South Korea’s defence minister has said his country’s soldiers did not massacre civilians during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and indicated the government will appeal a ruling that ordered compensation be paid to a Vietnamese woman who was the victim of a shooting rampage blamed on South Korean marines in 1968.
South Korean Defence Minister Lee Jong-Sup told a parliamentary committee on Friday that his ministry is certain there were “absolutely no massacres committed by our troops” during the Vietnam War, and the court decision damaged the honour of South Korean soldiers.
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“We cannot agree with the ruling … We will hold discussions with related agencies to determine our next legal step,” Lee said when asked about the recent ruling by the Seoul Central District Court.
The court ordered the government to pay 30 million won ($23,000) to 62-year-old Nguyen Thi Thanh, who survived a gunshot to her stomach but lost five family members — including her mother and two siblings — after South Korean marines swept through her village of Phong Nhi in central Vietnam on February 12, 1968.
Thanh said in court filings that she was just eight years old when the massacre took place and that she was shot in the stomach by a South Korean soldier requiring her to spend almost a year in hospital.
According to US military documents and survivors, more than 70 people were killed that day when South Korean marines allegedly fired at unarmed civilians while occupying Phong Nhi and nearby Phong Nhut. The rampage followed after at least one South Korean soldier was injured by nearby enemy gunfire.
The February 7 ruling marked the first time a South Korean court has found the government responsible for mass killings of Vietnamese civilians during the war and could potentially open the way for similar lawsuits.
South Korea, which was then ruled by anti-communist military leaders, sent more than 320,000 personnel to Vietnam, the largest foreign contingent fighting alongside US troops.
In awarding the compensation to Thanh, the court dismissed the government’s claims that there was no conclusive evidence that South Korean troops were responsible for the killings. Government lawyers had suggested that the culprits may have been Vietnamese Communist fighters disguised in South Korean uniforms.
The lawyers were also unsuccessful in arguing that civilian killings were unavoidable because the South Korean troops were dealing with rebels who often blended in with everyday Vietnamese villagers.
Lee repeated those government arguments during Friday’s parliamentary session, saying the situation at the time was “very complicated”.
Thanh’s lawyers had claimed there was no way to justify the killings when South Korean veterans who spoke about the shootings said they did not face any meaningful resistance or aggression from villagers, who were rounded up and shot from close range.
South Korea’s Justice Ministry, which represents the government in lawsuits, said it would closely examine the court ruling and discuss it with related agencies, including the defence ministry, before determining whether to appeal.
The government must appeal within two weeks of formally receiving a copy of the ruling, which according to Thanh’s lawyers was delivered on Friday.
The Korea Times newspaper published an editorial shortly after the court ruling in favour of Thanh in which it called on the government to admit to atrocities during the Vietnam War.
“Yes, many Korean soldiers were killed and wounded in Vietnam due to the government’s policy. Some still suffer from aftereffects, including side effects of the defoliant Agent Orange,” the newspaper wrote.
“However, killing unarmed civilians, including women and children, is a war crime that is unjustifiable under any circumstance. The executive branch must admit what it must admit ― and apologize and compensate.”