Last December, South Korea and Vietnam commemorated their 30th diplomatic anniversary by upgrading the bilateral relations from a ‘strategic partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive and strategic partnership (CSP).’ South Korea represents a notable case as the first middle power to establish such relations with Vietnam, following China, Russia, and India.
While economic, technological, and security cooperation serve as priority agendas, the adoption of the CSP presents new opportunities for South Korea and Vietnam to move beyond just practicalities and towards furthering mutual trust. In doing so, an important and overlooked agenda will be for Seoul to revisit the Vietnam War and make necessary amends.
Heightened security cooperation under the CSP
Vietnam has emerged as a key economic partner and bridge to ASEAN for South Korea. Hanoi is currently Seoul’s third-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade totaling $81.1 billion. The two countries’ robust ties were highlighted during the bilateral summit in December 2022, with former Vietnam president Nguyen Xuan Phuc being the first foreign head of state to visit South Korea since President Yoon SukYeol had taken office in May.
It was during the same summit that the two leaders agreed to upgrade their bilateral relations to a CSP, with President Yoon emphasizing Vietnam’s role as “core partner” for South Korea-ASEAN solidarity and for South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), which had been unveiled a month earlier at the ASEAN-Korea summit in November.
To accommodate their new status in bilateral relations, Seoul and Hanoi have vowed to expand cooperation in not only the economic and technological sectors, but also in maritime security and defense, signaling further alignment of mutual interests in regional peace and stability. The heightened emphasis on security also falls in line with South Korea’s IPS, which many agree has introduced greater opportunities for Seoul to engage in military cooperation with like-minded nations.
Vietnam War as ‘the elephant in the room’ in past bilateral relations
Despite the CSP’s overarching emphasis on advancing practicalities and strategic aims, its strength and longevity are fundamentally grounded upon mutual trust; and trust will become increasingly more important as the two countries coordinate on more sensitive issues such as security and defense.
One significant hurdle that poses a dormant risk in their mutual trust building is the Vietnam War and its aftermath, as South Korea and Vietnam are yet to negotiate on and deliver reparations to its victims.
Throughout the war and between 1964 and 1973, South Korea assisted United States war efforts in Vietnam by deploying 300,000 to 320,000 troops. South Korea has since then been accused of its involvement in mass killings, resulting in the death of around 9,000 innocent Vietnamese civilians.
Previously, a number of South Korean heads-of-state issued statements in reference to the Vietnam War, including former presidents Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2004. The most recent statement was by former president Moon Jae-in in 2018, who expressed regrets over an “unfortunate history.”
Despite such statements, however, the South Korean government continues to deny its involvement in the civilian massacres.
The most recent example includes the court ruling from earlier this year in February, when the Seoul Central District Court ordered the South Korean government to pay 30 million KRW in compensation to one of the victims, Nguyen Thi Thanh. The case referred to a civilian raid by South Korean marines in Quang Nam in 1968, which had killed nearly 70 civilians. The court order garnered much public attention as “the first official written consolation and apology” by South Korean law enforcement to the victims. It also recognized that there is no statute of limitation for such civilian massacres.
In response, however, the South Korean government appealed the order in March, denying its involvement. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup also argued that existing evidence proves otherwise, as “the situation at the time was very complex, with non-Korean soldiers [such as the Vietnamese] dressing up in Korean uniform.” The government continues to reject calls from civil society to release data and documentation necessary for investigation into the war crimes.
Vietnam War as ‘the sleeping lion’ in future bilateral relations
South Korea’s response is neither new nor unexpected as it previously dismissed a similar ruling in 2018 mock tribunals. More importantly, past diplomatic history shows that South Korea and Vietnam are capable of building on their bilateral relations regardless of Seoul’s unwillingness to recognize its responsibility over the civilian massacres.
So why is it important to seek justice and proper reparations now, especially when the two countries are about to embark on an even higher level of diplomatic engagement – the CSP?
Over the years, Vietnam has maintained a position of reserve when it comes to demanding war reparations from South Korea since their normalization of relations in 1992. Yet in response to South Korea’s appeal to the ruling in March, the Vietnamese foreign ministry was not shy in deeming it as “extremely regrettable.” Hanoi added by criticizing Seoul’s approach to the Vietnam War, arguing that “Vietnam’s policy is to put aside the past and look towards the future but this does not mean that [it] den[ies] the truth of history.”
This indicates that despite overarching bilateral cooperation under the CSP, reference to history will continue to pose points of contention. And as noted by both South Korean and Vietnamese media, the recent court ruling foreshadows more and more individual lawsuits by Vietnamese victims against the South Korean government.
South Korea’s potential to lead Vietnam War investigations
Until now, civil society such as the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation has been on the frontlines of promoting Vietnam War reparations due to the irresponsiveness of the South Korean government. But strings of lawsuits made by victims will be both difficult and time staking for the South Korean government to address on an individual basis, unless it takes initial action to spearhead the investigations.
With the government leading these efforts, South Korea can also actively communicate with its Vietnamese counterparts in exchanging information and handling subsequent legal proceedings. Some even recommend that special laws be enacted to investigate the courses of the civilian massacres and derive an organized effort to provide proper reparations to the victims.
Such developments will also be timely given South Korea’s public reception of recent state of affairs. Of particular concern has been the Yoon administration’s announcement in March to compensate victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor through a domestic fund. The decision was met with heavy criticisms for nullifying the South Korean Supreme Court ruling in 2018, which had ordered Japanese firms to pay the victims for the damages. According to polls by Gallup Korea, nearly 60 percent of South Koreans opposed the decision.
Although set in different contexts, the South Korean government’s appeal to the ruling on behalf of a Vietnam War victim represents a similar case in which the state has dismissed decisions by domestic law enforcement. And while Seoul maintains that these steps uphold national interests, disclosing divisions among state apparatus do not bode well – both functionally and ethically –in the long run.
Standing on moral high grounds is particularly of interest for South Korea as it is considered both a victim and a plaintiff in such court cases. For instance, as Professor Park Tae-gyun of Seoul National University said during his interview with National Public Radio (NPR), “[South Koreans] always say that [they] are the victims of Japanese imperialism and demand an apology from Japan. But [they] are not looking squarely at the damage [they] have done.”
Vietnam War reparations as fundamental to mutual trust building
It is not uncommon for historical issues to be relegated to the sidelines, or even dismissed, by states in pursuit of more future-oriented diplomatic affairs. And this has largely been the case of the Vietnam War for South Korea and Vietnam over the past three decades.
However, unlike practicalities – such as trade and investment that demonstrate ebb and flow with respect to regional trends – a shared view on history will provide a stronger foundation for the future of the bilateral relations.
As such, an impending agenda for South Korea will be to revisit the Vietnam War and make necessary amends, as to not only heighten the level of trust shared with Vietnam, but also to prevent the issue from becoming a further impediment to other, and now expanding, bilateral cooperative projects under the CSP.
Sea Young (Sarah) Ahn is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Shutterstock.
 The initial amount that the South Korean government ordered in compensation was 40 million KRW, which was lowered to around 30 million KRW to meet the proposed charges set by the victim.