Friday, April 28, 2006

A peace-loving people?

If you've been in Korea for just about any length of time, you have probably heard a KoKo (Korean Korean, as opposed to a kyopo) extol Korea's peace-loving nature, sometimes including the statement that Korea has never invaded another country.

Well, it's true that Korea has not marched its way across East Asia, as neighbors Mongolia, China, and Japan have done, but neither is Korea's nose entirely clean.

The legendary Old Chosŏn Kingdom (Kojosŏn; Gojoseon in the atrocious NAKL) was later succeeded by a Three Kingdoms Period, that included Koguryŏ (Goguryeo), Paekche (Baekje), Shilla (Silla), and Kaya (Gaya). I won't get into a history lesson, but Shilla ended up kicking everyone's asses (with a bit of help from China), creating what we call Unified Shilla, the forerunner of Chosŏn (Joseon) and then modern Korea(s).

I just can't help but think that when the Paekche people—who were largely peace-loving—saw the invading Shillans coming, that they looked longingly at them and said, "Ah, how wonderful! They're coming to unify us!" Actually, many of those who couldn't escape to their allied lands in Japan ended up killing themselves.

Over a millennium later, we have the misnomered Democratic People's Republic of Korea (that's North Korea, for those of you from California) invading the Republic of Korea (the South), resulting in a nasty war that also doubled as a proxy war for Cold War powers. Millions were killed, perhaps more than all other foreign invasions themselves.

Indeed, Koreans are a peaceful people: Koreans only invade themselves.

Even that glib comment may not be correct, depending on how you look at the Three Kingdoms' territorial expansions into Ainu-inhabited lands in Japan. Is it any wonder that the few remaining Ainu are up in Hokkaidō, as far as you could get from Paekche and Shilla and still be in Japan?

And then, of course, there have been the wars in which Korea (or at least some Koreans) have participated, sometimes with willing culpability by Korean authorities, sometimes not.

Just as rulers from China forced Korean workers to build the Great Wall, rulers from China, Mongolians this time, also got Korean manpower support in their efforts to invade and occupy Japan.

If you read books like Max Hastings's "History of the Korean War" or James Clavell's "King Rat," you get a reminder that some of the brutal POW camp guards in the Imperial Japanese ranks were Chōsenjin (Koreans). Some Koreans were later imprisoned or even executed for their mistreatment of Allied prisoners. In fact, about 1% of the total convicted war criminals in the Pacific Theater were Korean, something many Koreans are unaware of.

Two decades later, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were in ROK uniform in Vietnam, helping to hold back communism there. Unlike participation in World War II, this one had the official stamp of Korean approval, with the enthusiastic support of then President Park Chunghee, who assisted the American allies by having at any given time 50,000 ROK troops in Vietnam—far and away the biggest ally that the US had in that war. For South Koreans who had grown up hating communists and loathing the spread of Marxism, it was not a stretch to go away and fight the enemy, although the extra pay they received may have been an added incentive.

As with the Americans, the Korean soldiers' role in Vietnam is marked with controversy and accusations of excessive brutality that led to the deaths of untold numbers of civilians. This was mentioned recently at
AsiaPages, where blogger Jodi cites an exchange with one of her readers:
My reader believes that when you add to the outrage following this incident and that of the poor treatment of Korean employers toward their Vietnamese workers, as well as the unforgotten atrocities committed by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam war, it all makes for some very ugly international relations. (He also noted that the war accusations weaken Korea's case against Japan).
Sadly, in Korea, the issue of ROK participation in the Vietnam War was something that that generation didn't want to address. Many ROK men lost their lives, many more were maimed by Agent Orange, quite a few suffered post-traumatic stress from what they saw (and maybe what they did) in Vietnam. It was something shameful and unpleasant that most preferred to leave in the past.

That is, until the 1990s. Just as in Japan there are a number of people of conscience who make sure the people in power do right by the people who suffered at the hands of Japan, there was a growing number of people who were doing the same in Korea regarding Korean transgressions. The 1990s even saw the making of a movie (based on a book) about the Korean experience in Vietnam, the "White Badge" (hayan chŏnjaeng).

More importantly, though, was that Korea's leadership, themselves opposed to many of the actions of Korea's past military regimes,
tried to do the right thing:
During a visit to Hanoi in 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung expressed regret over Korean actions in the Vietnam War, but he did not apologise. Vietnam responded by saying it sought no apology from any nation that fought on its soil. Long-time Vietnam watchers say Hanoi does not like to highlight specific horrors from decades of wars against the French and then the U.S.-backed South Vietnam.
In more recent years, private Korean groups, especially among the so-called "progressives," have gone further:
Some of the memories of atrocities committed during the Vietnam War are being laid to rest today with the opening of a peace park in the south of the country. It has been largely funded by South Koreans through a newspaper, the weekly Hankyoreh 21 or People 21, which has exposed atrocities committed by South Koreans during the war.
Given Korea's involvement in Vietnam, I think it's a fair question to ask if Korean authorities, Korean institutions, and Korean individuals are living up to responsibility for atrocities in the same way so many Koreans demand of Japan.

But if that question is to be asked, it should be asked sincerely and not rhetorically. I'd venture a guess that Jodi's "reader" didn't know much about what has been done in Korea in regards to Korean atrocities in Vietnam, instead just assuming that the answer was little or nothing.

At any rate, the point remains that President Kim Daejung did in fact express regret (which angered a number of veterans, who probably never trusted Kim Daejung to begin with, since he had long been labeled a Communist), and the Vietnamese appear to be satisfied with the sentiment he expressed.

One wonders, though, why people in Vietnam may be satisfied with an expression of regret and not an apology. The first link I gave provides this answer:
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said the killing of civilians by Koreans had largely faded from view because the Vietnam War was mainly seen as an American war. "Vietnamese propagandists always make a distinction between the American government and the American people,'' he said. "In their view the Vietnam War was a war launched by a wicked government. Koreans, Thais and Australians were all lackeys. "It is easier to point the propaganda finger at one enemy, several only clouds the issue,'' he said.
Korea should not be given a free ride on things in which its leadership or its citizens willingly participated. For too long the taboo and shame has kept people silent, but the same people who have brought us the "truth commissions" about military-era cronyism and occupation-era collaboration also want to shed light on this:
A new space for examining the Korean national identity and culture is emerging. A small number of “386” activists and academics is looking inward and confronting the once dormant and tabooed subject of crimes committed by the troops of South Korea’s authoritarian regime outside its national borders. The topic that has generated so much discomfort and tension lately centers on the little-known historical fact that South Korea was a Cold War enemy of Vietnam. It has come to light that the 300,000 Korean troops that fought against North Vietnam from 1964 to 1973 as U.S. “mercenaries” allegedly killed thousands of unarmed Vietnamese civilians.

The consideration of this taboo topic of the Korean troop actions during the Vietnam War has created new inter-Asian political conflicts and alliances: charged clashes inside South Korea between Korean veterans and activists; [End Page 621] activist-led investigations of Korean troop massacres of Vietnamese civilians; reflection on the role of Korea as a perpetrator, not only as a victim, of war crimes; and cross-national and cross-cultural dialogues between Korean and Vietnamese citizens. The current public discussions at the local and national levels are fraught with controversy, but they are also promising because they may shed light on Korea’s complicated position in the global, neocolonial world, especially its regional position in Asia.
So, yes, the issue is being addressed, and there has been official expression of regret. Arguably, though, more needs to be done, but at the same time, people should know the facts before they start pointing the finger.

one link in Jodi's post, it should be noted that it is Koreans themselves who were traveling to Vietnam to find evidence of forced sexual servitude of Vietnamese women by Koreans during the war. In fact, the mission leader is Yune Chung-ok, a member of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a Comfort Women advocacy group that is demanding that Japan do the right thing on this issue.

Just as it was Japanese historians who demonstrated Japanese government culpability in setting up the Comfort Women corps, it is not surprising that Korean groups would be involved in doing the same regarding any possible Korean culpability when it comes to Korean sodliers involving themselves with Vietnamese forced to provide sex.

Unlike Jodi's reader, I don't think this "weakens" Korea's case against Japan at all. The issue of forced sexual servitude is one of victims and instigators that transcends issues of country-against country. Koreans doing the right thing by digging this up only enhances the case that victims be recognized and treated fairly. As Ms. Yune says, “Many ‘comfort women’ are still haunted by what they suffered in the past and need help.” That goes for whether they are Korean, Vietnamese, Filipina, Dutch, Chinese, etc.


  1. Who the heck could Korea have ever invaded? It is sandwiched between two larger neighbors and surrounded on three sides by the sea. Korea actually did invade, conquer, and steal land about 2,000 years ago when Korea was Goguryeo and China was Tang. Koreans seem to be proud of that single, ancient example of Korean imperialism, too. At the base of the Tangun shrine on Kanghwa Island, vendors hawk buttons displaying a map of Goguyeo with the words "Tangun's territory is our territory!"

    Koreans bragging about never having invaded another country, besides being historically inaccurate, ignore the reality that since the formation of the three kingdoms, Korea has never had the means to enlarge its territory through war.

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  3. I heard many stories about the Vietnam, vietnam war and Korean involvement in Vietnam from my father. He worked in Vietnam as civil engineer during the war and was one of last one escaped from Saigon.

    He always describe how brave the Korean soldiers were,....but always added how barbaric, brutal, coward and retarded were the Korean marines corp and soldiers.

    He could had as nuteural perspective as possible, during the war as a civilian working for private company.

  4. Interesting post, Kushibo. Seems to me that (as you wrote) there are some parallels with the situation in Japan. Citizens' groups have done the most work in uncovering wartime atrocities and building memorials, while politicians indulge in nationalistic chest-beating. Given the weak state of civil society in Japan and elsewhere in the region, it's probably too much to hope for that these efforts will create better understanding on their own, but it's a start.

  5. Looks like either your OP or my comments pissed off somebody.

  6. Sonagi wrote:
    Looks like either your OP or my comments pissed off somebody.

    You mean Jimong? No, apparently he did a double post and canceled one of them.

    I can't imagine you saying anything that would piss someone off (please don't deliberately prove me wrong just to prove me wrong).

  7. Excellent analysis of a difficult issue in a region of the world that so few people understand deeply.

    jim, I don't agree that civil society is week here - actually many peace groups, and consumer NGOs are very vocal and participates in the international debates as well. You also have some of the best organized labour groups here in Korea and Japan (compared to the West). I do wish the environmental organizations had the means to be more effective though.

    Anyway, war seems to bring out the worst in people: there are still people in Poland who hates Sweden for what our men in uniform did 350 years ago!

  8. Great post, really well written.
    Im Jiugae on korea beat, as you might have noticed, my english not that perfect. But, if you don't mind, I'd like to get your permission of translating it into korea and posting the translation on some korean internet discussion boards like

    ( )

  9. An interesting read I recently found again (looking, actually, for something you had written on Yasukuni). I think Korea's actions in Vietnam---atoned though they have somewhat---plus the wife trade and Korean tourists behaving badly will lead to resentment that won't be so easiy comforted by the Korean Wave of dramas and pop songs.

    For what it's worth, my fiance's former student (a Vietnamese woman) said that Vietnamese people are scared of Koreans today because of the war. Not sure how common that feeling is.

    This is getting really off topic now, but visiting Vietnam was a really interesting experience, and should I ever have the chance to go again I'd jump at it. Everyone was exceptionally friendly, and not a moment went by that I wasn't aware that just a generation before people younger than me were going to Vietnam to murder these people. Watching the sex tourism, though, and the drunk, disrespectful, asshole foreigners was especially painful. I wanted to slap them and ask "don't you know where you are?" If I ever go back, maybe I will.

  10. "Indeed, Koreans are a peaceful people: Koreans only invade themselves."

    This is not called an invasion. This is called a civil war.

    Here is the definition of civil war from
    civil war
    a war between political factions or regions within the same country.


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