An Overview of South Korea in the Vietnam War

Introduction

The South Korean government, under the administration of Park Chung-hee, took an active role in the Vietnam War.

From September 1964 to March 1973, South Korea sent some 350,000 troops to South Vietnam. The South Korean Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force all participated as an ally of the United States. The number of troops from South Korea was much greater than those from Australia and New Zealand, and second only to the US military force for foreign troops located in South Vietnam. The military commander was Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin of the South Korean army.

Participation of Korean forces in the war included both non-combatant and combatant roles. Korean participation in the war continues to be an ongoing political issue as Korean forces were alleged to have massacred civilians according to the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation. The conduct of Korean forces during the war has not impacted bilateral relations between the two governments, but continues to be a contentious political issue among civic groups from both countries. Another ongoing issue are children fathered by Korean forces, known as Lai Đại Hàn, whom were ostracised by the Vietnamese government and ignored by the Korean government.

Refer to Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Republic of China (Taiwan) contributions to the Vietnam War.

Background

In 1954, Syngman Rhee originally offered to send troops to South Vietnam for security reasons, as he was concerned about the redeployment of American troops from Korea to Vietnam, reducing the amount of protection from North Korea, a constant security threat. With a South Korean military presence in Vietnam, Rhee surmised that he could demand a larger American military presence in South Korea in return. When Park Chung-hee became the President of South Korea, seeing the myriad of benefits of being an American ally, which included troop modernisation, economic aid, domestic help, and other potential benefits, he continued Rhee’s policy, and saw the Vietnam War as an opportunity to become allies with the United States. Out of all of the countries that agreed to send troops to Vietnam, South Korea was the poorest. Park saw South Korea’s participation in the war as a way to receive American dollars – valuable currency that was used to kick-start the country’s industrial development.

President Lyndon Johnson made a formal request to South Korea for non-combatant troops on 01 May 1964; however, South Korea had been consistently offering military assistance for years, starting in 1954, a year after the Korean Armistice Agreement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected the previous offers because American public opinion would not support an American military presence in South Korea if the South Korean troops were fighting in Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy rejected the previous offers because he hoped for the situation in Vietnam would not deteriorate to the point that South Korean troops were needed. President Johnson had adopted foreign participation in the war as a key component in the American strategy for Vietnam.

Eventually, a request for coalition partners by MACV under the Many Flags campaigns was made, and South Korea joined the war. South Korea’s decision to join resulted from various underlying causes, including the development of US-South Korea relations, political exigencies, and the promise of economic aid from the United States. South Korea would make up the second largest force in the ten member coalition after the United States.

Various criticisms were levied against Korea’s entry into the conflict. Korea received economic payment for joining the war, with statements in the Symington House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearings in February 1970 comparing Korean forces to mercenaries, since the American government paid for nearly all of the expenses associated with having a South Korean military presence in Vietnam, in addition to providing South Korea with economic aid. Monetary compensation was directly linked to participation in combat, and during the Vietnamisation period Park Chung-hee demanded further compensation for South Korea to take a more direct combat role, which the US was unwilling to do.

South Korea also saw how Japan made its economic recovery during the destructive Korean War, and saw the same opportunity for development in Vietnam. According to Heonik Kwon, although some soldiers saw themselves as repaying the sacrifices Americans had made during the Korean War, many also saw an opportunity to rise with combat pay and took on service to support their families as South Korea was still mired in poverty. The average salary for service in Vietnam was $37.50 per month, higher than the base pay of $1.60 per month back home although much of it was taken by the South Korean government.

Role

The first Korean units arrived in February 1965, in a brigade group known as Dove Force. These included engineers, a medical unit, military police, a navy LST, liaison staff, and other support personnel. Dove Force was deployed to the Biên Hòa region of South Vietnam, and helped build schools, roads and bridges. Medical teams are reported to have treated over 30,000 South Vietnamese civilians. The civilian operations in the early southern part of the campaign are reported to have had some success. In addition to combat and non-combat forces, South Korea had sent around 100,000 civilian workers to South Vietnam, employed in technical and civilian tasks.

In 1966 Korean combat forces were deployed to the Tuy Hòa valley and taking over security operations, where there was some positive evaluations of ROK’s operational capability. They are alleged to have inflicted 24 to 1 casualties during one operation in 1966. Other reports indicate the operations in the Tuy Hoa Valley was a series of massacres and atrocities committed against civilians, as they were reported to have begun systemic, widespread depopulation of the region while claiming civilians killed, often women and children, were “enemy combatants”. The takeover are reported to have caused a significant decrease in relations with the government, and neutral villagers began joining the Viet Cong due to war crimes and atrocities committed. Starting in 1966 Korean forces are reported to have begun depopulating wider areas including the Sơn Tịnh, Bình Sơn, and Tinh Hoa districts in Quảng Ngãi Province in response to a series of effective ambushes by the NVA/VC. Korean-controlled sectors became less-populated during the war, as civilians begun leaving en-masse and Viet Cong control was reported to have increased with many joining their ranks.

At the start of the Tet Offensive they were transferred to the Da Nang and Quảng Nam Province region. The transfer of ROK forces was negatively received as the South Vietnamese commander of I Corps “hates their guts … He smiles, he’s polite, but he’d just as soon they’d go the hell home or to some other Corps area.” General Robert E. Cushman Jr. whom commanded US forces of I Field Force was also quite negative about the Koreans and stated they seldom participated in combat, as he “never really had control of the Koreans, they didn’t do a damn thing unless they felt like it”. The transfer of ROK forces from a relatively underpopulated to a populated sector had undermined ongoing pacification efforts and caused a deterioration of relations with locals, notably impacting CAP programmes through ransacking and looting with a prominent example being the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre.

After the Tet Offensive, ROK forces were transferred back to their previous, underpopulated sector in II Field Force/II Corps and became reluctant to engage in offensive operations, and were ordered to stay within their own bases by Park Chung-hee to minimise casualties. Neil Sheehan described them as “reneging on their Hessian roles because of instructions to avoid casualties. They would not even keep open the road that was II Corps’ main supply route from the docks of Qui Nhơn to the depot at Pleiku”.

State Department reports that though they were seen as effective in combat in the initial years, had withdrawn to the coast and were reluctant to undertake offensive operations. They were quite negative of the role of ROK forces overall by the end, as they were described as engaging in well-organised corruption in diverting US-equipment and failing to fulfil a security role with actual security being provided by the “Territorial Forces whom lacked organic firepower and heavy artillery but served as a buffer between Korean units and the North Vietnamese Army”. A passive role was not limited to just the Koreans; other armies including ANZAC and US forces were also kept at minimal combat following the Tet Offensive. Part of the reason for this was the US announcement of withdrawal following political failures revealed by Tet, which caused the Korean military to lose reason, the Korean military’s assessment received favourable reviews in the beginning and was passive in the second half. The withdrawal process had negatively impacted Korean-US relations, despite economic benefits gained, with Nixon and Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird considering simultaneous withdrawal from both Korea and Vietnam.

Due to Vietnamization, American troops began withdrawing in 1970, which caused disagreement with the South Korean government. The US had also withdrawn the 7th Division from the Korean peninsula while placing the 2nd Division in the rear, which soured relations between Korea and the US. In 1969 the South Korean army accounted for 9% of the foreign troops stationed in South Vietnam (US Army 475,200, ROK Army 49,755); by the end of 1972, they comprised 60.5% of foreign troops (US Army 24,200, ROK Army 37,438).[27] US Marine Aviation assets that supported the Blue Dragon troops withdrew completely in May 1971 while the combat role of Korean troops continued. As Vietnamization progressed the US, had to consider keeping support units in South Vietnam to support the two ROK Divisions. Around the time of the Battle of An Khe Pass, ROK forces had more limited air-support, but remained until 1973 when all foreign troops withdrew due to the Paris Peace Accords. The US considered convincing the South Korean government to keep one of the divisions in South Vietnam into 1974 given the slow progress of development of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units in the area.

Alleged War Crimes and Atrocities

The Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre was confirmed by the US Army as being conducted by ROK forces, while Korean forces claim that it was carried out by the V.C. in Korean uniforms as a false flag attack. Korean forces are alleged to have perpetrated the Binh Tai, Bình An/Tây Vinh, Bình Hòa and Hà My massacres. Further incidents are alleged to have occurred in the villages of An Linh and Vinh Xuan in Phú Yên Province. Newsweek reported that massacres such as the one at Vinh Xuan were described by witnesses as the massacre of children and entire families in an effort to depopulate three central coast provinces, with largely unprovoked and indiscriminate killings that led villagers to join the ranks of the Viet Cong. The Korean Ministry of Defence has denied all such accusations.

In 1972 Vietnamese-speaking American Friends Service Committee members Diane and Michael Jones looked at where Korean forces operated in Quảng Ngãi and Quảng Nam Provinces and alleged they had conducted 45 massacres, including 13 in which over 20 unarmed civilians were purportedly killed. The Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre is confirmed to have taken place within these two provinces. The Jones study also further described incidents of “innumerable isolated killings, robberies, rapes, tortures, and devastation of land and personal property. A separate refugee study by RAND employee Terry Rambo, reported in a 1970 New York Times story, conducted interviews in early to mid 1966 in Phu Yen Province which confirmed that widespread atrocities had occurred. These included systemic mass-killings and deliberate policies to massacre civilians, with murders running into the hundreds.

The Associated Press (AP) in April 2000 investigated the purported Bình An/Tây Vinh massacre and stated that it “was unable to independently confirm their [the Vietnamese victims’] claims” and “an additional 653 civilians were allegedly killed the same year by South Korean troops in neighboring Quang Ngai and Phu Yen provinces, according to provincial and local officials interviewed by the AP on a trip the government took two months to approve. As is routine with foreign reporters, several government escorts accompanied the AP staff. The AP was unable to search for documents that would back up the officials’ allegations”. The AP wrote that “neither the Pentagon nor the South Korean Defence Ministry would comment on the allegations or offer independent confirmation”. A Reuters story from January 2000 stated that:

Three local officials, including one who said he survived the alleged killings, spoke at length about the events in Binh Dinh. The officials, who declined to be identified, said that in early 1966, Korean troops entered what was then the Binh An commune, a collection of villages within Tay Son district that they believed was a Viet Cong stronghold. The Koreans were intent on flushing out opposing forces, but civilians bore the brunt of their actions, the officials said. An official at Tay Son’s Communist Party history unit said the attacks began in early 1966 and culminated in a massacre of 380 people on Feb. 26, 1966, at a place called Go Dai” and that “a People’s Committee official in Tay Son district also confirmed the details, saying 1,200 people were killed. A government official in Hanoi said central authorities had later investigated what happened at Binh Dinh and compiled detailed reports, which showed more than 1,000 people were killed during the period, about 380 of them at Go Dai. However, when asked for comment and to confirm the alleged killings, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it did not want to dwell on the matter.”

“South Korean troops committed crimes against Vietnamese people. With humanitarian and peaceful neighbourly traditions, it is Vietnam’s policy to close the past…” the ministry said in a statement in response to questions.

Atrocities by Korean forces were covered by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda in the chapter “The 43+ My Lais of South Korean Mercenaries”. – They reported thousands of routine murders of primarily elderly, women, and children civilians as most men in these regions had been conscripted into the Viet Cong or the ARVN.

The alleged atrocities committed by South Korean forces were found to have motivated individuals to join the ranks of the Viet Cong, strengthening its presence overall in the regions which were occupied by Korean forces. Survivors often joined the Viet Cong to exact revenge against Korean and US forces.

When Korean forces were deployed to I Corps in 1968, US Marine General Rathvon M. Tompkins stated that “whenever the Korean Marines received fire or think [they got] fired on from a village… they’d divert from their march and go over and completely level the village. It would be a lesson to [the Vietnamese]”. General Robert E. Cushman Jr. stated several years later that “we had a big problem with atrocities committed by them which I sent down to Saigon.” presumably in reference to the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre.

Koreans have claimed that atrocities committed by their forces stemmed from orders by Park Chung-hee to minimise casualties through practices such as hostage-taking. Furthermore, the brutality of South Korean measures was due to many officers being Japanese-trained and implementing the same doctrines during the Korean War. Chomsky has raised allegations that US leadership did not discourage Korean atrocities, but tolerated them.

Punishment for some war crimes did occur. The Korean Army responded to the case of General Seo Kyung-seok, decorated for winning a victory but found to have beaten a prisoner, by revoking his award.

Evaluation

One other author claims that widespread success of South Korean operations spread among the Viet Cong guerrillas which are claimed by one author as having caused the Viet Cong to avoid engagements with South Korean forces. Some reports state that ARVN forces were instead effectively buffering Korean forces from the PAVN and providing actual security of most areas. Other reports indicate civilians often left the Korean occupied areas. and that areas Korean forces operated in experienced significant unrest and strengthening of Vietcong control. Regarding the massacres, one historian notes “While much research is needed to confirm the extent and nature of Korean atrocities in Vietnam, the ROK reputation for ferocity is well established and reported consistently by Korean, Vietnamese and American sources” whom the reputation for ferocity is explained by the “brutality of South Korean forces in Vietnam”.

American war planners are alleged to have leaned heavily on ROK forces, given their ability to carry out missions with considerable success. Allegedly in the minds of some US peers, Koreans outperformed other allied forces in Vietnam in lethality, organisation, and professionalism. Other commanders whom interacted with them were more critical and stated “Koreans made excessive demands for choppers and artillery support and that they stood down for too long after an operation. He equated the total two Korean divisions to “what one can expect from one good US Brigade”. Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird publicly and openly questioned their usefulness in the conflict and had notable conflict with Korean leaders during the US Withdrawal period, questioning their use in the conflict and threatening to withdraw funding for them.

As a component of the joint-service MACV, the South Korean Marines had a great deal of interaction with American Marines. While the Vietnam War constituted the first military action on foreign soil for the South Korean marines since their formation, they claimed to have proven themselves to be highly skilled and capable warriors. All of the Blue Dragon Brigade’s officers were trained in Quantico, Virginia or San Diego, California by the US Marine Corps. In the Vietnam War, South Korean marines lacked organic aviation assets and American ANGLICO Marines were typically embedded within every South Korean company to coordinate fires, close air support, medevac, and resupply.

Overall, assessments of the ROK military vary greatly over time. The tactics of the ROK military changed from defensive and passive tactics including the establishment of siege-like bases, unlike aggressive tactics prior to the Tet Offensive. This passivity became even worse since the US 7th Division withdrew from South Korea. Since one of the reasons for participation was due to fears of US withdrawal from South Korea, when the United States was planning on reducing the number of US troops on the Korean Peninsula later on, public opinion and government opinion declined, and they became less willing to participate. Other US data generally positively assess the military activities of the Korean military.

Non-combat and civilian support operation in the southern areas was well received, but various war crimes suspicions began to emerge when combat forces were deployed. The South Korean military was emphasizing active support for civilians, and there was actually active civilian support near the base. During the Vietnam War, the South Korean military provided 3,353,364 public health services, 1,640 tons of food, 461,764 points of clothing, 6,406 farm tools, and 3,319 bridges There have been some positive reports furthermore from Korean and Western views on their alleged successes.

South Koreans tried to support the cooperative civilians around the base, but the civilians in the town where Viet Cong was active were seen by Koreans as enemies, not civilians. This was particularly noticeable in the northern areas where the Vietcong was very active. In other cases the Korean military and in particular engineering, medical and construction units has put a great deal of effort into helping the people.

Impact on South Korea and Vietnam Relations

The issue of war crimes has not been an aspect of foreign relations between the governments of Korea and Vietnam both when the countries were opening up relations and to the present day, unlike the role historical issues have played in Korean-Japanese relations. Much of this issue is instead driven by civic groups in both countries. In April 2020, a survivor of the Phong Nhi massacre alongside the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation filed a civil lawsuit in the court of South Korea against the Korean government in an effort to have a fact-finding mission convened. The Korean Defence Ministry in its response has stated that its own records do not support allegations of the lawsuit, and has called for a joint investigation by the Korean and Vietnamese governments. Survivors of the Phong Nhi massacre have also travelled to South Korea to give accounts of events to various groups.

Apologetic statements from President Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in have been given, short of a full public apology. Apologies for war crimes has become a political issue within South Korean politics, as President Moon Jae-in had planned on making a unilateral official apology but stopped short due to widespread opposition from prominent conservatives within South Korea. The recent political interest in South Korea for an official apology is contextualized within the ongoing trade war and diplomatic rifts between Japan and Korea over a South Korean court having ordered compensation for forced labour from a Japanese company.

The issue is rarely acknowledged or discussed by the Vietnamese government or state-controlled media following normalization of relations, though in a rare statement the Vietnamese government did oppose the “commemoration of mercenaries” when South Korean President Moon Jae-in honoured the 50th Anniversary of South Korean servicemen who had fought in South Vietnam on South Korea’s Memorial Day in 2017.

The issue around children conceived through wartime affairs and rape known as Lai Dai Han remains, like controversies around comfort women. Civic groups in Vietnam have campaigned for recognition of the issue and an apology by the Korean government. Most were ostracised and neglected by Vietnamese society following the war. Lai Dai Han and their families faced mistreatment following North Vietnam’s victory for allegedly siding with opposing forces, including one rape victim’s father being beaten to death by the communist regime shortly after the war ended. Both the Korean and Vietnamese governments have side-lined or ignored this issue, and requests by the BBC to make a documentary was turned down by the Vietnamese government.

Impact within South Korea

The wartime alliance between the US and South Korea stabilised Park Chung-hee’s regime, creating both short- and long-term effects for South Korea.

In return for South Korean troops, the US made enormous concessions to South Korea: the US paid for the financial costs associated with South Korean troops in Vietnam; promised not to withdraw American troops from South Korea without prior consultation with the South Korean government; helped modernise the South Korean army; provided substantial military aid to South Korea; and gave economic aid to South Korea, including a $150 million development loan. The economic aid South Korea received from the US was responsible for funding South Korea’s industrialisation efforts. For some of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, they can attribute their subsequent success and growth to the lucrative business contracts awarded to them by the US military.

During the early years of Park’s regime, the US was concerned about his unstable government, and the US believed that the regime was at a high risk for an attempted coup; however, because of American economic aid, the South Korean economy saw favourable economic developments, creating economic stability within South Korea.

The US was concerned about North Korea’s political influence on South Korea, but South Korea’s economic success deterred the appeal and threat of communism domestically, furthering the stability of Park’s rule.

Park took advantage of the alliance and used it to implement authoritative policies in South Korea. He arrested his opposition, implemented martial law, and amended the constitution to allow himself to serve a third presidential term, bolstering the power of his regime. The US tolerated his undemocratic policies to ensure the stability of South Korea.

Under the wartime alliance, the South Korean economy flourished, receiving tens of billions of dollars in grants, loans, subsidies, technology transfers, and preferential economic treatment.

Because of the alliances the US had with Japan and South Korea, the US played an important role in normalising relations between South Korea and Japan, which brought long-lasting economic benefits to South Korea, receiving financial support from Japan and access to the Japanese economy.

Atrocities first reported in the 1990s by Ku Su-jeong had shocked Korean society. These reports came just as the newly democratised South Korea was facing pressures from civic groups to recognise the mass killings of South Korean civilians by ROK forces during the Korean War such as the Bodo League massacres. Further testimonies and extensive accounts in the South Korean media emerged from South Korean Vietnam War veterans, and have caused considerable debate and re-assessment within South Korea about its role in the conflict. Korean civil groups have discussed the issue considerably, and calls have been made for a Korean inquiry, in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on massacres committed by government forces during the Korean War, known as the People’s Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean Troops during the Vietnam War.

South Korean civic groups have created a statute on Jeju Island dedicated to Vietnam War victims at a site commemorating victims of the Jeju uprising.

The Korean government refused to provide additional compensation for their war veterans by establishing a “no duplicate reward” in the Constitution. Korean victims of Agent Orange have also not received compensation from the Korean government. Since the government had taken most of the monthly salary of the servicemen, the compensation given to individual veterans was quite minimal.

The total cost to the United States of paying for Korean participation was “peanuts compared to what it would be for a comparable number of Americans,” but those payments are estimated to account for 4% of the GNP in 1967 and totalling more than one billion dollars. The war contributed to a boost in the South Korean economy.

There are allegations of missing Prisoners of War (POWs) from Korea. A total of 320,000 troops have been deployed, but only eight people have been officially recognised by the Korean government so far as missing in action. There are suspicions that the South Korean government intentionally ignored South Korean POWs captured by the North Vietnamese. There are also suspicions that some of them were forcibly sent to North Korea.

Wider Impact of Taekwondo

As early as 1966, South Korean officers begun to organise taekwondo classes for South Vietnamese army officers among others. Not long after, the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James L. Jones, began to push for the creation and development of what is now Marine Corps Martial Arts Programme (MCMAP). This may have also led to the creation of the Combat Fitness Test. Jones had served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam and witnessed first-hand the military prowess of the South Korean marines. Jones stated that he had “observed with keen interest how a challenging physical combative training and a national military martial arts system” unified and forged a warrior ethos within the South Korean marines. While the effectiveness of taekwondo was proven in combat, it is not only useful as a combat tool, but also as a method of instilling discipline in military forces. MCMAP draws from techniques of many additional martial arts styles aside from taekwondo, and it is clear that the Korean Marines’ emphasis on martial arts and physical fitness as a whole left a lasting impact on the American Marines.

Đơn Dương, a Vietnamese actor who played the role of Nguyễn Hữu An in the movie We Were Soldiers (2002), stated that he had learned taekwondo from the Korean Army during the Vietnam War as a child.

Order of Battle

  • Capital Division (Tiger).
  • 9th Infantry Division (White Horse).
    • 1st Airborne Special Forces Group – 12 teams are each attached to the Capital Mechanized Infantry Division and 9th Infantry Division.
  • 2nd Marine Brigade (Blue Dragon).
  • Navy Transportation Flotilla (White sea gull).
    • UDT – attached to ROK Navy Transportation Flotilla.
  • Air Force Support Group (Silver Horse).

Operations Involving South Korea

  • Battle of Bong Son (1966).
  • Battle of Trà Bình (1967).
  • Battle of Đức Cơ (1966).
  • Operation Hong Kil Dong (1967).

Cultural Representations

In 2020 TV drama It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, the PTSD patient and veteran named Gan Pil-ong was depicted. He expressed his remorse for obeying his superior’s orders to massacre innocent Vietnamese children.

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