By Sean O'Malley

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs announced recently that the government will designate May 29 as the "Day of Soldiers Dispatched Overseas." The day is meant to coincide with the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers and recognize South Korea's dedication to peacekeeping as a member of the international community.

In general, the day will celebrate contributions to world peace by soldiers dispatched overseas. In addition, it will mark South Korea's first large deployment of combat troops in the Vietnam War to fight on behalf of the United States and South Vietnam.

In desperate need of foreign exchange and a tightening of its alliance with the United States, the government of Park Chung-hee dispatched some 320,000 soldiers to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, many fighting in frontline units. Here in South Korea, veterans of the Vietnam War have never received the recognition they deserve for fighting when their country called. Nevertheless, one must ask whether this new day of commemoration is the best way to honor their service.

As a visiting student to Vietnam in 1990, I was reminded repeatedly by lecturing professors that the imperialist running dogs of America and their allies had tried to thwart Vietnamese independence and failed. Participation of South Korean troops in Vietnam is not seen by the Vietnamese government as a contribution to global peacekeeping efforts.

It is seen as an extension of imperialist aggression begun by the French during their colonization of Indochina. In fact, to the Vietnamese this period of history is known simply as the American War, as a way to differentiate the predominantly U.S. aggression from that of the French, which came during the Anti-French Resistance War.

Although the government of Vietnam does not prioritize the negative impacts of past relations with former belligerents, some civic groups in Vietnam do wish to hold states accountable for their past actions. South Korean troops are accused of committing war crimes during their period of stay in the country.

The mixed-race children known as Lai Dai Han are a testament to these violent transgressions by Korean soldiers. For its part, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

Despite such denials, a number of former South Korean presidents have addressed the issue, though no administration has directly acknowledged or apologized for atrocities committed. Both former Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in claimed a "debt of heart" to Vietnam and former President Kim Dae-jung expressed "regret." None of these met the sincerity test for Vietnamese civic groups that follow such issues.

Ironically, a major component of Korean national identity is the embrace and propagation of victimhood nationalism. South Koreans at home and abroad remind others incessantly that Korea was a victim of Japanese colonial aggression. The perceived lack of contrition by Japan for its colonial legacy has been an obstacle to stable, bilateral relations for decades.

In this framing of relations, the Korean press seemingly reports every visit by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, reminding readers that 14 class-A war criminals are enshrined there. It seems every Japanese textbook is scrutinized for revisionist portrayals of Japan's imperial past. Most importantly, no matter how often the Japanese government claims it has offered an apology, the South Korean government and its people say the words are not sincere enough. In this relationship, Koreans are the victims and Japanese the victimizers.

The irony of course is that beginning next year South Koreans will take an entire day to celebrate their aggression and victimization of the Vietnamese, seemingly devoid of sincere contrition for their past actions. Regularly, Koreans demand compensation and apologies for the euphemistically named "comfort women" who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese.

We would do well to remember that while these comfort women have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, they have been joined at times by Vietnamese victims of Korean atrocities demanding the same from South Korea.

A key aspect of victimhood nationalism is getting others to see your national victimization from your own perspective. The Vietnamese government and its people do not push such a narrative. Even so, it does not seem right for South Korea to dedicate a day to the victimization of a former enemy and current friend. At some point, the Vietnamese government may change the narrative and join civic groups in questioning South Korean contrition and sincerity. South Koreans would never equate themselves with Japanese imperialists, but ironically, this may be exactly what will happen.

To add insult to injury, this new holiday equates unilateral troop deployments to Vietnam with U.N. peacekeeping. Some 4,200 peacekeepers have lost their lives since 1948 while serving under the U.N. flag. To equate unilateral, foreign aggression against Vietnam with U.N. peacekeeping does a disservice to all of those peacekeepers who served to aid others in the past and present.

At the very least, the Day of Soldiers Dispatched Overseas should not bundle global U.N. peacekeeping efforts with past unilateral deployments to Vietnam. The soldiers dispatched to Vietnam when their country called deserve their own day of remembrance, and those who served faithfully under the U.N. flag deserve a day of remembrance that is not tainted by past unilateral aggression. Perhaps, if commemorated appropriately, all who deserve it can find a little peace.


Sean O'Malley (seanmo@dongseo.ac.kr) is a professor of international studies at Dongseo University, where he teaches classes on U.S.-Korea Relations and the ASEAN Community. He has published numerous papers on security and regional issues important to South Korea. The views expressed in the above article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.


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Day of soldiers dispatched overseas

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27.09.2022

By Sean O'Malley

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs announced recently that the government will designate May 29 as the "Day of Soldiers Dispatched Overseas." The day is meant to coincide with the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers and recognize South Korea's dedication to peacekeeping as a member of the international community.

In general, the day will celebrate contributions to world peace by soldiers dispatched overseas. In addition, it will mark South Korea's first large deployment of combat troops in the Vietnam War to fight on behalf of the United States and South Vietnam.

In desperate need of foreign exchange and a tightening of its alliance with the United States, the government of Park Chung-hee dispatched some 320,000 soldiers to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, many fighting in frontline units. Here in South Korea, veterans of the Vietnam War have never received the recognition they deserve for fighting when their country called. Nevertheless, one must ask whether this new day of commemoration is the best way to honor their service.

As a visiting student to Vietnam in 1990, I was reminded repeatedly by lecturing professors that the imperialist running dogs of America and their allies had tried to thwart Vietnamese independence and failed. Participation of South Korean troops in Vietnam is not seen by the Vietnamese government as a contribution to global peacekeeping efforts.

It is seen as an extension of imperialist aggression begun by the French during........

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