By Dr. Bob Arnot
BINH HOA, VIETNAM – Nguyen Thi Thanh dries her tears with a large washcloth as she recalls the story of her mother's execution at the hands of South Korean soldiers in 1968. "At that time, there were so many guns shooting," she says. "There were two South Koreans going into the house, holding grenades, showing the grenades, and asking my family to come up. If we were not coming up, they [said they] would throw the grenades down to the shelter."
Nguyen sits in a small tea shop off the main highway south of Danang. Her youngest child toys with a small motorcycle as she holds her grandchild — the three of them spanning familial generations that were never intended to survive. "As we came up from the shelter, my family was shot at and killed — my older brother, my younger brother, my sister-in-law…."
Between Dec 3 and 6 1966, South Korean forces are accused of massacring 430 unarmed people here in Binh Hoa village: the elderly, women, children – even 21 pregnant women. South Korean forces are also accused of massacres in Binh Tai Village, Bin An village and Tay Nih village that same year.
Nguyen pulled up her blouse and pointed to the scars from her bullet wounds. For her and others who lived through these atrocities nearly five decades ago, the memory remains fresh. Then, too, the communist government in Hanoi has made sure the inevitable atrocities of war are not forgotten. Countless small memorials dot the countryside with the names of the dead carved into stone, and of course there is the Museum of American Aggression in Saigon.
Increasingly, though, these memorials are to a Vietnam that no longer exists. While still Communist, diplomatic ties between Vietnam and its former enemies are warming — evidenced not least by the recent visit of the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Washington DC, and a reciprocal visit promised by President Barack Obama. Vietnam's changes, however, are more than symbolic: High-end condominiums now overlook Saigon's prosperous harbor, and five-star hotels in Hanoi attract American and Australian tourists by the thousands.
Many villagers, however, remember the dark past as if it were yesterday. Doan Tan Phu stands by the South Korean machine-gun position in Bin Hoa and motions to where women and children were gathered closely together with their elders and executed. "They lined everybody up at the village pond then shot everyone," he says. "Then they went to the other side to see if there were anybody left and killed them." Doan stepped on a land mine as he ran from the massacre and lost his leg; he now runs a small gas station and travels on a special motorized scooter with three wheels for balance.
Despite the painful memories, in 2014 South Korea became the largest foreign investor in Vietnam, infusing $7.32 billion into the growing economy. Through the countryside and its major cities, there are signs of Korean investment in 4,110 projects from the largest Samsung factory outside of Korea in Bac Ninh to a Lotte Super market in DaNang.
However Vietnam and South Korea's growing relationship isn't just about economics; there's also a political calculus. In these two countries and across Asia, new alliances are forming as countries move beyond the grievances and clashes of the last century to confront the immediate concerns of today. At the top of the list: an increasingly militaristic and mercantilist China, which is aggressively pursuing enormous land reclamation projects and trade corridors in the South China Sea that threaten the territorial claims of neighboring countries. The island-building project on atolls and reefs has now reached over 2000 acres and lie in key, strategic waterways with obvious military benefits. And so Vietnam can't fight history with the future at stake and an immediate threat to its offshore oil, gas and fishing rights.
Nonetheless, as with other countries in Southeast Asia, governments can't fight history with the future at stake. The enemies of last century have become allies in this one, but sore spots remain. South Korea, for instance, still routinely condemns Japan for alleged wartime acts during World War II, a war 20 years older than Vietnam's and waged by Japan's long-gone imperial government.
Still, while Nguyen, Doan and a nation of others carry the enormous tragedy of war, their burden is becoming a personal one as governments realize the needs of the now take precedence over the past. Among Asia's smaller tigers, there is a growing recognition that, whatever the past, these nations either stand together or fall separately. Progress — that catch-all Communist phrase for reversing history — now demands cooperation and strategic aims despite history.
Dr. Bob Arnot is the former chief foreign correspondent for MSNBC and the former chief medical correspondent for NBC News. He has served on the boards of many leading humanitarian organizations.