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South Korean bishop apologizes for Vietnam War atrocities

U.S. Marines with Company G, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, direct a concentration of fire at the enemy during Operation Allen Brook (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
February 14, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A visiting South Korean Catholic bishop has publicly apologized to the people of Vietnam for atrocities committed by his country’s soldiers during the Vietnam War after a South Korean court ordered the government to pay restitution to a Vietnamese survivor.

South Korea sent more than 320,000 soldiers to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, making it the largest foreign fighting presence alongside the United States during the conflict. South Korea’s government has never addressed claims that it was responsible for mass killings of Vietnamese civilians at the time.

On Thursday, Bishop Peter Lee Ki-Heon, who is leading a group of a dozen priests on a friendship visit to the Lang Son Cao Bang Diocese in northern Vietnam, issued an apology for the atrocities “on behalf of the Catholic Church in South Korea,” according to a report by the Union of Catholic Asian News.

Bishop Lee and Bishop Joseph Chau Ngoc Tri of Lang Son Cao Bang were jointly leading a Mass attended by Korean and Vietnamese priests and local Catholics at St. Dominic Cathedral when he made the comments – the first apology by a South Korean bishop for atrocities committed during the war.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s Seoul Central District Court ordered that the government pay US$24,000 in compensation to Vietnamese national Nguyen Thi Thanh, 63, who was shot as South Korean soldiers tore through her village in central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province in 1968. While she survived, 74 were killed in the raid, including several of her relatives.

The court dismissed claims by South Korea’s government that it was unclear whether South Korean soldiers were responsible for the killings and that civilian deaths were unavoidable as Viet Cong guerrillas hid amid the general population.

The ruling, which is the first of its kind in South Korea, found the government responsible for the mass killings and could be used as a precedent for similar cases.