July 23, 2008 10:13
In spring 1964, South Korean ambassador to the U.S. Kim Chung-yul received special instructions from president Park Chung-hee through the South Korean ambassador to West Germany Choi Duk-shin, who was on a visit to Washington. Park told Kim to "stress the importance of defending South Vietnam to senior U.S. government officials and suggest to them that we dispatch troops to Vietnam."
It was a very dangerous choice. At a time when the government was in crisis due to popular protests against the Korea-Japan talks to normalize diplomatic ties, Park was attempting to dispatch troops to South Vietnam, an idea even the U.S. was not greatly in favor of.
Park wanted to send troops for two reasons: If South Vietnam was to become communist, he was certain this would pose a threat to the security of Southeast Asia and Korea as well; and he wanted to prevent the U.S. from attempting to pull U.S. forces from Korea to send to South Vietnam. As it happened, the dispatch of South Korean troops to Vietnam was initiated not by the U.S., but by the Korean government.
The first contingent of 140 troops, including staff of a mobile hospital, arrived in Vietnam in September 1964. Some 2,000 engineers and members of a transport unit followed in February 1965. At last a full-fledged dispatch of troops to South Vietnam began on Oct. 12, 1965, when about 20,000 combat soldiers of the Blue Dragon Marine Division and the Army's Tiger Division were given a send-off by about 300,000 well-wishers.
A total of 312,853 Korean troops were sent to Vietnam until March 1973, when all Korean soldiers were pulled out. In the intervening years, they had carried out 1,170 large-scale operations and 556,000 smaller-scale operations, killing about 41,000 Vietcong.
The dispatch brought enormous economic benefits to Korea. Exports to South Vietnam rapidly increased as materials and services necessary for soldiers were produced here. The country earned more than US$1 billion in total from the wages for soldiers and workers and the profits of companies operating in South Vietnam.
The dollars earned in Vietnam were used as a key financial source for the government's second and third five-year economic development plans. The term "Vietnam" became a buzzword of the times. A pop song entitled "Master Sergeant Kim Has Returned From Vietnam" and Vietnamese-style skirts were in fashion.
But the country had shed a great deal of blood and made many sacrifices to lay the foundation for prosperity. About 4,600 soldiers were killed and 17,000 seriously wounded in a faraway country. And Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by the U.S. in Vietnam, left lingering effects on many Korean veterans.
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