The South Korean government is fighting against a court order to pay $22,730 compensation to a 63-year-old Vietnamese woman who was the victim of atrocities perpetrated by that country’s soldiers during the Vietnam War.
A court in Seoul last month ordered South Korea to pay an amount equal to $22,730 to Nguyen Thi Thanh for injuries sustained when she survived a mass slaughter of civilians by South Korean troops in 1968.
The government appealed the decision, which was the first legal acknowledgement of South Korea’s liability for atrocities committed by its forces during the bloody conflict.
The ruling was the first time a South Korean court found the government responsible for mass killings of Vietnamese civilians during the war.
Thanh was just eight years old when South Korean marines killed more than 70 unarmed civilians, including five members of Thanh’s family, during a sweep through her village of Phong Nhi in central Vietnam on February 12, 1968.
She sustained a gunshot wound to her stomach during the rampage, in which her mother and two siblings died, requiring her to spend almost a year in hospital recovering.
In awarding the compensation to Thanh, the Seoul Central District Court dismissed the government’s argument that South Korean troops might not have been responsible for the slaughter in Phong Nhi.
The court also rejected the government’s argument that civilian killings were unavoidable because the South Korean troops were dealing with Viet Cong guerrillas who often blended with villagers. The government’s lawyers were also unsuccessful in invoking a statute of limitations.
Then ruled by anti-communist military leaders, South Korea sent more than 320,000 troops to Vietnam, the largest foreign contingent fighting alongside U.S. troops.
The ruling marks the first time a South Korean court has found the government responsible for mass killings of Vietnamese civilians during the war.
The government fears the case could potentially open the way for similar lawsuits.
According to U.S. military documents and survivors, more than 70 people were killed and around 20 others injured when South Korean marines allegedly fired at unarmed civilians as they swept through Phong Nhi and the nearby village of Phong Nhut on February 12, 1968.
The action came after least one South Korean soldier got struck and injured by nearby enemy fire.
According to U.S. military investigation records, U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese militia provided medical treatment to villagers who fled as South Korean soldiers continued to shoot inside the villages.
U.S. Marines later entered the villages and found piles of bodies in different areas, many burned or buried in ash. One U.S. soldier took photos, which were used as evidence during Thanh’s trial.
Thanh filed the lawsuit against the South Korean government in 2020 and testified at the Seoul court last August.
The trial also included the testimonies of other Vietnamese villagers and South Korean war veterans such as Ryu Jin-seong, a member of the marine unit linked to the attacks in Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut. He provided a first-hand account of how the South Korean soldiers shot at unarmed civilians, many of them children and women.
“I think that the souls (of those who died in Phong Nhi) were always with me and supported me,” said Thanh, who awaited the ruling in Vietnam, in a video message translated by her legal team. “I am overjoyed because I think that the souls can now rest easy.”