Vietnam And South Korea Bury The Past To Form Economic Partnership
Vietnam and South Korea have had numerous encounters in the combat zone. But that doesn’t stop the two erstwhile foes from meeting in the present on friendlier terms. Since 1992 when formal diplomatic relations were established, the bilateral ties have strengthened and both nations have benefited from the ensuing economic and trade gains.
Last December, the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries took effect, opening up more opportunities for investment and commerce for Seoul and Vietnam. Under the VKFTA, tariffs will be reduced or eliminated, the import and export market will allow the exchange of more items and investments from Seoul will create more job opportunities for the Vietnam people. Main export items from Vietnam, including farm produce and fisheries, garment and footwear, will have reduced tariff. Likewise, South Korea’s export items like its cosmetics, electronic devices, household appliances and raw materials for the garment and textile industry will also enjoy the same benefits.
In the Business Dialogue 2015 in Ho Chi Minh City, Consul General of the Republic of Korea in HCMC Park Noh Wan noted that South Korea has invested more in Vietnam than in any other ASEAN nation and the trend is seen to continue. From January to October last year, reports from the Foreign Investment Agency under the Ministry of Planning and Investment showed that 30% of $19.3 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) came from South Korean companies. As examples, Samsung and LG have expanded their electronic manufacturing companies and R & D divisions in Haiphong City and in the Saigon High-Tech Park in HCM City.
But beneath the rosy outlook for economic prosperity, there is an undercurrent of grief mixed with concealed hostility from the Vietnam people who witnessed and survived the horrors of war. It’s not easy for them to forget the atrocities of the South Korean soldiers. While their government officials mix and mingle with the ministers from Seoul to discuss trade and security policies, the war survivors live in impoverished conditions with mangled bodies, missing limbs and emotional scars.
It was only forty years after the Vietnam War that stories came out about the barbaric tortures, rapes and killings that befell the unarmed South Vietnam civilians at the hands of the Republic Of Korea Forces. It started with Ku Su-jeong, a South Korean graduate student who studied at a Vietnamese university in Ho Chi Minh City. Certain incidents led her to research and conduct interviews of people who had been present during the Vietnam War. Her accounts of massacres of thousands of civilian men, women, children and the elderly were published in The Hankyoreh 21, a South Korean newspaper, opening a Pandora’s Box of sorts and setting off other individuals and organizations to seek the truth in her statements.
The gory details of the series of massacres in Binh An, Ha My and other villages spoke of the cold-blooded and vicious nature of the Korean troops. Those who managed to come out alive told of how their homes were set afire by the soldiers to force them out and shoot them while fleeing, of how grenades were thrown into villages and the civilians were told to line up and then fired upon, of how children were given candies and shot.
But the Vietnam people are mild-mannered and gentle. They have learned to go on living and move on, even as their memories haunt them. Their pragmatism is echoed by their own government leaders who wanted to rebuild ties with the countries they were at war with in the past, including the United States, China, Japan and South Korea. When then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Hanoi in August 1995, he recalled the trauma of war and added, “Let us now lay our past of conflict to rest, and dedicate ourselves to a future of productive cooperation.” Vietnam, needing the trade and economic relations with America, couldn’t agree more. Then Hanoi Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam (1991–2000) told Reuters, “South Korean troops committed crimes against Vietnamese people. With humanitarian and peaceful neighborly traditions, it is Vietnam’s policy to close the past…’’ The reporters were not allowed to interview survivors either.
South Korea has been silent on the matter, even after concerned organizations called on Pres. Park Geun-hye to apologize. But if the past is any indication, there won’t be any coming. In 2001, when then president Kim Dae-jung offered an apology to Vietnam president Tran Duc-Luong, Park who was with the opposition party said, it “drove a stake through the honor of South Korea.” Seoul can readily bury the past, along with their rifles and bayonets, if they are the aggressors but it took them 70 years to accept Japan’s apology for the comfort women issue.
Yet, in light of the current state Asian countries are in, with China claiming disputed territories and building islands and North Korea firing nuclear missiles and rockets, it is only practical for South Korea, Vietnam and other nations to unite and band together for trade and security purposes.