Trump-Kim summit: South Korea’s overdue Vietnam reckoning?

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un meet at the Capella Sentosa Hotel in Singapore. Image credit: Dan Scavino Jr.

With the much-anticipated second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un taking place in Hanoi later this week, the vast majority of media attention has naturally focused on whether the unlikely pair of peacemakers can thrash out a historic agreement on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. While Trump and Kim meet, however, one of the other leaders present at the event – South Korean President Moon Jae-in – could make his own diplomatic breakthrough on a separate front.

The choice of Vietnam as a venue for the conference primarily comes down to Hanoi’s warm ties with both Washington and Pyongyang, but the location also holds special significance for South Korea. While the two countries have spent the last several years building a broader strategic partnership, South Korea has still never really accounted for the actions of its military forces during the Vietnam War half a century ago. With the issue gaining renewed international attention, could Moon finally address the elephant in the room that none of his predecessors have been willing to acknowledge?

Vietnam: the perfect host?

Like Singapore, which hosted the first Trump-Kim meeting eight months ago, Vietnam offers a reliable security infrastructure and stringent political controls, having held meetings of both the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the World Economic Forum in the last 15 months. This made it an attractive choice of venue for both the US and North Korea, with both sides seeing Hanoi as an important partner and neutral party.

From an American perspective, Vietnam also serves as an example of how a communist state can mend relations with the Western and open itself up to the global economy. The Vietnam government seems equally happy to gain international prestige from playing host, as well as diplomatic support in the face of its ever-more intensive South China Sea rivalry with Beijing.

A brutal blemish on Korean history

South Korea seems a less obvious beneficiary of the venue choice, but Moon could make history by addressing the war crimes his country’s forces stand accused of committing. At the height of their involvement in the Vietnam War, South Korean troops actually outnumbered their US counterparts, with 320,000 boots on the ground over the course of the conflict. North Korea played a smaller role in the conflict on the North Vietnamese side, dispatching fighter pilots and propaganda experts to assist their fellow communist forces.

Despite this fact, the Korean role in the conflict remains little-publicised in the West. Even less known: the estimated 5,000 Vietnamese civilians murdered by Korean forces during the war. Much like the My Lai massacre which saw American troops murder over 400 unarmed civilians in less than two hours, South Korea played their part in committing similar atrocities; for example, 69 civilians were rounded up and executed by South Koreans in the tiny towns of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat in 1968, while 135 more were similarly killed in Ha My in the same year. Unlike My Lai, no one was ever held accountable for these brutalities.

Meanwhile, an untold number of Vietnamese women were tortured, abused and raped, with 800 mothers of illegitimate offspring conceived during the war still alive today. Tens of thousands of Lai Dai Han (a pejorative term for “mixed blood” Vietnamese with Korean fathers) still suffer discrimination as a result of the sexual violence directed against their mothers.

A touchy subject for Seoul

Representatives of this community continue to demand acknowledgement and an apology from the South Korean government, with President Moon’s discreet 2017 acknowledgement of Korean actions during the war seen as insufficient and insincere. Moon, who has done much to make the Vietnamese-Korean relationship one of the most tightly-knit in East Asia, intimated that his country owed Vietnam a “debt of heart”, but the admission was so vague it did not garner significant media attention in Vietnam itself. Since then, more evidence has been uncovered regarding South Korean war crimes.

South Korean leaders have long struggled to balance these demands for recognition with conservative opposition at home. In 2001, South Korea’s then-President Kim Dae-jung told his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Duc Luong he was sorry for his country’s involvement in the war, but no mention was made of any barbarities committed by Korean troops.

Even that lukewarm apology received short shrift from South Korean conservatives, including future President Park Geun-hye, who claimed Kim’s speech “drove a stake through the honor” of the country (Park’s father, of course, was the autocratic leader responsible for sending Korean soldiers to Vietnam in the first place). South Korea’s muddled position on the issue appears all the more incoherent given their own attitude towards Japan, from whom they still demand an apology over issue of Korean “comfort women” during the Second World War.

Building on solid foundations

Despite the history of South Korea’s military involvement in Vietnam, the two countries have nonetheless drawn closer together. In 2009, Seoul and Hanoi elevated their relationship to that of a “strategic partnership” and have since collaborated more closely with regard to security concerns.

Tourism between the two sides has flourished; South Korea is the top destination for Vietnamese travelling abroad, while South Koreans are the second biggest tourism market behind the Chinese in Vietnam (with 3.16 million visitors in 2018 compared to China’s 3.4 million). Korean culture has pervaded all parts of Vietnamese society, with K-pop concerts a smash hit, a hugely popular Korean coach managing the Vietnamese football team, and Korean the preferred second language of many Vietnamese.

Future-proofing this progress in bilateral relations requires ensuring it is built on solid foundations. With so much historical baggage left unaddressed, there is always the possibility the positive steps of the previous decade could come unstuck. With most attention focused elsewhere, this week’s summit could offer Moon an opportunity to build upon his 2017 statement while his domestic opponents are distracted by the geopolitical issues playing out closer to home.