This year marks the 50th anniversary of the year South Korea sent troops to fight alongside the United States in the Vietnam War. Korean government officials, veterans, and support groups have started planning commemorative events, much to the chagrin of Vietnam, which has requested that these ceremonies not take place.
The controversy of Korea and Vietnam’s war past
While the current relationship between the South Korean and Vietnamese governments is healthy and productive, it hasn’t been that way in the past. The Vietnam War, which once pitted the two countries against each other, has been put to rest. But recent events suggest that that distant conflict may not be over – at least historically and economically speaking.
In an effort to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served alongside the American army, air force, navy, and marine troops, as well as the 4,960 who never returned home, the South Korean government announced its intentions to hold a national event.
Following the announcement by South Korea, Vietnamese officials asked that the proposed commemorative event not be held.
On January 9, a South Korean official was quoted as saying, “The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Korean army deployment to the Vietnam War, and the preparations for a commemorative event are under way in collaboration of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (MPVA) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).”
In the same statement, the official related the precarious situation in which the Vietnamese government had placed South Korea, saying, “We recently received a request from the Vietnamese government to refrain from holding a commemoration, placing the government in a predicament.”
The reasoning behind the controversy
The current tension that impelled the Vietnamese government to ask South Korea to refrain from holding any ceremonial events or commemorations finds its roots in the Vietnam War. The first and primary point of concern is that South Korea came to the aid of the U.S. and participated in aggressive military actions against Vietnamese fighters and citizens.
While Vietnam has mostly forgiven South Korea for its involvement in the war, the government finds it much more difficult to forgive the killing of innocent civilians. It is believed that Korean soldiers were involved in killing an estimated 40,000 soldiers and 4,000 innocent civilians.
Another major issue involves the substantial number of Vietnamese-Korean mixed-race children – known as Lai Dai Han – who were born during and after the war as a result of Korean brutality toward Vietnamese comfort women. Comfort women were Vietnamese girls forced into serving as prostitutes for members of the military.
Attempting to make amends
Since the war, Korean citizens have attempted to make amends with the Vietnamese. Their efforts included writing cards of apology, building hospitals and schools in heavily damaged areas of Vietnam, and offering public condolences. However, the wounds continue to be raw and difficult to heal.
According to one Korean public opinion poll, 66.3 percent believe the “real facts of the massacre” should be publicly revealed. Another 66.9 percent believe a “fact-finding mission” should be conducted, and an impressive 77.9 percent believe the South Korean government needs to make a public apology and provide compensation to the Vietnamese victims and their families.
The recent tension stirred up by the proposed 50th anniversary event could place all these efforts in jeopardy.
The potential repercussions
If South Korea chooses to go through with a 50th anniversary commemorative event, the repercussions could be serious – both economically and politically. According to those close to the issue, the Vietnamese government is not bluffing; it’s very serious about negative consequences should the South Korean government decide to move ahead with its original plan.
South Korean officials are in a tough predicament. A task force to handle the event has already been established and plans are well under way. However, the fact that Vietnam is South Korea’s second largest export market (after Singapore) will weigh heavily in the balance.
As a possible way of settling the matter, the task force is suggesting an event that honors everyone involved: both Korean veterans and Vietnamese women. In the words of one official, “We can put the focus of the ceremony on multiculturalism and Lai Dai Han, with a view to setting the stage for the two countries to get over their bloody past and move toward a bright future.”
That, in fact, might be the only solution the two countries can devise and agree on to avoid additional conflict.
The future relationship between South Korea and Vietnam
While relations between South Korea and Vietnam have been satisfyingly civil over the past few decades, the issue of the 50th anniversary of South Korea’s involvement with U.S. military action in Southeast Asia has clearly threatened its health and stability. Depending on how the two countries proceed, the future of this historically tumultuous relationship may hang in the balance.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1419708643]