South Korea in the Vietnam War

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South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War
Part of the Vietnam War
Type War
Location South Vietnam
Objective To support South Vietnam against Communist attacks
Date 11 September 1964 – 23 March 1973
Executed by Approximately 320,000 military personnel, with an average of 48,000 per year.
Casualties 5,099 killed
10,962 injured

The South Korean government, under the administration of Park Chung-hee, took an active role in the Vietnam War. From September 1964 to March 1973, South Korea sent more than 300,000 troops to South Vietnam. The South Korean Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force all participated as an ally of the United States. The number of troops from South Korea was much greater than those from Australia and New Zealand, and second only to the U.S. military force for foreign troops located in South Vietnam. The military commander was Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin of the South Korean army.


Soldiers of the South Korean White Horse Division in Vietnam
Chae Myung-shin, the commander of South Korean forces in Vietnam

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson had adopted foreign participation in the war as a key component in the American strategy for Vietnam. South Korea had made offers to send troops to South Vietnam as early as 1954, but these were turned down. Request for coalition partners by MACV under the Many Flags campaign was made, and South Korea was one of the nations outside of SEATO to join, with the promise of diplomatic leverage and financial aid given to South Korea in return.[1] Koreans would make up the second largest force after the United States as a foreign army.

Economic payment in return for the participation of Korea was an underlying cause for its participation, with a House Subcommittee hearing chaired by J. William Fulbright criticising the deployment of Korean forces as resembling the "hiring of mercenaries". [2] Participation in combat was directly linked to monetary compensation, and during the Vietnamization period Park Chung-hee demanded further compensation in order for South Korea to take a more direct combat role, which the US was unwilling to do[3].

South Korea at the time was alarmed by the United States' plan to move two of its military divisions stationed in South Korea to Vietnam, and the possible ramifications of this move on South Korea's security, especially against North Korea. It also saw how Japan made its economic recovery during the destructive Korean War, and saw the same opportunity in Vietnam. Some soldiers saw themselves as repaying the sacrifices Americans had made during the Korean War, but many also saw opportunity to rise with combat pay and took on service in order to support their families as South Korea was still mired in poverty .[4] The average salary for service in Vietnam was $37.50 per month, higher than the base pay of $1.60 per month back home although much of it was taken by the Korean government[5].


The first Korean units would arrive in February 1965, in a brigade group known as Dove Force. These included engineers, a MASH unit, military police, a navy LST, liaison staff, and other support personnel. Dove Force was deployed to the Biên Hòa region of South Vietnam, and helped build schools, roads and bridges. Medical teams are reported to have treated over 30,000 South Vietnamese civilians[6]. The civilian operations in the early southern part of the campaign are reported to have had some success.[7] In addition to combat and non-combat forces, South Korea had sent around 100,000 civilian workers to South Vietnam, employed in technical and civilian tasks[8].

In 1966 Korean combat forces were deployed to the Tuy Hòa valley and taking over security operations, were there was some positive evaluations of ROK's operational capability.[7] They are alleged to have inflicted 24 to 1 casualties during one operation in 1966. [9] Other reports indicate the operations in the Tuy Hoa Valley was a series of massacres and atrocities committed against civilians, as they were reported to have begun systemic, widespread depopulation of the region while claiming civilians killed, often women and children, were "enemy combatants". [10][11] The takeover are reported to have caused a significant decrease in relations with the government, and neutral villagers begun joining the Viet Cong due to war crimes and atrocities committed. [11] Starting in 1966 Korean forces are reported to have begun depopulating wider areas including the Sơn Tịnh, Bình Sơn, and Tinh Hoa districts in Quảng Ngãi Province in response to a series of effective ambushes by the NVA/VC[10]. Korean-controlled sectors became less-populated during the war, as civilians begun leaving en-masse[12][13] and Viet Cong control was reported to have increased with many joining their ranks[13][14].

At the start of the Tet Offensive they were transferred to the Da Nang and Quảng Nam region [15]. The transfer of ROK forces was negatively received as the South Vietnamese commander of I Corps "hates their guts ... He smiles, he's polite, but he'd just as soon they'd go the hell home or to some other Corps area."[15]. General Robert E. Cushman Jr. whom commanded US forces of I Field Force was also quite negative about the Koreans and stated they seldom participated in combat, as he "never really had control of the Koreans, they didn't do a damn thing unless they felt like it".[15] The transfer of ROK forces from a relatively underpopulated to a populated sector had undermined ongoing pacification efforts and caused a deterioration of relations with locals, notably impacting CAP programs through ransacking and looting with a prominent example being the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre .[15]

After the Tet Offensive, ROK forces were transferred back to their previous, underpopulated sector in II Field Force/II Corps and became reluctant to engage in offensive operations,and ordered to stay within their own bases by Park Chung-hee in order to minimise casualties[16]. Neil Sheehan described them as "reneging on their Hessian roles because of instructions to avoid casualties. They would not even keep open the road that was II Corps' main supply route from the docks of Qui Nhơn to the depot at Pleiku".[17] However, it was not just the South Korean military's problem that the combat power of soldiers has weakened since Tet Offensive. The same problem occurred in other allied countries such as ANZAC and the U.S. military.[18] Other U.S. data generally positively assess the military activities of the Korean military.[19] The reasons why the Korean military has become passive in the latter half of the war are as follows. The reason why Korean troops participated in the Vietnam War was to prevent Vietnam from becoming a communist country. because they received foreign help including the U.N. forces during the Korean War. But when the U.S. troops began to pull out of Vietnam, the Korean military began to lose its cause for war and was passive in fighting to prevent unnecessary damage. For this reason, the Korean military's assessment received favorable reviews in the beginning, but was passive in the second half. [20]

State Department reports that though they were seen as effective in combat in the initial years, had withdrawn to the coast and were reluctant to undertake offensive operations[3][21]. They were quite negative of the role of ROK forces overall by the end, as they were described as engaging in well-organised corruption in diverting US-equipment and failing to fulfil a security role with actual security being provided by the "ARVN Territorial Forces whom lacked organic firepower and heavy artillery but served as a buffer between Korean units and the North Vietnamese Army"[3][21].However, the reason why the South Korean military seized M16 was to supplement the weapons system of the Korean military, which was lacking at that time.(In the beginning, South Korean troops were not given M16 and were given outdated guns like M1.)[22] The withdrawal process had negatively impacted Korean-US relations, despite economic benefits gained[23] with Nixon and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird considering simultaneous withdrawal from both Korea and Vietnam.[3]

Due to Vietnamization US troops begun withdrawing since 1970, which had caused disagreement with the South Korean government.The US had also withdrew the 7th Division from the Korean peninsula placed the 2nd Division to the rear. Public opinion in South Korea went against the US due to this.[24] The South Korean government agreed to maintain forces despite American withdrawal, in 1969 the South Korean army accounted for 9% of the foreign troops stationed in South Vietnam (US Army 475,200, ROK Army 49,755), by the end of 1972, the South Korean army accounted for 60.5% of foreign troop (US Army 24,200, ROK Army 37,438).[25] The US Marine Corps, who supported the Blue Dragon troops, withdrew completely on 1971 May 7, when the combat role of Korean troops continued. At the time of the Battle of An Khe Pass, ROK forces had more limited air-support but remained until 1973 at the request of the South Vietnamese andUS government. ROK forces were withdrawn alongside all other foreign troops due to the Paris Peace Accords.[26][27][28]

Reported War Crimes and Atrocities

In a declassified report conducted by the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General Chae Myung-shin had repeatedly brushed off calls to investigate several atrocities conducted by South Korean forces from U.S. Army generals including General William Westmoreland, with reports that there were "repeated and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention [sic]."[29] Widespread reports of atrocities may be a contributing factor to the South Korean being eventually sidelined during the war. Independent studies by Vietnamese-speaking American Friends Service Committee members Diane and Michael Jones in 1972[30] and a separate RAND study conducted in 1970 reports 'deliberate, systematic policy', of Korean atrocities and mass-murders throughout the war. [12] Some notable massacres during this time period include the Bình Hòa massacre and Binh Tai massacre. With some media claims, During this time period they were alleged to have also perpetrated the Bình An/Tây Vinh massacre in which ROK troops were responsible for killing over 1,000 civilians. But for Bình Hòa massacre, there is no clear evidence that it was an incident committed by the Korean military. Oliver and Kendrick's book (The My Lai massacre in American history and memory.), which is often presented as proof of the Bình Hòa massacre, do not mention that the main culprit of the massacre is the Korean army.[31] In addition, the monument to the massacre contains only information about the U.S. military, not about the Korean military. furthermore, Quang Ngai was notorious for being thoroughly uncooperative to South Vietnam and the Allies during the Vietnam War. Most of the civilians were also VCs. There are so many guerrillas there, and the residents actively cooperated with them. So the U.S. military also painted the place pink on the operational map and cautioned, calling it " Pinkville, " a communist village.[32] Therefore, a joint investigation between South Korea and Vietnam is necessary to determine the exact authenticity of the case.

The 1972 report by Diane Jones and Michael Jones looked at just two provinces Koreans operated in, the Quang Ngai and Quang Nam Provinces and found they had conducted 45 massacres including 13 in which over 20 unarmed civilians were purportedly killed.[33] Within these two provinces the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre is confirmed to have taken place, with another prominent reported massacre occurring at Hà My,[33]. Further incidents are alleged to have occurred in the villages of An Linh and Vinh Xuan in Phú Yên Province[34] and the village of Tay Vinh in Bình Định Province.[35] There have been 12 reported mass-killings which approached the scale of the My Lai Massacre from the Jones study, with further documentation of thousands of routine murders on civilians primarily the elderly, women and children as most men in these regions had been conscripted into the Viet Cong or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).[36] The Jones study also further described incidents of "innumerable isolated killings, robberies, rapes, tortures, and devastation of land and personal property.[37] A separate study by a RAND-employee Terry Rambo conducted interviews in 1970 in ARVN/Civilian areas on the nature and scope of South Korean war crimes in the Vietnam War, verifying that widespread atrocities have occurred[12][13]. Widespread reports of deliberate mass-killings were reported to have been systemic, deliberate policies to massacre civilians with murders running into the hundreds[12][13]. Atrocities by Korean forces was covered by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda in the chapter "The 43+ My Lais of South Korean Mercenaries"[36].

In Phú Yên Province and Quảng Ngãi Province an additional 653 civilians were allegedly killed by South Korean troops according to provincial and local officials interviewed by the AP though the AP team was not permitted to review documents on the massacre.[38] Survivors of the alleged massacres have travelled to South Korea to testify about the massacre at the Peace Museum in South Korea[39].

These reports are also confirmed by US commanders when Korean forces were deployed to I Corps during 1968, with US Marine General Rathvon M. Tompkins stating "whenever the Korean marines received fire "or think (they got) fired on from a village ... they'd divert from their march and go over and completely level the village ... it would be a lesson to (the Vietnamese)."[40] [15] General Robert E. Cushman Jr. stated "we had a big problem with atrocities committed by them which I sent down to Saigon."[40][15]

The effects of atrocities committed by South Korean forces, were found to have motivated individuals to join the ranks of the Viet Cong, strengthening their presence overall in the regions which were occupied by Korean forces [14]. Survivors often joined the Viet Cong to exact revenge against Korean and US forces[11]. The behaviour of some units and individuals caused dissension among allies, with incidents of reprisal killings by South Vietnamese forces against South Korean officers occurring in Son Tinh in 1967, due to alleged atrocities against pro-South Vietnamese locals. A South Vietnamese officer was later acquitted for killing two South Korean lieutenants who ordered atrocities, due to popular support for reprisal killings.[41][unreliable source?]

Part of the reason why Korean forces were alleged to engage in atrocities stem from orders by Park Chung-Hee to minimise casualties through practices such as hostage-taking and the brutality of South Korean forces was both due to many officers being Japanese-trained with many officers themselves following the same doctrines during the Korean War[42] with Chae Myung-shin and others being participants of the Jeju Massacre, Bodo League massacre and the Ganghwa massacre[42]. Allegations are raised that the US leadership did not discourage Korean atrocities, instead tolerated them.[36]

However, the distinction between VC and civilians was unclear at the time. Obviously, despite the large number of VCs in the village, residents claimed that there was not a single VC in the village.[43] Moreover, there were crimes committed by Viet cong disguised as Korean troops.(There were incidents in which the Viet cong made it look as if the Korean army had committed a crime. [44]) In addition, Most of the details of the massacre were fabricated by the 구수정, Or it was found to be fabricated by Japan.[45][46] moreover, the data Vietnam claims are often hard to believe.[47][48] The problem comes in detail in the book " Natinoalist in the Vietnam Waters, " written by " Nguyen Cong Luan, " a native of Hanoi and serving as a South Vietnamese officer. While serving as an officer, He heard rumors that Korean troops were committing a crime or rape, but most of them were groundless and many of them were propaganda for Vietcong.[49] Also, the Korean army responded strongly to atrocities. In the case of General Seo Kyung-seok(Kyŏng-sŏk Sŏ / 서경석), for example, he was supposed to receive a medal for defeating the enemy but was found to have beaten the prisoner. The medal was revoked. The reason he beat up a prisoner was because a North Vietnamese officer who was taken captive immediately after killing his men made him angry.[50] Therefore, it is not desirable to accept the details of Korean military crimes hastily.


The Korean military recorded a 1:25 casualty rate in Vietnam. This is more than the 1:9 U.S. At the end of the war, the Korean army also posted a 1:100 casualty rate.[20]The reason why the Korean military fought well is that it was the first time in the history of the Republic of Korea to send troops overseas, and the second was that it had some experience in the fight against guerrillas as a parterman. Therefore, the West's initial view of the Korean military was positive.[51][52][53]Korean troops were alleged to have proven effective in their area of operations, providing protection to the South Vietnamese in the central coastal area and preventing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong domination there[citation needed]. One other author claims that widespread success of South Korean operations spread among the Viet Cong guerrillas which are claimed by one author as having caused the Viet Cong to avoid engagements with South Korean forces.[54] Official reports however state that ARVN forces were instead effectively buffering Korean forces from the PAVN and providing actual security of most areas[3]. Other reports indicate civilians often left the Korean occupied areas[12][13]. and that areas Korean forces operated in experienced significant unrest and strengthening of Vietcong control[14][13]. Regarding the massacres, one historian notes "While much research is needed to confirm the extent and nature of Korean atrocities in Vietnam, the ROK reputation for ferocity is well established and reported consistently by Korean, Vietnamese and American sources" whom the reputation for ferocity is explained by the "brutality of South Korean forces in Vietnam".[42]

American war planners are alleged to have leaned heavily on ROK forces, given their ability to carry out missions with considerable success. Allegedly in the minds of some US peers, Koreans outperformed other allied forces in Vietnam in lethality, organization, and professionalism.[55][56][57] Other commanders whom interacted with them were more critical and stated "Koreans made excessive demands for choppers and artillery support and that they stood down for too long after an operation. He equated the total two Korean divisions to "what one can expect from one good US Brigade". [58] Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird publicly and openly questioned their usefulness in the conflict and had notable conflict with Korean leaders during the US Withdrawal period, questioning their use in the conflict and threatening to withdraw funding for them.[3]

Following the Tet Offensive, Operation Ohjakgyo was claimed to have achieved its tactical goal, but poor leadership and the political situation at home made for more passive military operation.[59][unreliable source?] Another cause of this passive attitude is, unlike the early days of the war, affected by the policy of the ROK Military Command at that time. In the early days of the war ROKMC suffered heavy losses due to overly aggressive operations. The ROK military has changed its operational policy and issued official guidelines stipulating that it should "conduct a proper operation in accordance with the information obtained from them after finishing the appropriate grasp of the vicinity of the major tactical base and establishing ties with the residents". These evaluations extended to both the ROK Army and Marine Corps.[60]

As a component of the joint-service MACV, the South Korean marines had a great deal of interaction with American Marines.  While the Vietnam War constituted the first military action on foreign soil for the South Korean marines since their formation, they claimed to have proven themselves to be highly skilled and capable warriors. All of the Blue Dragon Brigade’s officers were trained in Quantico, VA or San Diego, CA by the U.S. Marine Corps. In the Vietnam War, South Korean marines lacked organic aviation assets and American ANGLICO Marines were typically embedded within every South Korean company to coordinate fires, close air support, medevac, and resupply.[61].

Overall, assessments of the ROK military vary greatly over time. The tactics of the ROK military changed from defensive and passive tactics including the establishment of siege-like bases, unlike aggressive tactics prior to the Tet Offensive. This passivity has become even worse since the US 7th Division withdrew from the South Korea. One of the reasons for the South Korean government 's participation in the war in Vietnam was the fear that the US might move the US forces in South Korea to Vietnam. So South Korea sent troops to Vietnam for both military and economic benefits. but the United States eventually reduced the number of US troops on the Korean Peninsula. At that time, the public opinion of Korea was as follows. "Even though we helped the US forces in the Vietnam War, the US rather withdrew US troops from the Korean peninsula. Why should we fight more in Vietnam?" This was a considerable political burden for the Korean government. [62]

Non-combat and civilian support operation in the southern areas was well received, but various war crimes suspicions began to emerge when combat forces were deployed. South Korean troops have shown a very dual attitude toward civilians. The South Korean military was emphasizing active support for civilians, and there was actually active civilian support near the base. During the Vietnam War, the South Korean military provided 3,353,364 public health services, 1,640 tons of food, 461,764 points of clothing, 6,406 farm tools, and 3,319 bridges[63][64] One slogan Korean troops had adopted during the Vietnam War were as follows."한국군은 백명의 베트콩을 놓치는 한이 있더라도 한명의 양민을 보호한다." which means " Korean troops protect one civilian even if they miss 100 enemies."[65][66][67]There have been some positive reports furthermore from Korean and Western views on their alleged successes.[68][52]

they were too aggressive in searching for or attacking Vietcong, regardless of the civilian sacrifice. Most South Koreans suffered North Korea's invasion 20 years ago and had hostility and trauma toward the communist party. South Koreans tried to support the cooperative civilians around the base, but the civilians in the town where Vietcong was active were seen by Koreans as enemies, not civilians. This was particularly noticeable in the northern areas where the Vietcong was very active.[69] In most cases, however, the Korean military has put a great deal of effort into helping the people.[70][71][72][73] As a result, demonstrations in some regions were held against the Korean troops leaving when they were trying to change the location of their base.[74]

Impacts on South Korea and Vietnam

See South Korea–Vietnam relations

The total cost to the United States of paying for Korean participation was "peanuts compared to what it would be for a comparable number of Americans," but those payments are estimated to account for 4 percent of the GNP in 1967 and totalling more than one billion dollars. The war contributed to a boost in the South Korean economy.[75][76]

Similar to reports of US atrocities during the war, atrocities first reported in the 1990's by Ku Su-Jeong had shocked Korean society[77]. Further testimonies and extensive accounts in the South Korean media emerged from South Korean Vietnam War veterans, and have caused considerable debate and re-assessment within South Korea about its role in the conflict.[78] Allegations of wartime rape has recently been raised in recent years, with testimonies from offspring fathered by South Koreans in the Vietnam War known as Lai Đại Hàn were ostracised and neglected by Vietnamese society following the war.[79][80] Korean civil groups have discussed the issue considerably, and calls have been made for a Korean inquiry, in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on massacres committed by government forces during the Korean War, known as the People's Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean Troops during the Vietnam War. [81]

The alleged war crimes have had an impact upon South Korea–Vietnam relations and led the Vietnamese government to oppose the "commemoration of mercenaries" when South Korean President Moon Jae-in honoured the 50th Anniversary of South Korean servicemen who had fought in South Vietnam on South Korea's Memorial Day in 2017.[82] Nevertheless reconciliation efforts from the government of South Korea have been undertaken with apologies from President Kim Dae-Jung[83] and Moon Jae-in.[84]

The Korean government refused to provide additional compensation for their war veterans by establishing a "no duplicate reward" in the Constitution. Korean victims of Agent Orange have also not received compensation from the Korean government.[85][86] Since the government had taken most of the monthly salary of the servicemen, the compensation given to individual veterans was quite minimal. Despite the current economic revival in Korea, the Constitution prohibits additional compensation, and the government has no formal means to further compensate them aside from their initial salary.[citation needed]

There are allegations of missing POWs from Korea. A total of 320,000 troops have been deployed, but only 8 people have been officially recognized by the Korean government so far as missing in action. There are suspicions that the South Korean government intentionally ignored South Korean POWs captured by the North Vietnamese. There are also suspicions that some of them were forcibly sent to North Korea.[87][88]

Impact on Tae-Kwon-Do

As early as 1966, South Korean officers begun to organise taekwondo classes for South Vietnamese army officers among others. [89] Later thend Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James L. Jones, to push for the creation and development of what is now MCMAP.[90] This may have also lead to the creation of the Combat Fitness Test.  General Jones had served as a platoon and company commander in Vietnam and witnessed firsthand the military prowess of the South Korean marines. General Jones stated that he had “observed with keen interest how a challenging physical combative training and a national military martial arts system” unified and forged a warrior ethos within the South Korean marines.[91]  While the effectiveness of tae kwon do was proven in combat[citation needed], it is not only useful as a combat tool, but also as a method of instilling discipline in military forces.  While MCMAP draws from techniques of many additional martial arts styles aside from tae kwon do, it is clear that the Korean Marines’ emphasis on martial arts and physical fitness as a whole left a lasting impact on the American Marines[citation needed].

Đơn Dương, a Vietnamese actor who played the role of Nguyễn Hữu An in the movie "We Were Soldiers", testified that he had learned taekwondo from the Korean Army during the Vietnam War as a child.[92]

Order of battle

Operations involving South Korea

See also

External links

  • Vietnam Veterans Association Korea


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