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Lai Dai Han The Forgotten Outcome of the Vietnam War

As recently as 1990, South Korea was one of the countries in the world with the most racially homogenous population. Priding itself on its pure ethnicity, it is unwelcoming to half-Koreans and foreigners, looking down at them as inferior to Koreans in all respects. Maybe it could explain why ROK soldiers and civilians who had sired children with Vietnamese women did not acknowledge them when these men left to go back to their country.

This was what happened during the Vietnam War when South Korea, under the rule of Dictator Park Chung-hee, sent more than 320,000 of its armed forces to South Vietnam to join the United States in the fight against communist North Vietnam. Except they did more than fight the North Vietnam Army and the VietCongs. They also raped thousands of girls and women of Vietnam who gave birth to their progeny. These children are the Lai Dai Han. Sources vary on how many of these mixed blood children were born, from 5,000 to 30,000. Unrecognized by their South Korean fathers and despised by the Vietnam mainstream, they live in abject poverty in the periphery of Hanoi society. Bullied in school, they retreated to desolate farms or to the seasides scrounging for their living. Their mothers, perceived as prostitutes instead of victims, fared no better. They enduredtheir fate, shamed into silence.

But compassionate organizations have taken up the cudgels for the victimized women and their children. Their stories are starting to emerge – of how the women, some as young as 13 years old – were repeatedly raped by the soldiers. The Lai Dai Han, now in their 40s and 50s, are speaking up of the harsh treatment they got from their own peers and the adults. Some, like Tran Van Ty, managed to rise above the poverty and derision, and get a proper education. It is they who are giving a face to the forgotten children from the Vietnam War by letting their voices be heard.

The Lai Dai Han are asking the Seoul government to publicly apologize to their mothers for the rapes and assaults that the South Korean soldiers and civilians inflicted on the Vietnamese women. Close to 35,000 people have signed a petition asking the ROK president to make a public apology to the Vietnamese women for the systematic rape from South Korean military. As of 2015, about 800 out of the thousands of these women were still alive.

But then President Park Geun-hye, the dictator’s daughter, refuses to admit to the crimes, even if documents in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) show evidence of the existence of a ROK Army Comfort Station in Saigon. South Korean troops and civilians were stationed in South Vietnam from 1964 – 1973, and during this period, they committed the rapes and massacres of villages killing civilian men and women, and innocent children.

To counter the numerous stories from survivors and official letters between military officers detailing the rapes and massacres, Park had the school history textbooks replaced by government-approved ones that whitewashed the barbaric behavior of her soldiers or omitted them altogether. This history revisionism resulted in mass protests of Koreans themselves who were appalled at the brazenness of the administration’s actions.

Her successor, President Moon Jae-in, further turned the knife in the decades-old wound by praising the ROK veterans of the Vietnam War on Memorial Day last June 6. He cited their role in the country’s economic growth in the 1960s through the ‘70s. South Korea’s sudden soaring economy during this time was helped immensely by the billions of dollars in grants, loans and subsidies that Park Chung-hee forcefully negotiated from US President Lyndon Johnson in exchange for the soldiers Park would send to Saigon. On top of the monetary dole out, Park received economic favors, modernized militarization, and a commitment for the US troops to stay in the ROK to defend it from possible foreign invasion.

True, South Korea during Chung-hee’s rule before he was assassinated had a rapid growth in GDP made possible by US dollars. But at what expense? At the lives of the Vietnamese people? The least South Korea can do is to make reparations for its sins through an admission and an apology. Granting that the ROK was not the only country that inflicted serious crimes on the Vietnamese people, it is still the only one who has not admitted to its wrongdoings nor made an apology or redress. It is unfortunate that the Seoul government is too blind to see the truth and realize what they should rightfully do.

The United States had its Operation Babylift when the Fall of Saigon seemed inevitable. The mass evacuation of Amerasian orphans from South Vietnam aboard aircrafts to the US gave these children a second chance at a better life. In 1982, the Amerasian Homecoming Act was signed into law by President Reagan, giving special immigration benefits to the children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers. The law also granted entry to the mothers and other relatives, paving the way for about 23,000 Amerasians and 67,000 relatives to migrate to the US and become citizens.

It’s not too late. The South Korean administration should heed the petition of the Vietnamese women and the Lai Dai Han to offer them its apology. Refusing to acknowledge its war crimes does not make them go away. Like a cancer, it will turn inward and eat up the good cells, spreading its poison and passing it on to its forthcoming generation. A sincere atonement for past misdeeds will bring redemption for the future.