South Korea in the Vietnam War

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South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War
Part of the Vietnam War
ObjectiveTo support South Vietnam against Communist attacks
Date11 September 1964 – 23 March 1973
Executed byApproximately 320,000 military personnel, with an average of 48,000 per year.
Casualties5,099 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. Having recently fought a bloody civil war against communists in the Korean peninsula with American help, South Korea made offers to send troops to support South Vietnam as early as 1954, but these were turned down. Eventually, a request for coalition partners by MACV under the Many Flags campaigns was made, and South Korea joined the war. South Korea's decision to join resulted from various underlying causes, including the development of US-ROK relations, political exigencies, and the promise of economic aid from the United States.[1] South Korea would make up the second largest force in the ten member coalition after the United States.

Various criticisms were levied against Korea's entry into the conflict. Korea received economic payment for joining the war, with a House Subcommittee hearing chaired by J. William Fulbright criticising the deployment of Korean forces as resembling the "hiring of mercenaries".[2] Monetary compensation was directly linked to participation in combat, 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]

During the Korean war, South Korean and American forces fought Chinese and North Korean forces side by side, and many South Korean soldiers saw themselves as repaying the sacrifices their ally had made to keep it free.[4] South Korea also saw how Japan made its economic recovery during the destructive Korean War, and saw the same opportunity for development in Vietnam. And although some soldiers saw themselves as repaying the sacrifices Americans had made during the Korean War, many also saw an opportunity to rise with combat pay and took on service in order to support their families as South Korea was still mired in poverty.[5] 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 South Korean government.[6]


The first Korean units arrived 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.[citation needed] 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 Province 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]

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][18] 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][18] A passive role was not limited to just the Koreans, other armies including ANZAC and US Forces were also kept at minimal combat following the Tet Offensive.[19] Part of the reason for this was the US announcement of withdrawal following political failures revealed by Tet, which caused the Korean military to lose reason, the Korean military's assessment received favourable reviews in the beginning and was passive in the second half.[7] Corruption did occur in which US-issued weapons were re-directed and sold to Korean ships for re-sale to the Korean government [20] and supplementing the arsenal of Korean forces stationed in Korea, whom were still given M1 Garand rifles instead of the newer-issue M16 rifle given out to ARVN and ROK forces in South Vietnam [21] The withdrawal process had negatively impacted Korean-US relations, despite economic benefits gained,[22] 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 while placing the 2nd Division in the rear which soured relations between Korea and the US.[23] 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 troops (US Army 24,200, ROK Army 37,438).[24] US Marine Aviation assets that supported the Blue Dragon troops withdrew completely in May 1971 while the combat role of Korean troops continued. Around the time of the Battle of An Khe Pass, ROK forces had more limited air-support, but remained until 1973 when all foreign troops withdrew due to the Paris Peace Accords.[25][26][27]

Reported war crimes and atrocities[edit]

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]."[28]

The Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre was confirmed to have been conducted by South Korean forces, while they are also alleged to have perpetrated massacres at Bình An/Tây Vinh,[29] Bình Hòa and Hà My. Further incidents are alleged to have occurred in the villages of An Linh and Vinh Xuan in Phú Yên Province.[30] Newsweek reports that massacres such as the one at Vinh Xuan were described by witnesses as the massacre of children and entire families in an effort to depopulate three central coast provinces, with largely unprovoked and indiscriminate killings that led villagers to join the ranks of the Viet Cong.[30]

In 1972 Vietnamese-speaking American Friends Service Committee members Diane and Michael Jones looked at Quảng Ngãi and Quảng Nam Provinces where Korean forces operated and alleged they had conducted 45 massacres including 13 in which over 20 unarmed civilians were purportedly killed.[31][32] Within these two provinces the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre is confirmed to have taken place.[32]

The Associated Press (AP) in April 2000 investigated the purported Bình An/Tây Vinh massacre and stated that it "was unable to independently confirm their [the Vietnamese victims'] claims" and "An additional 653 civilians were allegedly killed the same year by South Korean troops in neighboring Quang Ngai and Phu Yen provinces, according to provincial and local officials interviewed by the AP on a trip the government took two months to approve. As is routine with foreign reporters, several government escorts accompanied the AP staff. The AP was unable to search for documents that would back up the officials' allegations". The AP wrote that "Neither the Pentagon nor the South Korean Defense Ministry would comment on the allegations or offer independent confirmation".[33] A Reuters story from January 2000 stated that "Three local officials, including one who said he survived the alleged killings, spoke at length about the events in Binh Dinh. The officials, who declined to be identified, said that in early 1966, Korean troops entered what was then the Binh An commune, a collection of villages within Tay Son district that they believed was a Viet Cong stronghold. The Koreans were intent on flushing out opposing forces, but civilians bore the brunt of their actions, the officials said. An official at Tay Son's Communist Party history unit said the attacks began in early 1966 and culminated in a massacre of 380 people on Feb. 26, 1966, at a place called Go Dai." and that "A People's Committee official in Tay Son district also confirmed the details, saying 1,200 people were killed. A government official in Hanoi said central authorities had later investigated what happened at Binh Dinh and compiled detailed reports, which showed more than 1,000 people were killed during the period, about 380 of them at Go Dai. However, when asked for comment and to confirm the alleged killings, Vietnam's foreign ministry said it did not want to dwell on the matter. "South Korean troops committed crimes against Vietnamese people. With humanitarian and peaceful neighbourly traditions, it is Vietnam's policy to close the past..." the ministry said in a statement in response to questions." [34]

Atrocities by Korean forces were 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" which reported thousands of routine murders of 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).[35] The Jones study also further described incidents of "innumerable isolated killings, robberies, rapes, tortures, and devastation of land and personal property.[35] A separate refugee study by a RAND-employee Terry Rambo conducted interviews in early/mid 1966 in Phu Yen Province confirmed that widespread atrocities had occurred with systemic mass-killings and deliberate policies to massacre civilians with murders running into the hundreds was reported in a 1970 New York Times story.[12][13]

The alleged 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.[30]

Survivors of the alleged massacres have travelled to South Korea to testify about the massacre at the Peace Museum in South Korea.[36]

When Korean forces were deployed to I Corps during 1968, US Marine General Rathvon M. Tompkins stated that "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). General Robert E. Cushman Jr. stated several years later that "we had a big problem with atrocities committed by them which I sent down to Saigon."[37] presumably in reference to the Phong Nhị and Phong Nhất massacre.[15]

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.[38] Allegations have been raised that the US leadership did not discourage Korean atrocities, but tolerated them.[35]

Punishment for some war-crimes and atrocities did occur. South Vietnamese officer Nguyen Cong Luan in his memoirs Nationalism In The Waters had heard rumours that Korean troops were committing war-crimes and stated they were often exaggerated, and that punishment for crimes did occur, Other times the Korean army responded strongly to atrocities such as a case of General Seo Kyung-seok who was decorated for winning a victory but was found to have beaten a prisoner, causing the award to be revoked.[39]


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.[40] Some reports 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".[38]

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.[41][42][43] 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".[7]:152 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]

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.[44]

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. Since one of the reasons for participation was due to fears of US withdrawal from South Korea, when the United States was planning on reducing the number of US troops on the Korean Peninsula later on, public opinion and government opinion declined, and they became less willing to participate.[45] Other U.S. data generally positively assess the military activities of the Korean military.[7]

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. 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[46] There have been some positive reports furthermore from Korean and Western views on their alleged successes.[47]

South Koreans tried to support the cooperative civilians around the base, but the civilians in the town where Viet Cong was active were seen by Koreans as enemies, not civilians. This was particularly noticeable in the northern areas where the Vietcong was very active.[48] In other cases the Korean military and in particular engineering, medical and construction units has put a great deal of effort into helping the people.[49][50][51]

Impacts on South Korea and Vietnam[edit]

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.[52][53]

Similar to reports of US atrocities during the war, atrocities first reported in the 1990s by Ku Su-Jeong had shocked Korean society.[54] 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.[55] 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.[56][57] 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.[58]

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.[59] Nevertheless reconciliation efforts from the government of South Korea have been undertaken with apologetic statements from President Kim Dae-Jung[60] and Moon Jae-in.[61]

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.[62][63] 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.[64]

Wider impact of tae-kwon-do[edit]

As early as 1966, South Korean officers begun to organise taekwondo classes for South Vietnamese army officers among others.[65] Later the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James L. Jones, to push for the creation and development of what is now MCMAP.[66] This may have also led 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.[67] 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. MCMAP draws from techniques of many additional martial arts styles aside from tae kwon do, and 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, stated that he had learned taekwondo from the Korean Army during the Vietnam War as a child.[68]

Order of battle[edit]

Operations involving South Korea[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


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