diaCRITICIZE: Korea’s Viet Nam, Viet Nam’s Korea

diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen reflects on Korea and Viet Nam’s tangled relationship since the years of that other Korean War–in Viet Nam.

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I’ve been to Korea twice, spending most of my time in the city of Seoul, most recently this November. It’s an impressive Asian metropolis, all sheen and speed and chic, at least the places where tourists and visitors are likely to go. The brand-new highways are populated with sleek Korean-made sedans and sports cars that have all their windows blacked out, the subway is a model of hygienic efficiency that makes the New York subway and Paris metro look primitive and barbaric, and the quantity of designer purses and man-bags hanging on the arms of men and women is staggering (and I’m pretty sure a lot of them were real).

Seoul is the bright mirror image of the Pacific Rim nightmare city envisioned in Blade Runner. Considering that Seoul was a pile of rubble in 1953, and that Korea was one of the poorest countries of the world through the 1960s, the rebuilding of Seoul has been astonishing. At one time the Koreans were those poor people who didn’t say a word when they appeared on that television show all of us who grew up in the States in the 1970s saw, M*A*S*H. Even when they did, most of those words were spoken by Rosalind Chao, who played Klinger’s girlfriend and who wasn’t even Korean.

Rosalind Chao playing Soon Lee, the eventual wife of Klinger (right).

The next thing Koreans became famous for, in the States, was the Los Angeles riots, or uprisings, when Korean American property became the prime site of economic damage (about half of the total costs were born by Koreans, although, to be fair, most of the people who died or were arrested were Latinos and Blacks, which seems like a good index of how differently minorities are valued in the States).

Then the Koreans became the sub-Japanese, somewhere on par with the Yugoslavians, when they began importing the Hyundai. What a joke! Only somehow, a decade or two later, the Korean economy is no longer a joke. Hyundai cars come with ten-year warranties and are suddenly sexy. I’m a dedicated Honda owner but I’m fantasizing of buying this Hyundai for my next car. Goodbye, Honda, hello, Hyundai could be the credo for the new reconfiguration of East Asia.

Korean pop culture is also big now all over Asia. Korean soap operas, Korean pop music, Korean rap music, Korean hairstyles, Korean idols, the whole Korean wave has washed over the rich and poor countries of the region and is now lapping on the shores of America. If Korean pop culture’s not digestible, then Korean food and drink certainly is. Who hasn’t had Korean BBQ or tasted soju? If you consider yourself a cosmopolitan and you haven’t sampled these things, then you need to run and do so right now.

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Meanwhile, “new Korean cinema” is the darling of the international art house and film festival circuit, from Oldboy to The Host. The most recent movie about the Korean War, The Front Line, is astonishing, visceral, gripping, even on a seven-inch Singapore Airlines screen between Seoul and San Francisco. Recently a pop group called Girls’ Generation performed on the David Letterman show. What’s there not to love about Korea?


Of course I’m here to tell you. I’m motivated partially by envy and partially by regret. Envy, because I wonder if Viet Nam can ever be like Korea. Regret, because I think it could have been like Korea. But at what price? Perhaps Korea could only be what it is today because Viet Nam paid the price. If Viet Nam wants to be like Korea, perhaps some other country will pay the price.

And what was the price? From 1965-1972, Korea sent 300,000 men to fight in the Viet Nam War, of whom some 5,000 died. This was the largest allied army to the United States. For the services of these troops and additional civilian contractors, the U.S. paid the Korean government about $1 billion. That’s about $6.6 billion today for what was one of the poorest countries in the world. According to Charles Armstrong, Korea “exported over 90 percent of its steel and 50 percent of its transportation equipment to Vietnam in the late 1960s.”

To put it in other concrete terms: the average Korean private, who volunteered for duty in Viet Nam, earned $40 a month when the average family income was $89 per year. That’s a lot of incentive to volunteer. Korean soldiers were required to send most of that money home, but there was some payoff for delayed gratification. They could also ship home, at the end of their service, a lot of black market goods that weren’t available in Korea–imagine whole appliances and you get a picture of what was happening.

Some historians in the U.S. and Korea have credited this infusion of dollars into the Korean economy of the 1960s and 1970s with giving Korea the boost it needed to start its climb up the economic ladder. There’s also the fact that Korea, and all of East and Southeast Asia, benefitted from the American protection of their states and economies during the Viet Nam War. The U.S. fought the war to 1) win hearts and minds in Viet Nam (partially failed!) 2) stop dominoes from falling to Communism (partially failed!) and 3) allow for the growth of capitalism and U.S. friendly capitalist nations in Asia (total victory!).

So it was no accident that Thailand became a U.S. staging base and brothel, its tourism economy kicked into high gear because of the U.S. military presence; that Japan let B-52s take off from its territory and did profitable business in Viet Nam; that the U.S. backed the dictator Marcos in the Philippines in exchange for use of its bases; and Korea was another country that participated in this whole nexus, its army already U.S. trained and U.S. equipped as a result of the Korean War.

So that’s one of the stories behind the Korean economic miracle. One postscript was that two of South Korea’s presidents served in the Korean army in Viet Nam, at least one of whom, Chun Doo Hwan, was responsible for violently repressing democratic dissent during the 1980 Kwangju massacre (500 to 2000 dead). He learned his tactics in Viet Nam.

Bitex Tower, Saigon, under construction, 2010

There, the memory of Koreans as foreign soldiers has faded and is barely visible, while the current gleam of the Korean miracle is everywhere evident. The biggest building in Saigon is the Bitex tower, Korean-built. The stretch of coast from Hue to Hoi An, the Vietnamese Riviera, seems to be entirely dominated by Korean-built resorts and golf courses, with even more under construction, at least when I drove the length of Highway 1 in the summer of 2010. Ironically, this is the same area where Korean troops fought and earned a reputation among the Vietnamese as a very scary bunch. Both Le Ly Hayslip, in When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, and Truong Nhu Tang, in A Vietcong Memoir, note that the Vietnamese were more terrified of the Koreans than they were of the Americans.

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There’s not much evidence of this Korean history in Viet Nam. A few photos in a few museums refer to the Korean “mercenaries” of President Park Chung Hee. Otherwise, the Vietnamese government is not eager to bring up this history, for there’s money to be made with Korea today. When I was in Seoul in November, I saw the strange sight of Korean and Vietnamese flags hanging together, lining the streets of Itaewon. The Vietnamese president was visiting.

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The Koreans are no more inclined to remember their Vietnamese past. The Korean novels (White Badge, The Shadow of Arms) and films (White Badge, R-Point, Sunny) of the war trace a narrative from 1992 to the present that goes from saying Koreans committed crimes to saying Koreans are victims like the Vietnamese–the Americans were the real bad guys. The one room of the massive War Memorial of Seoul devoted to the Viet Nam War is curiously bloodless–the Koreans came, helped democracy and freedom, built clinics and fought some battles (no pictures, however), and returned in triumph.

Diorama of Korean soldiers in Viet Nam–as graphic as it gets at the War Memorial

One lonely site in Viet Nam that I know of does try to recall the Koreans in Viet Nam, and the Vietnamese who met them. It’s not far from the Vietnamese Riviera, but I got lost trying to find it. In the village of Ha My, Korean soldiers massacred 135 civilians–women, children, the elderly. Some years later, some of these soldiers returned to build a memorial, at their expense. The Vietnamese wanted the memorial to say that the Korean soldiers killed the civilians. Since the Koreans were paying, the memorial simply says that the civilians were killed. Heonik Kwon writes about this history in his excellent After the Massacre.

The neglected memorial of Ha My, literally off the beaten track. Photo by Sam Sweezy.

Most memorials in Viet Nam are located on a main strip, where a passerby can’t help but see them. They commemorate war heroes who fought and died for the Vietnamese revolution. This memorial is hidden off a side road of a side road from Highway 1. I drove back and forth before I finally spotted its spire from the first side road. To reach it, I walked through the second side road, past dried paddies. The gates had fallen off and there was no one there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here.

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