South Korea's Vietnam

April 1, 1967, should have been a forgettable day for Nguyen Van Thoi. He'd trudged off, as he did most mornings, to work in the rice fields near his village of Vinh Xuan in South Vietnam. True, he had more than the usual war worries to think about: South Korean soldiers, in Vietnam to help the United States fight the communists, had recently conducted sweeps through nearby villages. The Koreans had forced the neighboring farmers at gunpoint to move into special enclaves, enclosed by barbed wire, euphemistically called New Life Villages. The Korean strategy was to put the locals out of the reach of the Viet Cong. But for poor peasants like Thoi, the promise of a "New Life" was a lie. He didn't want to become an internal refugee. He wanted to stay home.

Suddenly, Thoi heard the long, loud tat-tat-tat of automatic-weapons fire and the distant thud of exploding grenades. He lay low in the fields for hours, finally returning to Vinh Xuan around 5 p.m. Sprawled in great pools of blood in the dirt yard of his neighbor's smoldering house were at least 15 corpses, including those of Thoi's wife and three of his four children. One of the dead kids was just 4 days old. (Shot in the back, the infant was still tightly held in his mother's embrace.) South Korean soldiers had disemboweled many of the victims with bayonets. Thoi dragged the corpses to a bomb shelter and covered the opening with dirt. There they remain nearly a quarter century later. Thoi, now 71, can't muster the will to rebury them.

South Koreans have never had much interest in stories like Thoi's. From 1965 to 1973, responding to Lyndon Johnson's "more flags" call for allied support in Indochina, Seoul sent more than 300,000 troops to Vietnam, the second largest foreign army in the conflict. Washington bankrolled the deployment as a means to reduce U.S. casualties, and once in-country, the Koreans had their own command. Western and Vietnamese researchers suggest Korean troops massacred thousands of civilians, many of them women and children. And NEWSWEEK has found several villages like Thoi's, where witnesses readily recall South Korean horrors. Yet in Seoul, Korea's years in Vietnam have long been hailed as a glorious effort to combat communism. Unlike the United States, which tried Lt. William Calley for the slaughter of 504 civilians at My Lai in 1968, Korea has never publicly aired the conduct of its soldiers in Vietnam. Seoul's troops returned home as heroes.

But now the "heroes" are under attack. A new generation of South Koreans, emboldened by the end of the cold war and energized by a new democratic openness, is demanding to know more about Korea's conduct in Southeast Asia. Many war veterans are aghast. They believe their younger critics are on a mistaken crusade that threatens the country's hard-won pride. "This could be reported in The New York Times!" shouted an angry ex-marine as he jostled with plainclothes cops at a recent human-rights conference which included a session on Vietnam-era atrocities. "Then what would foreigners think about Korea?"

At the center of the furor is a South Korean graduate student named Koo Soo Jung, who is pursuing a history degree at Ho Chi Minh University in Vietnam. Koo has spent nearly three years gathering government documents, many based on eyewitness accounts, from Vietnamese war museums; they tell of dozens of massacres in which Korean troops killed more than 8,000 civilians. Koo has also visited 19 countries to interview more than 100 massacre survivors. "I could have focused on Korea-Vietnam relations 2,000 years ago," she says. "But I decided to do something more relevant."

Previous efforts to chronicle Korea's real role in Vietnam, dating back to the 1970s, have been suppressed or ignored. But as Koo was completing her research last fall, another massacre was making headlines back home. In September 1999, the Associated Press ran an investigative story in which American vets admitted to killing civilians during the opening weeks of the Korean War. Seoul called on Washington to investigate the incident fully--which opened the door to similar demands that Seoul break its silence on Vietnam. By then Koo had begun publishing her findings in the magazine Hankyoreh 21. Hundreds of letters and phone calls poured in. "The response," says reporter Koh Kyoung Tae, "was huge."

The state-owned Korean Broadcasting Service picked up the story in February, airing a 30-minute documentary in which several Korean ex-soldiers, faces blurred to protect their identities, told of unprovoked killings. "Searching a village we found a young guy... with his daughter," said one anguished veteran. "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."

Now human-rights groups are demanding that Seoul open its war archives and compensate Vietnamese victims. But many vets say the younger generation has enjoyed the luxury of peace--thanks largely to their sacrifices--and can't possibly understand the confusion and fear of the battlefield, particularly where combatants weren't in uniform. Both the South Korean and the Vietnamese governments are reluctant to unearth the past. At NEWSWEEK's behest, Seoul officials searched available Defense Ministry files, but Information Minister Oh Hong-keun claimed they "could not find any record on civilian killings." For its part, Vietnam apparently doesn't want to upset its rapprochement with Seoul--and the vital investment that comes with it.

But South Korea, at least, is an emerging democracy, where government spokes- people no longer have the final say. Just last month the Seoul-based Dentists Association for a Healthy Society dispatched 38 of its members to provide free dental work in Vietnam's massacre villages. Most participants, who treated 1,500 people in four days, were young professionals. "Our generation benefited from the Vietnam War, so we had a moral and ethical obligation to treat these people," says organizer Chung Chang Gon. Past atrocities cannot be undone. But for many in Vietnam--and now in South Korea--they won't be forgotten.