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S. Korea ordered to compensate survivor of Vietnam War massacre in historic ruling

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Korean soldiers in Da Nang. Dec. 7, 1971. Via Getty Images

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    On Tuesday, a local court in Seoul recognized the atrocities committed by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War and ordered the government to compensate a Vietnamese victim 30 million won (approximately $24,000).

    Nguyen Thi Thanh first filed a suit in 2020 against the South Korean government for the wartime civilian massacre that took place in the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut on Feb. 12, 1968.

    According to Nguyen’s testimony, South Korean troops opened fire on unarmed civilians — mostly women and children — in a well-documented massacre that ultimately left 74 dead.

    “(Then) the soldiers of the 2nd Korean Marine Brigade entered the plaintiff’s house and threatened the family members at gunpoint to force them outside. And then they fired at them,” the ruling reads. “The court acknowledges that the family members of the plaintiff were killed on the spot and the plaintiff was seriously wounded as a consequence. This is obviously illegal.”

    Nguyen, now 62 years old, lost five of her family members and continues to suffer from gunshot injuries sustained in the 1968 attack. She was 8 years old at the time.

    By 1968, South Korean troops had been involved in the Vietnam War for four years. An estimated 350,000 troops were deployed there between the years of 1964 and 1973. 

    Appearing in one of the trials last November, 76-year-old Ryu Jin-seong, a former member of the South Korean marine unit responsible for the killings, corroborated Nguyen’s testimony and said that a commander had told the marines to kill the civilians.

    “I stepped forward to testify in court because nobody else would tell the truth,” Ryu said. “South Korea must come clean on its past.”

    As the trial proceeded, the South Korean government continued to deny allegations of its military involvement in the massacre, citing a lack of evidence.

    The government’s lawyers also claimed that Vietcong forces may have posed as South Korean troops, and that the statute of limitations, in which a plaintiff must file a complaint against the government within five years of an event, had expired in 1973.

    The Seoul Central District Court, presided by Judge Park Jin-soo, dismissed these claims and held the government responsible for “the clear illegal actions” of its troops. 

    The court also ordered that Nguyen be additionally compensated for attorney fees and for delayed interest incurred over the five decades since the massacre took place.

    The ruling is the first of its kind in South Korea, setting precedent for South Korean acknowledgment of their involvement in Vietnam War atrocities, and is expected to prompt other litigations involving Vietnamese wartime victims. 

    Nguyen was not present for the court ruling on Tuesday, but in a video shared by her lawyers, she described herself as “elated” and that she hoped the 74 victims could now “rest in peace.”

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