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South Korea's government ordered to pay woman who survived a Vietnam War massacre

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 50 years ago this week, one American ally fought on. Among U.S. allies, South Korea sent the most troops to fight in Vietnam. Now NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on how a Vietnamese woman won an unprecedented and controversial lawsuit over a wartime massacre by some of those South Korean forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Traditional firecrackers of the Tet celebration became the fireworks of war.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It was February 12, 1968, less than two weeks into the Tet Offensive launched by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. Nguyen Thi Thanh remembers being surprised to see South Korean marines entering her village of Phong Nhi. She says the marines gunned down residents indiscriminately. Nguyen and her family hid in a bomb shelter.

NGUYEN THI THANH: (Through interpreter) The Korean soldiers found us and forced us to come out. If we didn't, they would have dropped a grenade into the shelter. It was a terrifying situation. Everyone started to come out, and as they did, they were shot one by one.

KUHN: Nguyen, then 8, was shot in the waist. Her mother, two brothers, a sister and cousin were killed.

NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) I wish I had been killed with my mother because it became a horrible obsession for me. I remember my younger brother. If I could have saved him, he'd be alive today.

KUHN: Nguyen, now 63, says South Korean Marines killed more than 70 people in her village and a neighboring one. A U.S. military report on the incident concludes that the South Koreans probably committed atrocities. Less than a month later, U.S. troops would massacre more than 500 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. Seoul National University historian Park Tae-gyun says the Vietnam War was a painful experience for South Koreans. First, they were colonized by Japan before World War II and then invaded by North Korea in the Korean War.

PARK TAE-GYUN: (Through interpreter) We always say that we are the victims of Japanese imperialism and demand an apology from Japan. But we are not looking squarely at the damage we have done.

KUHN: A former South Korean marine named Ryu Jin-sung testified in court. He says that as his unit approached the village of Phong Nhi, shots were fired, and one marine was wounded. Finding out who among the villagers was Viet Cong, he says, was not easy.

RYU JIN-SUNG: (Through interpreter) You can't tell whether someone's an innocent civilian or an enemy spy. So the easiest way was to kill everyone.

KUHN: Ryu says he also told the court what he heard from his fellow South Korean marines.

RYU: (Through interpreter) After we had returned to the base, fellow platoon members talked about their killings in vivid detail, as if they were some sort of heroic tales.

KUHN: Ryu was just one of about 320,000 troops South Korea sent to Vietnam, partly to repay the U.S. for defending the South in the Korean War and partly to keep the U.S. from pulling its troops out of the South. The Tet Offensive led to President Nixon's decision to draw down U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, which he announced in a November 1969 speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICHARD NIXON: In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.

KUHN: As the U.S. began to pull out, the South Koreans fought on. By the end of 1972, there were 50% more South Korean troops in Vietnam than U.S. soldiers. Historian Park Tae-gyun says that another reason South Korea sent troops was that the U.S. paid Seoul some $5 billion in wages and assistance from 1965 to 1973. Over 5,000 South Koreans died in the war. Many more were injured or traumatized. Park says they were both victims mobilized by their government, but also perpetrators.

PARK: (Through interpreter) I think the first step in solving the veterans issue is for the South Korean government to apologize to Vietnam and compensate the Vietnamese victims.

KUHN: On Feb. 8, a Seoul court ordered the South Korean government to compensate Nguyen Thi Thanh $24,000. But Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup denied that South Korean Marines had massacred anyone. Nguyen Thi Thanh praised the court's verdict but said the minister had lost his humanity.

NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) He should come to my village and hear the stories the villagers tell about their family members who died under the guns of the South Korean soldiers.

KUHN: Former marine Ryu Jin-sung, meanwhile, says he's been attacked by fellow veterans over his court testimony.

RYU: (Through interpreter) Part of me doubted whether I did the right thing for the country and for our society, whether what I did was something to be proud of or whether I should have just kept my mouth shut.

KUHN: Historian Park Tae-gyun says that the Vietnam experience could complicate future U.S. requests for its allies, South Korea, to send troops to fight in foreign wars.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.