Horrors of Vietnam War linger among former enemies without true recognition of the past

By Nguyen Dong   March 13, 2018 | 03:42 am PT
Horrors of Vietnam War linger among former enemies without true recognition of the past
Tran Thi Thu, 80, sits at a ceremony on Sunday to commemorate the massacre by South Korean soldiers at Ha My Village in Quang Nam Province, which killed 135 people including her two children. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong
To build a true future of peace, it's time South Korea and the U.S. took responsibility for their actions.

People from Ha My Village in Vietnam's central province of Quang Nam received 41 visitors from South Korea on Sunday.

50 years ago, the small village also witnessed a group of South Koreans arriving, but they were dressed in uniforms and carrying guns that they used to open fire on civilians, mostly women and children.

135 people were killed. Dead bodies lined the street, and were later buried in two mass graves. Some families were completely eradicated during the massacre.

On Sunday, the South Korean contingent came to bear witness to a stele carrying the names of the dead, including unborn children who were listed as “nameless”, and to touch the wounds of the survivors.

All 41 Korean guests bowed and kneeled in front of hundreds of Ha My people to apologize for the atrocity. Kang U Il, president of the Korean-Vietnamese Peace Foundation, said during the visit that he did not want to believe that he was standing at the site of the painful mass murder.

“We were unable to speak, we could only try not to cry,” he said.

Ku Su Jeong, vice president of the foundation, could be seen wiping tears from the face of Tran Thi Thu, a local woman who lost a son and a daughter in the massacre, as well as her right foot.

Ku was trying to hold back the tears, but she was unable to when Thu fell to the ground while trying to burn incense for her children.

Ku, who speaks fluent Vietnamese, learned about Vietnam at a student campaign in South Korea in 1985 that inspired her to study in Vietnam. She went to study history in Ho Chi Minh City nearly 20 years ago and came across a document that narrated the atrocities committed by South Korean soldiers in Vietnam that she had never heard of before.

[Editor's note: South Korea deployed more than 300,000 troops to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, second only to the U.S. military force.]

Her quest for the truth took her to the remote villages of central Vietnam.

She was scared of the reaction she would receive from the Vietnamese villagers, but there was no need to be. The victims accepted her apology.

18 years ago, Ku initiated the “Sorry Vietnam” movement calling for more South Koreans to learn about the ugly past. She also found a newspaper which agreed to publish her findings, although the newsroom was later attacked by South Korean veterans.

The South Koreans on Sunday bowed to the survivors, when Nguyen Thi Thanh rolled up her shirt to show them a shocking scar caused by an explosion. Thanh was eight when she and her three siblings were shot by the South Korean soldiers. Her belly was ripped apart and bleeding as she ran around looking for her mother, who was already dead among a pile of bodies.

The Koreans also bowed after looking into the eyes of Doan Nghia, who was blinded during the massacre. Nghia survived by lying underneath the body of his mother, surrounded by mud and corpses. His mother was killed while she was breastfeeding him.

Nghia said that after so many years, his anger has subsided. “They have apologized, so I will let the past rest.”

Thanh also said she does not want to recall the past, because it brings back so much pain.

Among the visitors were writers, lawyers and Kim Hyun Kwon, a member of the South Korean National Assembly, and of the ruling Democratic Party.

They came to Vietnam on a mission of peace to meet the survivors and let something go. Their tears and apology were not just for the victims, they were also for themselves. They were able to see the true evil of war, feel remorse and find peace.

Vietnam has been through many wars, and holds more ceremonies like this than it would care to remember. But not all battles have been looked back at with remorse, not all historic events have been treated fairly.

The apology in Ha My came only from a group of South Korean individuals with a shared sense of responsibility, not their government. Nor has the United States recognized its responsibility for Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Leaving the past behind to look for a brighter future has become a modern way of escaping history. But unless we face history with fairness, we will repeat the same mistakes in the future.

It’s never too late to be honest with the past.

*Nguyen Dong is a journalist based in Da Nang in central Vietnam. The views expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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