In recent years, a number of South Koreans have visited Vietnam in the hope of alleviating the wounds of war.
They have built schools, funded scholarships, and planted trees in a bid for peace and forgiveness.
"We did not come to Vietnam to remember the heartbreaking events of the past," said South Korean lawmaker Kang Min Jung in a speech on February 14 in front of the Ha My memorial, a monument dedicated to the victims of the 1968 Ha My Massacre in Ha My Village, Dien Duong Ward, Dien Ban Town, Quang Nam Province.
"We came to better understand to the truth of what our ancestors experienced.
"For us and for many other South Koreans, it is extremely important to learn the truth.
"After understanding this truth, we can then show our sympathies and reach out to the relatives of the dead victims.
"We would like to share in the suffering that they have endured for years."
A message of peace
Kang, who made the journey to Ha My with 36 other South Koreans, said that knowing her countrymen were responsible for the deaths of so many, including newborn victims, is unspeakably upsetting even though she herself took no part in the massacre.
"It hurts my soul that so many Vietnamese people had to suffer beyond their strength," Kang said.
"We come here to apologize for our [country’s] past wrongdoings, for something that should never have happened. With these trips, we hope to alleviate the suffering of the relatives of those who died in wartime."
On January 25, 1968, troops from South Korea’s Green Dragon Brigade slaughtered 135 villagers in Ha My – mostly the elderly, women, and children – before setting fire to the village.
On February 15, 2023 – 55 years after the massacre – Kang and her group of 37 lawyers, students, and lawmakers returned to Ha My with gifts for the villagers and to pray over the gravestones of the 135 victims.
While the wounds of history can never be forgotten, the South Korean visitors hoped their presence in Ha My would help to heal those who still suffer.
Kang and her cadre are members of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation – a non-profit, non-governmental organization established in September 2016 to raise awareness and redress Korean wrongs during the war in Vietnam.
As part of the group's work, they plan annual trips to Ha My and other villages which experienced similar horrifying devastation.
When they are unable to make a trip, they work with local authorities to ensure that offerings are still made at local memorials.
During this year’s trip to Ha My, the group was joined by 80 relatives of the victims.
"It's so shameful to be here. I apologize, we apologize, to you who feel torn every spring and to those who have been lighting the incense sticks every day for 55 years," said Kim Chang Sup, head of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation delegation, as he read an apology letter at the Ha My memorial.
|Kim Chang Sup, a member of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation, burst into tears as he read an apology letter at a ceremony held to commemorate the victims of the Ha My Massacre. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre
Turning bomb holes into schools and parks
Despite Ha My’s past, local residents have overcome the devastation in order to transform the area into a prosperous village, according to Nguyen Van Tuan, head of the Dien Duong Ward People's Committee.
Some of their success in rebuilding is owed to organizations like the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation.
Many years ago, an 'Apologies to Vietnam' movement developed in South Korea, inspiring many to visit Vietnam to make amends for the sins of their countrymen by constructing memorials, funding scholarships, and building playgrounds for local schools after South Korean media reported on the Ha My massacre and similar horrific events.
Huyn Woo Kwon, head of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation, is the nephew of a South Korean who was stationed in Vietnam during the war, but it was not until South Korean media published reports on various massacres carried out by South Korean troops that he knew he needed to make amends for his country.
"My uncle was so angry when I asked him questions about what South Korean troops had done in Vietnam," Kwon said. "I came to Vietnam because I wanted to seek the truth and right the wrongs committed during the war.”
In order to learn more about the role South Koreans played in Vietnam during the war, Huyn moved to Ho Chi Minh City for university and even had his first child in the country.
He eventually began making trips to the sites of massacres in Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and Binh Dinh Provinces in order to promote projects aimed at building schools and parks, as well as to visit the relatives of victims.
His dedication to atoning for his country’s sins earned him much admiration from the Vietnamese locals and authorities he befriended during these trips.
Eventually, they affectionately gave him the Vietnamese name 'Vu.'
According to Vu, in addition to regular visits by dozens of intellectuals and students from South Korea, the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation has launched many meaningful projects in other massacre areas, including the construction of four parks at four schools in Binh Dinh and two more playgrounds for students in Dien Duong Ward.
In 2020, the Korea-Vietnam Peace Foundation earmarked part of the cost for local authorities for building the Ha My memorial.
During the foundation’s trips to the memorials, the South Korean group typically brings special gifts, including scholarships for low-income students and handwritten letters from South Korean students who want to apologize to Vietnam.
"The suffering experienced by the Vietnamese was too great and cannot be repaired," Vu said.
"We want to come here to take responsibility, hoping to comfort the relatives and the souls of the victims.
"We try to do our best and want to contribute with parks and scholarships to nurture the dream of peace and development of today's generation of students."
Kneeling in apology
From February 12 to 14, 37 members of the Korea-Vietnam Peace Fundation visited sites in Quang Nam Province, which had been home to massacres carried out by South Korean soldiers.
The group used their time in Quang Nam to burn incense at a local memorial and meet with families of the victims.
On the morning of February 12, families and local authorities honored the 135 villagers who were killed 55 years ago in Tay Hamlet, Ha My Village.
At the ceremony, 37 South Koreans, including lawyers, lawmakers, and students, knelt in apology to the people who currently live where the massacre took place.
Kim Chang Sup, head of the delegation, read an apology letter which expressed regret for the actions of the South Korean army in Vietnam.
Kim promised to do everything in his power to make up for his country’s wartime mistakes and alleviate the suffering of the villagers.
"South Korea-Vietnam relations have both a light and dark side," said Kang Min Jung, South Korean lawmaker
"The 'light side' is the dynamic exchange in various fields such as economy, culture, and society.
"The 'dark side' is the action of South Korean troops during the war in Vietnam, which led to long-lasting pain.
"We have come here to apologize for our wrongdoing, heal the wounds of war, and promote peace."