SEOUL — A court in Seoul ruled on Tuesday that South Korean marines were guilty of committing a massacre of unarmed villagers during the Vietnam War and ordered the South Korean government to compensate one of the Vietnamese victims.
The ruling was the first of its kind and expected to set a precedent in the country, where the government has long refused to address allegations of civilian massacres by South Korean troops in Vietnam.
Nguyen Thi Thanh, 62, sued the South Korean government in 2020, saying that she lost five relatives — and she and her brother were gravely wounded — when South Korean marines swept through the Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut villages in central Vietnam on Feb. 12, 1968, killing more than 70 villagers.
Most of the victims, shot or stabbed with bayonets, were women and children who were “murdered” as they pleaded for their lives,according to an American military officer who investigated the incident shortly after it happened.
As part of the ruling, Judge Park Jin-soo of the Seoul Central District Court ordered the government to pay Ms. Nguyen $23,900 in compensation, saying that what members of the Second Marine Brigade of South Korea did to her family “clearly amounted to an illegal act.” The judge agreed with Ms. Nguyen that South Korean marines rounded up the villagers at gunpoint and massacred them. The judge also threw out the government lawyers’ attempt to invoke the statute of limitations.
The ruling marked the first time a South Korean court held the government liable for a massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War.
“I am so happy to hear the news,” Ms. Nguyen, who did not attend the court ruling in Seoul on Tuesday, said in a video clip distributed by her South Korean lawyers. “I think the souls of the victims stood by me during the trial.”
South Korea sent 320,000 troops to Vietnam, making it the largest foreign contingent fighting alongside American forces in the war. But rumors have long persisted that South Korean troops committed mass killings of Vietnamese civilians.
When Ms. Nguyen enlisted the help of human rights lawyers and civic groups in Seoul to file her lawsuit three years ago, she became the first victim of such an alleged massacre to seek redress in a South Korean court. The South Korean Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that it was discussing the court ruling with other government agencies.
The ruling could encourage victims of other alleged mass killings in Vietnam to file similar lawsuits in South Korea. Ms. Nguyen’s lawyers hoped that the ruling would prompt South Korea’s Parliament to pass a special law to investigate the long-held allegations that South Korean troops killed thousands of civilians in Vietnam.
The killings at Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut took place a month before the My Lai massacre, where American troops killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians.
But efforts to come to terms with the brutalities from one of the bloodiest wars in modern history have triggered intense emotions in both the United States and South Korea. Only one soldier — Lt. William Calley — was convicted in the My Lai massacre, and President Richard Nixon reduced his sentence from life imprisonment to several years of house arrest.
In 2000 in South Korea, Vietnam War veterans attacked the office of a newsmagazine that reported wartime civilian massacres. Many of the veterans had long complained about health problems they said were caused by the Agent Orange defoliant the American military used during the war.
The massacre in Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut was one of the best documented among the alleged mass killings blamed on South Korean soldiers in Vietnam. The United States military investigated the case just days after the killings occurred, according to declassified American documents.
According to the documents, American Marines and South Vietnamese militiamen operating in Dien Ban, Quang Nam Province, heard firing and saw huts burning after the South Korean marine unit moved into Phong Nhi and Phong Nhut to investigate a small fire that injured a marine.
The U.S. Marines and the militiamen assisted villagers fleeing with wounds. The soldiers later visited Phong Nhi and found piles of bodies. One of the American Marines took pictures, which were presented as evidence in court.
During the trial, the government’s lawyers said that there was not enough evidence to prove South Korean marines had committed a massacre. Even if it had occurred, they said, it should be considered an unfortunate but not illegal part of guerrilla warfare between the Viet Cong and South Korean marines.
At trial, the testimony of Ryu Jin-seong, 76, a former member of the South Korean marine unit accused of killing the civilians in Ms. Nguyen’s village, endorsed her account.
For years, both the South Korean and Vietnamese governments had refused to discuss the grievances of the victims in public, focusing instead on boosting economic ties between the two nations. “But I stepped forward to testify in court because nobody else would tell the truth,” Mr. Ryu said during an online forum last month. “South Korea must come clean on its past.”
The South Korean government has two weeks to appeal the ruling.