In tale of massacre, Vietnamese survivor wants South Koreans to ‘know the truth’
Nguyen Thi Thanh tried to delay the story. She poured water and passed some snacks around 30 South Korean visitors at her small drinks stand along a highway in the central province of Quang Nam.
“I don’t want to keep telling these stories,” Thanh said.
Thanh is among the few survivors of the massacres South Korean troops committed across several villages in central Vietnam in 1968 during the Vietnam War. She was eight when she witnessed the murders of her mother, brother and sister.
A South Korean group has been holding memorial services this year on the anniversary of the massacres, and the meeting between Thanh and 30 people brought by the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Foundation on Monday evening was an emotional part of that.
The deadly attack on her village took place on the morning of February 12, 1968 just a few days after a South Korean jeep was blown up by a landmine, Thanh recalls.
The South Korean soldiers stormed the village without warning. Amid the deafening shots, her aunt pulled her into a trench where her two brothers and sister were hiding, Thanh told the visitors in Vietnamese, via an interpreter.
The South Korean soldiers spotted them and threatened to drop a grenade if they did not come out, but when they did, the soldiers opened fire.
Her older brother was shot in the back. Her younger brother was shot in the face. Her older sister died on the spot. A bullet also tore through one of her own hips, she said.
Her aunt escaped the shooting, but instead of running, she tried to stop the soldiers as they set fire to her house.
She held her baby in one hand and pulled the soldiers away with the other, Thanh said. “They stabbed her, and she fell, still holding her baby.”
The soldiers left after burning the house to the ground. That’s when Thanh heard her brothers calling for her from their front yard.
“I walked across the garden and saw my younger brother bleeding from his mouth. I didn’t know how to save him. I could only cry,” Thanh said.
Her older brother pulled her away and they hid in a bush until all the soldiers had left the village.
They eventually found their mother lying dead on a pile of bodies. 74 people in her village were killed.
Thanh’s uncle, then serving for the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army, heard the news and scrambled a helicopter to rescue them.
Nguyen Thi Thanh, 58, is one of a few who survived deadly shootings by South Korean soldiers that killed around 9,000 Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War.
Being an orphan, Thanh could not go to school and had to work from an early age just to feed herself.
“Sometimes I wished they had killed me as well so I did not have to live such a miserable life,” Thanh said.
Thanh had told the story when she was invited to Seoul in April 2015. Upon hearing the tragic tale, a monk who used to serve in Vietnam went down on his knees to apologize to her. However, many veterans said she had made the whole story up.
During the Monday visit, Thanh explained that she was not trying to blame anyone or bring the past back to haunt them.
“I want South Korean people to know the truth and not to make the same mistakes again.”
South Korea reportedly sent more than 300,000 troops to Vietnam during the war.
Around 9,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed in the massacres, which also took place in the nearby provinces of Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and Quang Ngai, according to the Korean – Vietnam Peace Foundation.
The foundation was set up last year with 64 members from all walks of life working to raise awareness of South Korea’s historical responsibility in the Vietnam War.
In April, it unveiled a bronze statue named “Vietnam Pieta” (The Last Lullaby in Vietnamese) made to memorialize the Vietnamese victims of the massacres. The statue takes the form of a mother embracing a slaughtered child above a goddess.
Learning the truth
Ku Su Jeong, vice chairwoman of the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Foundation, pays tribute to the Vietnamese victims of South Korea's war atrocities during an ongoing visit. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong
Ku Su Jeong, vice chairwoman of the foundation who speaks fluent Vietnamese, learned about Vietnam at a student campaign in South Korea in 1985 that inspired her to study in Vietnam.
The 50-year-old woman went to study history in Ho Chi Minh City and came across a document in 1997 that narrated atrocities committed by South Korean soldiers in Vietnam that she had never heard of before.
Many South Koreans of her age were also unaware of what had occurred during those dark days, and it shocked and scared her.
Two years later, she spent 45 days traveling across more than 100 villages in the provinces of Binh Dinh, Khanh Hoa, Phu Yen, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai where the South Korean army was based during the Vietnam War.
Possibly the first Korean to visit the villages since the massacres, Ku said she was afraid the villagers would take their revenge on her.
“But they welcomed me. Some people, whose children could have been my age if there had been no killings, even hugged me.”
Ku, a reporter, published a series of stories in South Korean magazine Hankyoreh 21. The response was strong, but mixed. Some Korean veterans lashed out and attacked her newsroom, but thousands of readers sent letters and donations for the Vietnamese victims.
Conservatives have criticized her for bringing up the past.
“But if we don’t face the truth, the mistakes will be repeated and hurt us again in the future,” she said.
She and her newspaper then initiated a campaign to bring South Koreans to Vietnam to visit the killing fields in a gesture of peace.
Ku said the South Korean government should open an official investigation into the massacres, and if it can confirm the story, it has to apologize to the Vietnamese people and compensate them.
She said the government needs to act quickly because not many of the survivors are left.
“We need to apologize a thousand times until the Vietnamese people can heal, and then history will close the book by itself.”