of three Korean Army divisions, named Strong Tiger, White Horse and Green Dragon. Thanks to digging by a courageous Korean researcher named Koo Soo Jung, new eyewitness accounts like Thoi's are beginning to emerge. She has uncovered Vietnamese government documents that detail the Korean slaughter of thousands of peasants. Witnesses say the mass killings were unprovoked, indiscriminate and usually occurred when there was no fighting with the Viet Cong.

About the same time that Thoi's family was being gunned down, Nguyen Hung Thoai, now 46, was running for his life in another one of An Linh's villages. Then 13, Thoai fled at the first sight of Korean troops walking up the dirt path toward his parents' thatched farmhouse. As he hid in a nearby field, he says he saw the soldiers set fire to the village houses and rough up his mother, her parents, his three younger brothers and sisters and the members of five neighboring families. At bayonet point, the Koreans forced about 11 people, including Thoai's family, to crawl into one of the earthen bomb shelters the peasants had constructed as a refuge from the periodic bombing of the area. That left some 12 others standing outside the bunker. Without warning, the roar of gunfire and the explosions of hand grenades ripped the air, forcing Thoai to hide his head.

When the smoke had cleared, the Koreans had gone. Thoai quickly surveyed the bloody scene. He says a row of bloodied, bullet-riddled corpses lay in front of the bunker. There was no sign of any life either inside or outside the shelter. Terrified, he ran away. He wasn't able to return and rebury his family after the war. "People didn't want to leave their villages," says Thoai, now a rice and sugar-cane farmer in the area. Breaking into tears, he adds: "We are attached to our houses, land, rice fields and gardens. But anyone who hesitated to leave was killed. They decimated my village."

Such Korean cruelty drove many Vietnamese to embrace the Viet Cong. Bui Thanh Tram was 16 when he saw Korean soldiers burn his house down and kill his 70-year-old father in An Linh in 1967. He had escaped out the back of his family's house just as several Korean soldiers burst in. Tram says he saw them grab his bearded father and march him to the family bunker next to a stand of bamboo. He says they pushed the old man inside and quickly chucked a hand grenade in after him. Toward evening, Tram sneaked back into the village and dug up his family's collapsed bunker. "I only found pieces of flesh," he says. After weeks of wandering and begging, Tram finally decided to flee to the mountains and join the communist guerrillas. "I wanted to extract vengeance for the murder of my father," says Tram. "How could I not do so after seeing what the Koreans did to my village?"

Nguyen Ngoc Chau is 83 years old, and feeble, but he feels the same hatred. On May 22, 1967, he was a farmer in Hoa Dong commune, in Phu Yen province. Chau was visiting relatives in a neighboring village when he got the news: Korean soldiers had attacked his village of My Thuan the night before. He rushed home. There, he saw villagers pulling 13 mutilated corpses out of the village water well. Among the dead were eight members of his family--his pregnant wife, his four children (ranging in age from 4 to 16), his widowed sister-in-law and her two young children. According to an old man who watched from a hiding spot during the attack, South Korean soldiers had thrown the women and children into the well. He told other villagers that as they called out for help, the soldiers tossed in several hand grenades. Chau buried his family in simple, unmarked graves--dirt mounds, really--which were placed in a line next to his current house in neighboring Phu My village. "All the victims were just women and children," he says. "How could they be communists? The Koreans are monsters. If I saw one now I would chop off his head."

Korean soldiers weren't the only ones that committed atrocities. Just up the coast from An Linh, in the province of Quang Ngai, is the village of My Lai. That's where Lt. William Calley's platoon slaughtered more than 500 unarmed villagers in 1968. But in Phu Yen, the Americans are almost remembered fondly by the commune's now middle-aged adults. Pham Tu Sang, 47, a local official, recalls that during the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations in 1966, when he was 13, he played with GIs and received gifts of chewing gum and candy. But in 1966, the American soldiers withdrew and handed Phu Yen over to the newly arrived Koreans. "By Tet 1967," says Sang, "the Koreans were killing us." "Meeting a Korean was like meeting death," adds Tram, who now heads a local war-veterans association. "They shot anyone they saw." An Linh villagers report that women feared Koreans even more than the men did. The reason: they were often brutally raped before they were murdered.

Hanoi is jittery about the new reports of Korean atrocities. The country's leaders are well aware that mass killings took place, but they don't want reports about them published in Vietnam. The government is fearful of upsetting not only Seoul--with which it has close relations--but also South Korean chaebol such as Daewoo, Hyundai and Samsung, which are among Vietnam's largest foreign investors. Hanoi is also afraid of losing the increasing numbers of South Korean veterans who have begun visiting the country as tourists.

Local officials who lived through the Korean massacres don't believe that the truth should be hidden to promote tourism and development. They would like to see some kind of public accounting from South Korea, perhaps an apology or an admission of guilt that could only serve to bring the two countries closer together. "The South Korean Army created the worst suffering this province has ever experienced," says one Phu Yen official. "The victims were old people, women and children who didn't have the ability to hold a gun. We are not asking for material compensation but rather for understanding and a friendly gesture that can help the victims put the past aside." Considering the amount of innocent Vietnamese blood spilled by the South Korean Army, that seems a small request.