SEOUL -- A South Korean court has ordered the government to pay compensation to a bereaved family of Vietnamese civilians killed by Korean troops during the Vietnam War.
On February 7, the Seoul Central District Court made the first ruling that acknowledged the Korean government's liability for the mass killings of civilians during the war.
The court ruled in favor of the 63-year-old plaintiff, Nguyen Thi Thanh, ordering the Seoul government to pay 30 million won ($24,680) in compensation for the loss of her family members and gunshot wounds she sustained from the incident. It also ordered the government to pay interest for delayed payment.
The ruling came after the Vietnamese plaintiff filed a damage suit against the Korean government in April 2020, seeking 30 million won in compensation for the loss of her loved ones and her wounds.
She claimed that she lost her family members in February 1968 when soldiers belonging to the 2nd Marine Brigade of the Republic of Korea Marine Corps killed some 70 civilians in the village of Phong Nhi, Dien Ban in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Nam. She survived the massacre although she was shot.
The Korean government, however, countered her claim, saying that it is impossible to prove that Korean troops carried out the killing because no one can rule out the possibility that members of the communist Viet Cong posed as Korean troops to kill the civilians. It argued that it was absurd to claim that the perpetrators were definitely South Korean soldiers only because they put on South Korean military uniforms and did not use the Vietnamese.
The government also purported that such a massacre, if actually committed by Korean troops, cannot be seen as illegitimate, considering the fact that the North Vietnamese forces waged guerilla warfare during the war. Besides, it made the case against the compensation claim by pointing out that the statute of limitations already expired several decades after the incident.
However, the plaintiff countered that any perpetrators cannot resort to the statute of limitations when there exist legitimate reasons that the victims are unable to make a claim for damage.
The court turned down the government's arguments after hearing testimonies from Ryoo Jin-sung, a Vietnam War veteran, and a Vietnamese who served as a militia at the village when the killing took place. It is not yet known whether the government will appeal the ruling.
There were widespread allegations that South Korean troops were involved in mass killings of civilians during the Vietnam War. Yet, the government has refused to recognize its responsibility for the atrocities.
About 312,000 Korean soldiers fought in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, according to official data.
In 2001, then President Kim Dae-jung expressed his regrets, not apology, that Korea had unintentionally inflicted pain upon the Vietnamese people during the war.
Legal experts said that more surviving Vietnamese victims are likely to file damage suits against the South Korean government following the compensation order.
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