Korean truth commission will not investigate wartime civilian massacre in Hà My

25 May 2023

Although the commission’s chairperson acknowledged the probability of the incident and the state’s responsibility, he noted it should be resolved through diplomatic measures

“There does appear to have been some likelihood of harm in the Hà My village incident. It does appear that the state bears some responsibility in connection with that issue. But there is also the potential for restitution for that harm to be received through the courts rather than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We will move to dismiss [this matter] as not corresponding to the scope of our commission’s investigation subjects.”



As soon as the final statement had been made by Kim Kwang-dong, chairperson of South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a member nominated by the Democratic Party raised an objection.



“We need to have a vote,” they urged. “Why is the chairperson allowed to just dismiss it as he sees fit? I do not agree with this decision to dismiss.”



A vote was finally held — the first in the two years since the second truth commission began making decisions to launch investigations. Four members approved the dismissal, including Kim and three others nominated by the People Power Party, while three Democratic Party-nominated members voted to oppose the dismissal.



In a 55th plenary session on Wednesday afternoon, the commission made a final decision declining to initiate an investigation into a massacre in the Vietnamese village of Hà My, which had been raised as an amended voting item. The decision came after a heated debate lasting around one hour.



“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interference in matters related to diplomacy and national defense would be ill-considered and inconsistent with the fundamental purpose of the Framework Act on Settling the Past Affairs for Truth and Reconciliation,” the members nominated by the People Power Party stated. “This provides no help to our national identity or unity. We cannot consent to the investigation of a matter that will divide the public while applications submitted by Korean citizens remain unprocessed.”



The committee members nominated by the Democratic Party stated, “The framework act states that the nationality of the victims or the area where the crime took place are not grounds for dismissal, and our focus should be on whether the state bears responsibility for this incident.” Citing the successful verdict in favor of Vietnamese victims in a claim for state compensation brought against the Korean government in February, they added, “An investigation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first step toward national responsibility.”



The panel’s chairperson, Kim Kwang-dong, clearly sided with the People Power Party members. Although Kim acknowledged the probability of the incident and the state’s responsibility, he noted, “This issue should be resolved on a national level through diplomatic measures. We have determined this is not a matter that calls for extending the application of the framework act to foreign nationals.”



At 4:40 pm, shortly after the commission rejected the petition, lawyers representing 66-year-old Nguyen Thi Thanh and the other petitioners from Hà My and the Civil Society Network for a Just Resolution to the Vietnam Issue held a press conference in front of the Namsan Square building.



“This is shocking, disappointing and saddening. With this decision, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ignores its very reason for being,” said Kim Nam-ju and Lim Jae-sung, the lawyers.



“We never expected they would decide not to even hold an investigation. We will file another petition objecting to the commission’s decision and also consider filing an administrative lawsuit.”



Nguyen Thi Thanh had a video call with the civil society network after hearing that her petition had been rejected.



“I’ve been waiting anxiously for a year since we filed our petition for an investigation. Now that the commission is refusing to acknowledge the truth about Hà My or to even carry out an investigation, the only word that comes to mind is disappointment,” Nguyen Thi Thanh said.



“The debt that [Koreans] owe to the victims, the bereaved families and the survivors in Vietnam will be carried forever by generations to come,” she said.



Nguyen Thi Thanh was one of five Vietnamese who asked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the massacre at Hà My village in April 2022. In November, a plenary session of the commission resolved to postpone the discussion until a Korean court reached a decision on a related case.



The Hà My village massacre occurred on Feb. 24, 1968, when South Korean marines shot and killed 135 people, mostly elderly people and children, in the village, which is located in Điện Bàn District, Quảng Nam Province. The following day, the marines reportedly mutilated the corpses with bulldozers.



A memorial stone that was erected with support from a Korean veterans’ group in 2000 was later covered up by a lotus flower mural under pressure from the Korean government.



By Koh Kyoung-tae, staff reporter