Communism was not the only victor in the Vietnam War that raged on for 20 years. South Korea (Republic of Korea,) which had the second largest military contingent in the war after the United States, also won, having received billions of dollars in grants, loans and subsidies from America. Non-monetary concessions included the keeping of the US troops stationed in the ROK, military modernization and preferential markets.
It’s no wonder that South Korea’s economy skyrocketed during Dictator Park Chung-hee’s rule. It was he, as president of the country, who had negotiated with US President Johnson for the numerous economic, military and political benefits in exchange for sending his combat troops to Vietnam.
Vietnam after the war was heavily damaged. The countryside was stripped of its agriculture, businesses in cities and towns had been ruined, and land mines were everywhere. Another sad but often overlooked corollary of the Vietnam War were the children born of foreign fathers. American troops and South Korean soldiers had impregnated many Vietnamese women. They were the countries with the largest military contingents in that intractable war. The US was South Vietnam’s principal ally, defending its democracy from being taken away by North Vietnam’s communist regime. Dictator Park Chung-hee of South Korea sent more than 320,000 soldiers to help the US militia. Not surprisingly, military men from the two countries fathered children with Vietnamese mothers.
When the Fall of Saigon was imminent and US troops were being pulled out, President Ford had Amerasian orphans evacuated to the US through Operation Babylift to protect them from being abused by the communists. Half-breeds were looked down on in traditional society and these Amerasians were mockingly called buidoi, or “children of the dust.”.
Additional assistance came in the form of a federal law. The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 was enacted to facilitate the immigration of these children and their relatives to the United States. Upon entry, they were given full assistance from the government. By 2009, around 25,000 Amerasian children and 70,000 relatives had migrated and eventually became US citizens. The Amerasians had a difficult life in their native country. Detested by the locals, many of them were abandoned and became beggars in the streets as their means of survival.
While Amerasians were given a helping hand,Children born of South Korean fathers and Vietnamese mothers are not as lucky. Aside from the mothers being raped by more than one soldier, they also gave birth to half Korean-half Vietnamese children known as the Lai Dai Han.
Lai Dai Han is a derogatory name for the Korean-Vietnamese children born during the period from 1964 to 1973 when South Korean soldiers were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Some Koreans married the women but went back to their country when North Vietnam conquered the South. Most of the women however were brutally raped, impregnated and then deserted.
The Lai Dai Hans bear the shame of their birth. Looked down on and ridiculed because they have foreign fathers and mothers who were probably prostitutes or comfort women, the children live on the periphery of society, unacknowledged and largely forgotten. Their numbers vary from 5,000 to 30,000. As children, they were bullied and taunted at school for being of mixed blood. As adults, they are poor farmers living in the remotest areas of Vietnam because integrating into society is difficult.
And they cannot tell their stories in international media because the Vietnam government doesn’t want to create trouble with Seoul. South Korea ignores them like they don’t exist. It does not admit that the rapes by its countrymen on Vietnamese girls and women did happen. How can this key US ally be expected to make an apology for an event that it refuses to acknowledge?
As of 2015, there were around 800 mothers of Lai Dai Hans still living. They have learned to live with the scorn heaped on them and have remained quiet. But the silence cannot go on forever. The Vietnamese women and their children by South Korean men have come out to make the public aware of their plight and seek apology from the country of the soldiers that committed these crimes.
In 2015, a petition at change.org for then South Korean President Park Geun-hye to apologize for her country’s systematic rape during the Vietnam War gathered almost 35,000 signatures. But Park never heeded the petition. The Justice for Lai Dai Han, an organization based in London, has recently been raising awareness events to seek justice for the women and their children. Former US Senator Norm Coleman, in a 2015 Fox News article, called on Park to make a public apology to the Vietnamese victims of rape at the hands of Korea’s soldiers and allow the women to have a voice.
Seoul’s new leader who succeeded Park after her impeachment isn’t any better. President Moon Jae-in, in his speech on Memorial Day in June 6, praised the Korean veterans for their courage and bravery in the Vietnam War, without any mention of the atrocities they had committed on civilians and women. Vietnam, through its Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang, chided Moon for his insensitivity and advised him not to rock the friendship boat between the two countries.
Yet, it would not be fair to put all the blame on Seoul for keeping this shameful and horrifying part of the Vietnam War away from public knowledge. Vietnam’s government is as guilty of not defending its victimized women and children and of trying to conceal them instead. Hanoi is afraid that these people they deem as social misfits may succeed in creating their own global profile. Bent on achieving economic and political gains, Vietnam’s administration wants to forget the past and focus on the future. But the truth will eventually demand to be set free. How South Korea and Vietnam deal with the Lai Dai Han will have a bearing on future ties.