Diplomat Recounts 11th Hour Escape from Vietnam

    January 15, 2008 09:22

    A South Korean diplomat's memoir released Monday recounts how he took some of his countrymen to safety in a dramatic escape in the final moments of the Vietnam War in 1975. The document, written by Kim Chang-keun, second secretary of the South Korean Embassy in South Vietnam at the time, was declassified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade under the 30-year rule.

    It relates how, on April 28, the Korean Embassy to South Vietnam established a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Embassy for evacuation. On April 29, diplomats headed for the U.S. Embassy, having been told they would be provided with an aircraft. But the U.S. Embassy gave priority to evacuating American citizens in helicopters, and Korean embassy staff and Korean nationals were continuously pushed to the end of the queue.


    Authorized personnel and civilians rush to board a Marine helicopter during the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975./AP


    On April 30, they made a last-ditch effort under the supervision of minister-counselor Lee Dae-yong to get into the last helicopter. But U.S. marines who were on guard tried to push them back by firing tear gas. Some 100 Korean nationals and the embassy staff were left behind. They asked other foreign embassies for help. But the French Embassy blocked them from its compound, and the Japanese ambassador left a meeting with the Koreans saying his hands were tied. A Japanese Embassy official handed them ball-point pens as gifts, saying, 'Please don't do anything that might cause us trouble.'

    Some Korean Embassy staffers decided to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese and went to a hospital asking for the necessary drugs. The hospital kicked them out.

    On May 3, some members of the group suggested setting out to sea from Long Hai in Vung Tau. Kim set off with a number of the Koreans, but the other embassy staff stayed behind in the belief that it would be too dangerous. The group led by Kim despite many difficulties reached Long Hai at 2 p.m., where they hired a boat and began their sea voyage. But the captain proved uncooperative, so they locked him in and one of the members steered the boat instead.

    On May 5, they encountered a Taiwanese ship and begged the captain to take them to safety. He turned them down initially, but they insisted. The Taiwanese captain then offered them food and tried to placate them. In a compromise, some members of the group were allowed on board while others decided to stay on the boat they had taken and follow the Taiwanese ship.

    On May 7, the Taiwanese captain ordered the others off the ship, promising fuel and water. They had no choice but to return to their boat.

    On May 8, Singapore came into sight, but a patrol boat prevented the Koreans from landing. In the end, Kim alone was allowed ashore and met a consul there to whom he explained what had happened. On May 9, the rest of the group also went ashore, and on May 11, all of them returned to Seoul.

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