Fallen Heroes

The old soldiers moved in while their enemy was at breakfast. About 40 men, all South Korean veterans of the Vietnam War, massed at the KAL Hotel on the island of Cheju in February to ambush a crusading graduate student who calls them "madmen and barbarians." In a series of controversial articles, Koo Soo Jung had alleged that her countrymen massacred thousands of civilians in Vietnam--a claim that challenges the veterans' status as heroes in South Korea. When vets learned that Koo would be speaking at a human-rights conference, they mobilized. First they lobbied organizers to exclude her. When that didn't work, they stormed the hotel to disrupt the gathering. As Koo made her presentation, they jostled with the organizers for almost an hour outside the hall. In the end, they sent a representative to present their own view. "How dare they criticize us?" one former soldier shouted. "We fought for our lives."

It may have looked like a minor scuffle over a distant moment in history. But it was a clash over Korea's self-image. Koreans have never much liked looking inward. They point their fingers at imperial Japan's past atrocities. But their own war record--the brutal civil war, the bloody involvement in the Vietnam War--has long been taboo. In the cold war's almighty struggle against communism, South Korea's authoritarian governments didn't want to deal with embarrassing questions that might abet their enemies to the North. But with democracy, the taboos are breaking down. The older generation clings to its whitewashed memories. But to their children, what's more important than ideological struggle is good government, justice--and the truth. For the first time, they are shining light in the dark corners of their country's history. "Under dictatorships and military regimes, we couldn't talk about those things," says Kang Jeong Koo, a historian at Dongkuk University in Seoul. "Now nobody can silence these voices of conscience."

No wonder the Vietnam vets got so worked up. Twenty-five years after Saigon's fall, they are fighting for their reputations--and losing. From 1965 to 1973, Seoul sent more than 300,000 troops to war in Vietnam, the second largest foreign army in the conflict. Washington bankrolled the deployment, but the Koreans kept their own command and had leeway to fight the communist insurgency as they chose. Their methods were both effective and brutal. Reports of atrocities followed their advance up Highway 1 north of Saigon. Now, for the first time, Koreans are documenting these nightmarish tales and bringing the record home. NEWSWEEK has discovered villages still traumatized by the Korean onslaught (following story). Yet the perpetrators returned home heroes.

Koreans entered the Vietnam quagmire alongside the first American ground troops. At home, strongman President Park Chung Hee framed the deployment as a righteous act. Koreans, he said, must repay America for saving their nation during the Korean War and could not "sit on their hands" while allies "became prey to a communist invasion." In addition, Park hoped to use Vietnam to finance highways, build ports and jump-start an export economy. In all, Seoul earned nearly $1 billion in foreign exchange for its Vietnam contribution--funding paid by American tax coffers but concealed from Congress until 1970. "Vietnam was a good opportunity to make money while attempting to help," Park's foreign minister, Lee Dong Won, recently told Newsweek. "But we didn't ever discuss this [publicly] as a matter of policy." As Korean vets learn more about the men-for-money agenda, they are outraged. "In Seoul's and Washington's interest, we were sent to a war that was wrong," says one Korean businessman who fought in Vietnam.

The recent revelations are political dynamite: former Vietnam vets and the politicans who sent them still hold powerful positions. President Kim Dae Jung, whose party is struggling to maintain its hold on Parliament ahead of legislative elections next week, has studiously avoided the issue. His staff would only say it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment on any decision in which he was "not involved." Read: this is too hot to touch when you need to court the older generation's votes.

Throughout the war, the Korean media reported only "victories and enemy body counts," says a former war correspondent. News of battlefield setbacks, let alone atrocities, was censored for fear of feeding the North Korean propaganda machine, which branded Seoul's men in Vietnam "dollar-a-day mercenaries." The taboo stood unchallenged until author and Vietnam vet Ahn Junghyo published "White Badge" in 1983. The novel portrayed bloody fire fights and traumatized veterans; when it was serialized in the left-wing journal Literature in Action, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan's government shut the magazine. Boldly, the same publisher issued the story in book form. "It had no impact," Ahn says, referring to the paltry 2,000-copy print run.

But when the book was made into a film in 1992, young, pro-democracy South Koreans started debating the war. "Veterans associations threatened to blow up the theater where it opened," Ahn recalls. Around that time, the progressive magazine Mal published accounts of atrocities committed by Korean troops in Vietnam. Veterans (egged on by the Korean CIA, they now admit) mobbed the magazine's headquarters, then sued its editors for libel. In 1995, President Kim Young Sam's Education minister, Kim Sook Hee, was hounded out of the cabinet for stating that many intellectuals believed Korea had dispatched "mercenaries" to Vietnam. "Our society was so rigid that people branded me a communist," she says, still bitter about the incident.

An expose last year of atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War suddenly made Korea's own reticence on the Vietnam War seem hypocritical. Human-rights groups started demanding that Seoul open its war archives and compensate Vietnamese victims. But the real horrors started trickling out when Koo, a Korean researcher studying in Vietnam, started digging up historical documents and villagers' stories. They revealed dozens of massacres in which South Korean troops killed more than 8,000 civilians. In February the Korean Broadcasting Service picked up Koo's story, airing a documentary in which several Korean soldiers, faces blurred to protect their identities, spoke of unprovoked civilian killings. "Searching a village, we found a young guy... with his daughter," said one anguished veteran on camera. "My company commander ordered me to kill him right there next to his girl, who looked 7 or 8. My heart was broken. I couldn't do it. So my commander killed them both."

Something terrible also happened in Tho Lam village in Phu Yen province on March 14, 1966--and nobody knows exactly why. The Korean troops were tipped off about a weapons cache in the alleged Viet Cong village. Choi Woo Shik's platoon mobilized. As the troops searched huts, residents--mostly women and children--were herded into a clearing. Then Choi stumbled upon a hidden tunnel just as a grenade exploded, killing four soldiers and riddling his body with shrapnel. Ahn Tae Hoon, the sergeant who took charge when his commander fell, remembers a frenzied gun battle after the grenade blew. Forty-six civilians were killed. "We couldn't control our emotions. We shot at everything that moved," he told NEWSWEEK. "Even civilians must have looked like Viet Cong at that point."

Commander Choi, who now lives in Seoul's Southern Cross Village, a veterans' housing estate named after a constellation in the Vietnamese sky, remembers it slightly differently. According to Choi, who was in and out of consciousness, the village calmed down after the grenade explosion. It was only when a helicopter arrived some time later, scattering the villagers, that his soldiers opened fire. If the shooting didn't erupt immediately after the grenade attack, could some of these have been revenge killings? "That's one possibility," admits Choi. But he adds that "they were scared and could have fired to protect themselves." To most vets, such nightmares were just part of an ugly guerrilla war. "You couldn't tell the difference between guerrillas and civilians," says Ahn. "You have to understand why we did those things."

In an exclusive NEWSWEEK interview, retired general Chae Myung Shin, who commanded Korea's troops in Vietnam, acknowledged that his soldiers caused civilian casualties. He blamed the uncertainties of guerrilla warfare. Another variable, Chae acknowledged, was battlefield rage. He said he "can understand" the war's most notorious massacre, the killing of 504 civilians at My Lai by American soldiers in 1968. The instigator, Lt. William Calley, "tried to get revenge for the deaths of his fellow troops," Chae explained. "In war, this is natural."

One study, conducted in the early 1970s by two American former Peace Corps volunteers, Diane and Michael Jones, documents 45 incidents in which Korean troops allegedly killed 20 or more unarmed civilians. The report notes "beheading, disemboweling, and rape ending in murder" and observes that "in most of the large massacres the people were not killed until they were rounded up into groups." "When I talk about [these things], people think we're cruel," says Kim Joo Hwang, a former infantryman. "So I'd rather not be very specific."

Kim is among the few veterans who dare to confront their past in Vietnam. Last month he and Kim Jong Chul, a fellow vet, went back to their old battlefields to search for spots to erect "reconciliation monuments" to honor fallen Korean soldiers and their victims. Kim Joo Hwang's group, the Vietnam War Veterans' Welfare Committee, is raising money for the campaign. The two old soldiers toured massacre villages in Quang Ngai province, where Kim conveyed his regret that "we killed people as mercenaries." They visited the My Lai massacre museum and wept when the curator described atrocities committed elsewhere by Koreans. At the same time, a group of young dentists--compelled by Koo's moving reportage--traveled to Vietnam to treat massacre victims. This month, in Seoul, they will join a number of civic groups in a Night of Poetry and Song. The aim: to raise money for more relief work in Vietnam. The old soldiers, no doubt, are already planning their ambush.