A South Korean court on Tuesday ruled in favor of a Vietnamese woman who suffered a gunshot wound and lost family members in a massacre committed by South Korean marines in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
The Seoul Central District Court ordered the government to pay Nguyen Thi Thanh 30 million won (about $23,800) in compensation, calling the shooting by South Korean marines during the Vietnam War an “illegal act.”
This is the first time that a South Korean court ruled the government responsible for such atrocities. Thanh, who is currently in her 60s, filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government in 2020.
In its ruling, the court dismissed the government’s claim that there was no conclusive evidence that South Korean marines were responsible for the killings in Phong Nhi village in Quang Nam province, the scene of the attack on Thanh and her family.
“It is acknowledged that the plaintiff’s family members died at the site, and she sustained serious wounds … from the shooting by marine troops,” the court was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.
The court also rejected the government’s contention that civilian killings were unavoidable because the South Korean troops were dealing with Viet Cong guerrillas who often blended with villagers.
The government’s lawyers were also unsuccessful in invoking a statute of limitations.
Thanh was 7 years old when South Korean marines stormed the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut on Feb. 12, 1968. She sustained a gunshot wound in the stomach, while five of her family members died in the incident, including her mother.
Thanh, who awaited the ruling in Vietnam, said she was “overjoyed” by her court victory.
“I think that the souls (of those who died in Phong Nhi) were always with me and supported me,” she said in a video message translated by her legal team. “I am overjoyed because I think that the souls can now rest easy.”
Commenting on the court’s decision on Tuesday, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said it would “review follow-up steps after going through consultations with relevant agencies,” Yonhap News Agency reported.
Vietnam War Massacre
Then ruled by anti-communist military leaders, South Korea sent more than 320,000 troops to Vietnam, the largest foreign contingent fighting alongside U.S. troops.
According to U.S. military documents and survivors, more than 70 people were killed and about 20 others injured when South Korean marines allegedly fired at unarmed civilians as they swept through Phong Nhi and the nearby village of Phong Nhut in 1968.
According to U.S. military investigation records, U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese militia provided medical treatment to villagers who fled as South Korean soldiers continued to shoot inside the villages.
U.S. Marines later entered the villages and found piles of bodies in different areas, many burned or buried in ash. One U.S. soldier took photos which were used as evidence during Thanh’s trial.
The trial also included the testimonies of other Vietnamese villagers and South Korean war veterans such as Ryu Jin-seong, a member of the marine unit linked to the attacks in Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut.
Ryu provided a firsthand account of how the South Korean soldiers shot at unarmed civilians, many of them children and women.
The government has never officially acknowledged responsibility for civilian massacres linked to South Korean soldiers in Vietnam, which some experts say were possibly responsible for thousands of deaths.
Those atrocities haven’t meaningfully impacted official relations with Vietnam, whose growing economy benefits from South Korean investment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.