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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2000.10.31
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War is the worst of all crime that man can do
The Dentists Association for a Healthy Society (DAHS) Chung Chang-kwon 

A Professional NGO’s Journey into Vietnam

This is a record of a remarkable action for reconciliation and forgiveness by an NGO of dental professionals in Korea. Based in Seoul, the Dentists Association for a Healthy Society (DAHS) has been campaigning to contribute to healing of Vietnamese victims of atrocities during the Vietnamese War. An interview with the author follows this article. - Editor

The Dentists Association for a Healthy Society(DAHS) set out to have an health care itinerary on 11 March 2000. The nine-day mission was prompted by the organization’s attention to the news originally attributed to the vernacular weekly Hankyoreh 21. The weekly startled the public in the previous year with a scoop article written by a correspondent based in Ho Chi Min city, Vietnam.

Koo Soo-jung, a graduate student in a Vietnamese university and a stringer for the weekly, reported in the now legendary article that she had uncovered verifiable proof of Korean soldiers’ human rights atrocities on Vietnamese civilian population during the Vietnamese War. She had digged government documents, searched official archives, met the victim’s relatives and survivors, and recorded their testimony.

The Korean government of the President Park Chung-hee sent a considerable size of combat troops to the Southeast Asian country under a military pact with the U.S. which fought in there since the 1960s. Many now point out that the decision to send in troops was derived from the huge financial compensation the U.S. government promised to the Korean regime. The despatch of Korean combat troops was seen by many as unjustifiable intervention with domestic affair of a Third World country.

The story both raised an unprecedented interest among the general public and provoked angry outcry by the war veterans and conservative factions of the public on an equal measure. The weekly was inundated with offers of help and sympathy, but at the same time drew fierce criticism of the military ranks and veterans for ‘disseminating unfounded allegation’.

Nevertheless, the original story began taking a form of series of investigative journalism due partly to public demand for fuller truth. Domestic and foreign press started taking note of the series and the story became a matter of great importance among human rights activists’ circle in the country.

Ferocious public debate was ensued with lively discussions about how to help Vietnamese overcome this tragic trauma of war atrocities. People were simply baffled on how the existence of such crime against humanity was shielded out of public attention for so long. The frustration was deteriorated once the full scale of the massacre (some estimate it as in the region of a few thousands) began to be exposed.

Upon huge response from the public the Hankyoreh press collaborated with some press in Vietnam and activists in Korea to lead a public campaign for the truth and reconciliation. There was also some diplomatic exchange between the two countries - they had re-established diplomatic ties some time earlier - over the publicity of the article.

The DAHS, a group of concerned dentists who are keen on such issue as democratization, equal rights for those in need of health care, and social justice, followed the story closely since its publication. The leadership of the DAHS reached some consensus with its membership that the group could contribute to the process of reconciliation as a pro-democracy NGO in the health care area.

As a result of this decision, the DAHS sent a preparatory team to Vietnam to find out what was needed and how. I was included in the advance team and, after a visit, made a full report to the group. Among the proposals included in the report was a suggestion that the DAHS should send a team of dental experts to provide Vietnamese victims’ relatives and citizens with itinerary free dental service. The objective of the despatch was to reach out those victims in Vietnam on behalf of Korean people as a symbol of apology, and offer our help and resource to those most in need of health care as a gesture of reconciliation.

Upon arrival in Vietnam we started offering dental service to village residents in Suntin County, near Danang from 13 March. Facilities for the group work were in basic standards and there was not enough support service for the activity. We thought of the victims silently before we started the day’s service. The entire team was divided along the lines of some specialist’s service such as conservation, gum disease, oral surgery, children’s dentistry and aseptics.

There was present a team of film crew from the Liberation Film company which made a documentary out of our work in there. Dr Shin Dong-keun, head of our group, was interviewed by the filming team. We were helped by some local assistants and university students for interpretation.

From the next day the whole team was divided into three groups. One group visited sites of atrocities each day in turn while the other two groups took care of the patients in the health center. The first place we visited was Dien Nien where 112 village people including children and women were massacred by Korea troops on 9 October 1966. We met a group of people some of whom were relatives of the victims. We listened to their explanation about what had happened there. The story was truly heartbreaking with harrowing sense of reality.

Another team visited Puk Bin in which 68 villagers were mercilessly killed by Korean troops on 9 October 1966. In particular, there were many survivors of the atrocity from whom we were able to hear vivid account of the massacre. The same happened when we visited Hat Thai village which saw more than twenty villagers killed by Korean soldiers in 1967, with similar incidents occurring several times.

In each site of massacre we visited we burned incense as a sign of mourning. At the same time we did our best to reach out to people and share our feeling with them. At first it was not easy to break the ice between us, but as time went by they opened their mind and engaged with us in free exchange of stories.

Among them was a survivor called Pham Thi Meo. An 85-year old man, Mr Pham Thi Meo recalled the horrific incident which took place when he was 52 years old. He witnessed innocent villagers slaughtered for no reason other than being suspicious. Though visibly shaken by his own memory, he shook hands with us or embraced us at the end. We were deeply moved by this kind of human understanding and forgiveness many times during our stay in the region.

When a team of us visited My Lai we unexpectedly met a group of Americans who paid tribute to a monument for the victims there. It turned out that they were holding the 32nd annual commemoration ceremony for the massacre which became a focal point of the anti-war sentiment at the time. We joined the ceremony which was memorable. Later a news service agency sent a news release around the world carrying our presence there.

One of the most important events was a solemn ritual performed in the ground of the health center by a Korean traditional exorcist-dancer. After hard negotiation with the authority Kim Kyong-ran performed a full ritual of a service for the repose of the departed soul. The ritual consisted of burning incense, dance for reposing of the soul, narration of console for the dead, and laying of wreath. The whole process, the first such ritual performed on Vietnamese soil by a Korean since the end of the war, was recorded by the film crew and the Reuter service.

The itinerary ended on 19 March with record number of patients and cases. With about 40 members of the mission including a press reporter, we treated a total of 1,437 people with 1,981 dental cases. The governor of the province praised us for our devotion, which we returned with gratitude for help and assistance. Some of the Vietnamese press covered our activities there, of which tone was generally appreciative of our endeavor.

The mission has received huge publicity both from home and abroad ever since. Newsweek, the American weekly, was one of them. They said:

“Just last month the Seoul-based Dentists Association for a Healthy Society dispatched 38 of its members to provide free dental work in Vietnam’s massacre villages. Most participants, who treated 1,500 people in four days, were young professionals. ‘Our generation benefited from the Vietnam War, so we had a moral and ethical obligation to treat these people,’ says organizer Chung Chang-kwon. Past atrocities cannot be undone. But for many in Vietnam and now in South Korea they won’t be forgotten.”

With this experience of tremendous solidarity and reconciliation, our organization is considering ways in which the momentum created by our action can proceed with possible contribution from other organization. When we regurgitate the lessons we have earned through this campaign we feel as if we were winding the clock back so that we could correct the past which should never have happened in the first place. But another lesson for us is the importance of human understanding which has miracle power for both the victim and the perpetrator. People can grow up with maturity hard earned by history. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all this.


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