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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 622-635

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Korea’s “Vietnam Question”: War Atrocities, National Identity, and Reconciliation in Asia

Hyun Sook Kim

The “Vietnam Question”

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.1 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.

The emerging cultural and political space consequently offers a context for reexamining Korea’s postdictatorial, post–Cold War political identity, and my scholarly project is exploring this issue of postcolonial relationality and identity. My findings suggest that Korea’s relationship with Vietnam and the United States, forged in the context of the “American War,” is helping to reveal the painfully contradictory and layered position of postcolonial Korea.

How can Vietnam, as a site of critical inquiry and a place of history, be actively incorporated into Korea’s national memory? How can Korea’s memory and accounting of the Vietnam War reshape Koreans’ collective identity and consciousness? What novel forms of political praxis and language could be found to facilitate reconciliation between the two Asian nations? The three instances discussed below illustrate both the blurriness and the transparency of the local and international dimensions of Korea’s Vietnam question. These are debates on public memorialization, scars of war, and languages of disavowal and apology.

This report is based on my recent trip to South Korea and Vietnam. The timing of my fieldwork, from late January to mid April 2001, coincided with the growth of enormously rich and significant reconciliation projects in Korea.2 As citizens have done during the postauthoritarian period of democratic transition in Argentina, Chile, Germany, or South Africa, to name a few, Korean citizens are currently debating the meaning and viability of “truth and reconciliation” and have organized both official and unofficial commissions of inquiry into “past crimes.” My direct participation in Korean activists’ and academics’ forums addressing questions of truth and reconciliation enabled me to witness the incredible potential and limitations of Korea’s present conjuncture. Similarly in Vietnam, interviews and conversations with over thirty farmers, poets, and government officials, which [End Page 622] were carried out in central rural provinces during one brief but intense week in March 2001, provided the rare Vietnamese views about memories and atrocities of the Vietnam War.3

Struggles over/in Public Memorialization

Sharp disagreements about war memorials are particularly acute in central Vietnam. The construction of a war memorial in Ha My hamlet has recently opened old and new wounds about wartime atrocities. The primary issue underlying the discord is reconciliation, although the discussion is in its infancy and the specifics concerning the memorial cloud the broader concerns. Exactly who ought to be honored in the local village memorials? Whose and which memories ought to be represented? What messages should be carved in the memorials? The clashes have occurred not between Vietnamese villagers and government authorities but, rather, between Vietnamese villagers and Korean veterans who share both similar and different interests defined by...


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