In December 2015, the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and Vietnam came into effect. This will strengthen economic ties and increase trade through tariff benefits and investments into Vietnam. It will open up 400,000 job opportunities for the Vietnamese young population who make up the bulk of their society. South Korea will enjoy similar tax cuts and exemptions for its exports of cars, appliances, technology products and cosmetics, in addition to several other products that are popular with Vietnam society.
What many may not know is, the Vietnam administration and its citizenry can never erase from their collective memories the horrors they and their families went through at the hands of South Korea’s soldiers during the Vietnam War that lasted nearly two decades. Yet, they choose to relegate these incidents to the past and move on.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnam receded into the background, readily forgotten partly because the anti-war protests in America had gained popular support, leading to the withdrawal of the United States military forces and the communist state of North Vietnam, which the US was fighting against, had emerged triumphant.
But the reunited Vietnam’s post-war economy never took off. It had to recover from the destruction of war, the millions of deaths on both the North and the South sides and the many millions more who left the country and sought refuge elsewhere. The exodus of competent manpower and the government’s crackdown on the opposition while guarding the ideology they had won in the war hampered the rebuilding of the nation and its economy.
In 1986, the Vietnamese authorities realized they had to change course to pursue development and prosperity. It was Nguyen Van Linh, secretary general for the Vietnamese Communist Party who initiated the Doi Moi. As a policy for economic reforms, it pushed for more liberalization, foreign trade and export-oriented industries, among others. Thus, private companies and cooperatives were allowed to rise, and foreign direct investments were allowed, all while maintaining the one-party communist state.
The international snub that aggravated Vietnam’s economic woes arose from its invasion of Cambodia in 1978 – ’79 and was reversed only in October 1991 on the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement which officially ended the war. This narrow stretch of country in Southeast Asia rebuilt its diplomatic and economic ties with China and most of Europe and Asian countries. US ties came later, in 1995, in part because of Vietnam’s minimal cooperation in accounting for the soldiers missing in action (MIA) and the return of remains of dead American soldiers.
Among Asian countries, Japan and South Korea re-established the relations with Vietnam that had been interrupted during the course of World War II and the Vietnam War. Japan and Vietnam resumed diplomatic ties in 1973. But before that, in compliance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan had given 20 billion yen to Vietnam as compensation for the damages of World War II, grants and loans. It also paid 180 billion yen to South Korea as compensation for property and other claims related to WWII.
It is worth noting that Vietnam was open to reviving ties with these two countries in spite of the wars it was involved in with them, if only to achieve their economic goals. In WWII, Japan occupied Vietnam along with other French IndoChina territories but its main foe was the US and Allied forces. There are no accounts of specific Japanese cruelty towards the Vietnamese although when Japan lost the war in 1945, Vietnam also gained its independence.
South Korea has a more colorful past with Vietnam. In the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975,) then President Park Chung-hee sent 320,000 soldiers to aid the United States in defending South Vietnam against the communist invasion of North Vietnam. These soldiers were the front-liners in the war and, when they got home to South Korea after their tour of duty, they were acclaimed and recognized as heroes. But forty years after the war, stories came out detailing their bestialities and inhumane killings of civilians and soldiers in South Vietnam, the state they were sent to protect. In the stories gathered from American Quaker service workers, as many as 45 massacres were committed by the South Korean forces, in villages where the elderly and children were killed and in provinces where mass killings of civilians were done, in the guise of suspecting them of being Viet Cong guerillas. Other stories of depravity came from direct accounts of survivors, soldiers bothered by their conscience, documents surreptitiously taken from Vietnam government agencies and declassified documents from the US National Archives. All in all, the war casualties of South Vietnam numbered between 300,000 to 500,000.
There are also testimonies of thousands of Vietnam comfort women forced into sexual slavery by South Korean soldiers, raped, tortured and some killed when they got pregnant. Those who did give birth were shunned by their own people and lived in the margins of society with the Lai Dai Han, their children born of Korean fathers and Vietnamese mothers.
South Korean president Park Geun-hye has been asked by civic groups and her own fellow Koreans to apologize to the Vietnamese people and government and compensate the comfort women for their hardships, much like how she badgered Japan for an official apology and financial recompense for the Korean comfort women during WWII. But none were forthcoming.
Vietnam president Tran Duc Luong, when pressed for comment in 2004, simply said, “…with the tradition of tolerance, humanity and peace and friendship, Vietnam’s policy in dealing with issues left behind by history is to put aside the past, look forward to the future and cooperate for shared development.”