Vietnam’s South Korean Ghosts

July 11, 2017

Heonik Kwon VIETNAM ’67


The residents of Ha My, a village in central Vietnam, can tell many vivid stories about their war ghosts — their “invisible neighbors,” in the words of the local Taoist priest. The ghosts are a diverse lot: The apparition of a young mother with two small children is familiar to the villagers of Ha Gia, a village next to Ha My. Another is called “Head Down, Feet Up” — often spotted standing and moving on its head, which the locals attribute to the unconventional condition of its burial.

Foreign ghosts also dwell around Ha My, including two extremely timid and perpetually hungry ghosts of American servicemen. But then there’s the apparition of a non-Vietnamese-looking Asian man dressed in an American combat uniform. The locals speculate that this is the spirit of a South Korean soldier killed near a bomb crater, now used as a fish pond.

It is understandable that a village in central Vietnam is haunted by traces of French and American forces. But a Korean ghost? What was this soldier doing in Vietnam in the first place?

By the end of 1967, the number of American troops in Vietnam had reached 500,000, but even that wasn’t enough. And so in swaths of the coastal central region, the task of pacifying the vast countryside fell on the shoulders of a 50,000-strong contingent from South Vietnam’s key Asian ally, South Korea. Largely forgotten outside South Korea today, the soldiers were deployed to some of the country’s most precarious battlegrounds — 60 to 80 percent of rural central Vietnam was then under the control of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong.

Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War was a key element of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy and a response to the shifting sands of the global Cold War. President Johnson wanted them because he was keen on increasing the number of ground troops in Vietnam without having to confront an increasingly skeptical American public. The Koreans wore American uniforms and carried American weapons, but their actions were largely ignored by the American press — which is just how Washington wanted it.

South Korea had its own reasons to be there. It was alarmed by the United States’ plan to move two of its military divisions stationed in South Korea to Vietnam and what that would mean for its security in relation to North Korea. And so it rallied to the cause of fighting communism abroad, what one official called “the holy war in defense of the free world.” South Korea also wanted to turn its Vietnam experience into a springboard for its own economic development, remembering Japan’s economic recovery after the destruction of World War II and against the backdrop of the destruction of the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953.

South Korean soldiers, all of them volunteers, likewise saw an opportunity. On the one hand, they could pay back what they honestly believed was a debt for American sacrifices in Korea; on the other hand, they thought the money they earned from combat pay could give their families a leg up in a country that was still mired in poverty.

Memories of the Korean War influenced the evolution of the Vietnam War in other ways. Haunted by China’s intervention in Korea in October 1950, the United States never considered the possibility of pushing the Communist North Vietnam back from the 17th Parallel, which divided the two countries. South Korea’s top brass and politicians bragged about the efficacy of their armies in counterinsurgency warfare resulting from the Korean War experience — something the American Army, experienced in conventional warfare, was allegedly less familiar with.

At the same time, North Korea made a series of provocations against its southern enemy, in part to divert American attention away from Vietnam. And it was during the 1960s, with America apparently busy elsewhere, that Pyongyang began its so-called parallel politics, aimed at pursuing both economic development and military advancement — a policy that continues today.

Even language carried over from one war to the other. “Gooks,” the derogatory term for Koreans used by some Americans in the Korean conflict, was now used to refer to all Vietnamese — as well as the Koreans who had come to help the Americans to fight. Indeed, for all their idealism about fighting alongside Americans, the racial reality quickly became a source of profound disappointment and disillusionment with American power.

Which isn’t to say they shirked their duty; in fact, South Korean troops quickly earned a reputation as a ferocious fighting force — and found themselves, like Americans, mired in a people’s war with an entrenched and motivated enemy. The result was predictable, but no less tragic.

On Feb. 25, 1968, South Korean soldiers rounded up and killed 135 unarmed residents of Ha My. A month later, a similar tragedy ensued in the neighboring province of Quang Ngai, later known to the international community as the My Lai massacre. These two incidents were only a small part of the gigantic human catastrophe, part of a systematic assault against civilians by ground troops that was sweeping across central Vietnam in 1967.

Indeed, the massacres in Ha My and My Lai were closely connected. Ha My took place shortly after the Fifth United States Marine Regiment had handed security responsibility for the area to its Korean colleagues. My Lai took place soon after American troops took over control of the area from the Second Brigade of the South Korean Marines.

This wasn’t a coincidence. The tragedies arose out of the geopolitics of the Cold War, in which states on either side of the bipolar showdown aligned themselves in conflicts far from their home turf. The United States and South Korea were allied in the name of a crusade against communism, but South Korea was always the junior partner in America’s network — which explains why it did the dirty work of village pacification, away from the attention from the international community and, perhaps more important, from the American public.

On June 6, 2017, South Korea’s Memorial Day, the newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, addressed the country’s Vietnam War veterans, declaring that Korea’s economic takeoff was indebted to their sacrifice in Vietnam. A few days later, I received an email from a Vietnamese journalist who asked how the history of Korea’s Vietnam War should be told in Vietnam and Korea. Shortly thereafter, another email came in, from a South Korean NGO that is active in reconciliation efforts regarding the Vietnam War violence between the two societies.

They all asked the same question, and I didn’t know how to respond. Vietnam and South Korea are now the closest allies in East Asia, but officially, they’d rather not discuss the war. The Vietnamese government wants to look to the future rather than reflect on its recent past; the South Korean government is focused on unresolved issues with Japan dating from World War II.

One thing is clear, however: For the people of Ha My, that tragic past is far from a thing of the past. And it is they who commemorate, today as in countless days in the past, the living traces of Korea’s Vietnam War as they set out at dusk to offer incense and flowers to the ghost of a non-Vietnamese-looking Asian soldier dressed in an American uniform.

Heonik Kwon is a senior research fellow in social anthropology at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and the author of “Ghosts of War in Vietnam” and “After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai.”



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