A local court in Seoul on Tuesday ordered the South Korean government to pay 30 million won ($23,900) in compensation to a Vietnam War victim, holding the country accountable for a wartime massacre of civilians.
The Seoul Central District Court also ordered that the Seoul government be held responsible for any interest on payments to the plaintiff delayed for five decades, as well as the plaintiff's attorney fees.
This is the first court ruling in history here that recognizes the state's accountability for atrocities committed by Korean troops stationed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The suit seeking 30 million won in damages was filed in April 2020, about two decades after allegations of wartime atrocities by Korean soldiers surfaced in 1999.
The incident dates back to 1968, in the fourth year of the Korean military's presence in the Vietnam War, as they joined forces with US military in a war against communism. Approximately 350,000 Korean military personnel were deployed there between 1964 and 1973.
Nguyen Thi Thanh, the 63-year-old plaintiff, has claimed in the testimony that she had witnessed a Korean military unit opening fire at civilians, including herself, at Phong Nhi village in central Vietnam in February 1968. Five of Nguyen's family members were forced out of their house and the Korean military men killed one after another. Her house was burnt down. Nguyen, who was 8 years old, and her elder brother, 14 at that time, were severely wounded by the gunfire. She survived after surgery but has suffered resulting discomfort for all her life.
Nguyen's testimony was supported by a US Army audit that confirmed over 70 people were killed, with some 20 people wounded in the two hamlets of Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat.
The Korean government insisted that there is no clear evidence of Korean military's involvement in the massacre during the court trials. It cited chances that Vietcong forces, who allegedly donned Korean marine uniforms, might have committed the killings. It also claimed that the testimonies of the survivors were the only evidence.
The court rejected these claims, saying the atrocities can be construed as "apparent unlawful acts" by the state.
The court also refuted the Korean government's arguments that the plaintiff holds no entity to file a damage suit against the country, citing a period of limitation and a trilateral agreement among the US, Vietnam and South Korea which states that any Vietnamese person cannot file a suit against the Korean government. Under the Korean law, a plaintiff should file a complaint within five years of an event.
The court, however, ruled that the plaintiff was not in a position to pursue a legal action before the limitation of period expired in 1973 and that Korea's respective agreement with the United States and Vietnam has no legal power to block the victim's litigation right.
Nguyen, who was in Vietnam and was not present at the Seoul court, told reporters in a virtual video call she "felt elated" by the court ruling, adding that she hoped the "74 victims of the massacre could rest in peace."
All eyes are on whether the ruling will spark a series of litigations calling for compensation. Under the Korean judiciary system, where class action lawsuits do not exist, only those presenting individual litigation will be affected by the court ruling.
Lim Jae-sung, an attorney at the law firm Haemaru representing Nguyen, played down the possibility of other victims filing consecutive complaints, saying that the admissibility of the evidence to court varies by victim who holds a burden of proof.
In April 2019, a total of 103 Vietnamese who claimed to have been victims and bereaved families filed a joint petition to the government demanding an apology and an investigation into the matter, only to face rejections by the Defense Ministry five months later.