South Korea’s Resettlement of South Vietnamese War Refugees

By | December 20, 2018 | No Comments

Vietnamese refugees arrive at the port of Busan, May 1975. | Image: Donga Ilbo (1975)

South Korea is the only country in Asia with an independent refugee law (the Refugee Act, signed in 2013), but this doesn’t mean Seoul is taking in refugees with open arms. In fact, among 10,000 applications for asylum in 2017, only 121 were accepted. Earlier this year, hundreds of Yemini asylum-seekers who landed in Jeju caused a rift in civil society. Cultural difference between native South Koreans and Yeminis, especially religious difference, had many petitioning the Moon administration to deny the refugees entry. A poll by Hankook Research showed that more than half of respondents opposed admitting Yemini refugees. (As of writing, two Yemini asylum-seekers have been granted refugee status, out of 484 applicants.)

As an advanced industrial economy and a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it isn’t unreasonable to expect South Korea to play a role in the resettling of refugees. But it would be wrong to assume that South Korea has only recently positioned itself as such. Following the fall of Saigon, South Korea took in more than 1,000 South Vietnamese fleeing the collapse of their country. It facilitated the onward migration of some, and assisted in the resettlement and integration of the remainder into South Korean society. Using newspaper archives and personal interviews, Matt VanVolkenburg explores many angles of this overlooked or forgotten episode in South Korea’s history.1)This essay is an expanded version of the author’s original post from his blog, “Gusts of Popular Feeling.” — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

South Korea’s Resettlement of South Vietnamese War Refugees

by Matt VanVolkenburg

South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, where it fielded more than 300,000 troops between 1964 and 1973, left behind many legacies. Though the Republic of Korea (ROK) proved itself to be a capable military force in its first overseas deployment, its brutal treatment of civilians has remained a lingering wound for Vietnamese survivors, and it was only this year that President Moon offered a statement of regret during a state visit to Vietnam. The war also provided the first overseas contracts for South Korean construction companies and drew 16,000 civilian contractors to Vietnam, providing an economic windfall which helped to kick start the ROK’s industrialization drive. As Tae-yang Kwak has highlighted, various international factors linked to the war contributed to the establishment of the authoritarian Yusin regime in 1972.2)Tae Yang Kwak, “The Nixon Doctrine and the Yusin Reforms: American Foreign Policy, the Vietnam War, and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Korea, 1968–1973,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Volume 12, Issue 1. On top of that, the fall of South Vietnam provided Park Chung-hee with an opportunity to claim that Korea’s situation was so precarious that urgent measures were needed, resulting in the promulgation of Emergency Measure 9, which banned all criticism of the government and preceded heavy-handed state interference into almost every aspect of daily life, from campuses and local neighborhoods to popular culture.

The defeat of South Vietnam also resulted in another legacy that is nearly forgotten today: South Korea’s first experience with an influx of foreign refugees. During the colonial period, after the fall of Vladivostok to the Bolsheviks in 1922, Korea briefly hosted thousands of White Russian refugees, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing the North Korean invasion flooded Busan during the Korean War. But the arrival of over 1,000 Vietnamese fleeing another communist army marked the first time the South Korean government found itself hosting foreign refugees. The Vietnamese refugees, especially those who stayed in Korea, were among the first foreigners to be prepared to adapt to life in South Korea by Korean authorities.

Many of the refugees had ties to South Korea. The presence of so many Korean soldiers and civilian contractors in Vietnam over the previous decade had prompted many Korean-Vietnamese marriages, with some of the couplings dating back to World War II.3)For example, Korean newspapers reported on the young Vietnamese woman who came to Korea in 1967 looking for the Korean father she had never seen, who met her mother when he was serving in the Japanese Army in Vietnam during World War II. She would go on to marry a Korean, the head of the Vietnam branch of Korean Optics, an optician company, in Saigon the next year. Numerous Vietnamese also worked for the Korean military or the embassy, and these ties prompted Korean authorities to help them escape the country.

The refugees were carried from Vietnam by two ROK Navy LSTs on April 26, days before South Vietnam surrendered. According to a May 14 Korea Times article, Capt. Kwon Sang-ho, who was in charge of the ships, said they had originally left Busan on April 9 with relief supplies for Vietnam and arrived April 22. When the war turned for the worst suddenly on April 25, Korean ambassador to Vietnam Kim Yong-hwan asked the ships to load refugees. The LSTs first carried 1,908 refugees, but 567 Vietnamese were unloaded at a resettlement center on Phu Quoc Island (near Cambodia) at the request of the Saigon government.4)“1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1. As the end began to draw near, the Saigon Government designated the remote island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s southernmost island, as a resettlement center. By early April there were an estimated 40,000 refugees on the island and “a continuous airlift of American and Australian planes was bringing in food and supplies.” At the end of April 29,000 refugees boarded American ships but 30,000 to 50,000 were left behind. See Malcolm W. Brown, “A Refugee Barge Yields 50 Dead at Vietnam Pier,” New York Times, April 7, 1975, and “30,000 Refugees Left In Vietnam,” New York Times, May 8, 1975.

Though the LSTs had also brought over 3,000 Koreans, more than a hundred Koreans were left behind. They gathered in the compound of the Korean Embassy at 107 Nguyen Du Street, where the flag was lowered on April 29, nineteen years after the embassy opened.5)Byung-chan Ahn, “Taegukki Folded at Saigon Embassy,” Korea Times, April 30, 1975, 4. The remaining 148 Koreans were evacuated by the US to Guam, including Korea Times/Hankook Ilbo correspondent Ahn Byung-chan.6)Byung-chan Ahn, “Saigon Koreans Rescued After Extreme Anxiety,” Korea Times, May 6, 1975, 1.

Korea Times/Hankook Ilbo correspondent Ahn Byung-chan | Image: Korea Times

On May 5, a joint meeting to prepare for the arrival of the refugees was held in Busan, attended by the Korean National Red Cross (KNRC), the Customs Office, the Immigration Office, the Quarantine Office, and Busan City Hall, while in Seoul a relief committee was formed with the KNRC and officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Health-Social Affairs, all headed by Vice Economic Planning Minister Choi Gak-gyu. They initially envisioned that the arriving overseas Koreans and Vietnamese refugees would be temporarily accommodated in a refugee camp where they would stay “at least one week.” As a longer-term solution, families without relatives and sponsors were to be given housing of 15 pyeong each.7)“Facilities Readied For Evacuees at Pusan,” Korea Times, May 7, 1975, 7. The Korean government was to spend 107 million won for the initial accommodation of the refugees at the camp.8)“1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1.

Prior to the refugees’ arrival in Busan, the Korean government prepared to house them at the former site of Busan Girls’ High School. It was not the first time the site had hosted foreigners. The building was originally home to the Japanese-built Sunchi Hospital but closed when it merged with another facility in 1936. The girls’ high school, established by the US military government, moved to the building in 1946. In the mid-1950s, however, West Germany sent medical support in the aftermath of the Korean War and the building reverted to a medical facility when it became the German Red Cross Hospital. In 1958 the Busan Girls’ High School moved back in and it remained there until 1975, when it moved west to its current location in Hadan-dong, just prior to the arrival of the refugees.9)Sunchi Hospital appears on this 1946 US military map of Busan, and is mentioned briefly here. Information about the German Red Cross Hospital can be found here; there is also a video about it. The former school building has been demolished and the area redeveloped; the only reference to it in the area is the monument commemorating the German Red Cross Hospital, which can be reached from exit 8 of Dongdaesin Station on Busan Subway Line 1.

Three days before the refugees arrived, mattresses were put in the classrooms and 20 large cauldrons for cooking were installed. The refugees were to be provided with bathing facilities including hot water, playgrounds for the children, and a currency exchange booth. Twenty administrative personnel and 100 Red Cross personnel were to be on hand, along with 50 police to act as guards, prevent black marketing, and stop the spread of jewelry and banned import items. If the latter precautions suggest there were worries that the refugees might be a destabilizing influence, there were other fears as well. As it had been reported that 22 to 24 people on the LST were critically ill, with 5 or 6 among them carrying an infectious disease, plans were made to quarantine the arrivals and take stool samples to search for bubonic plague and cholera. To carry out the quarantine, 20 doctors and 100 nurses were to be on hand when the refugees landed, as well as 20 barbers to cut their hair.10)“월남타운 마지막 손질” [Final touches made on Vietnam town], Chosun Ilbo, May 11, 1975, 7.

On the morning of May 13, 3,000 friends, relatives, and others awaited the LST’s arrival at Busan port, including Busan’s mayor, former Korean ambassador to Vietnam Yu Yang-su, and South Vietnam ambassador to Korea Pham Xuan Chieu.11)“Relatives Give Welcome to Vietnam Returnees,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 4. After 17 days at sea and a 1,988-mile trip, LSTs No. 810 and 815 landed in Busan at 8:35 am and began unloading the refugees shortly after 9:00. The refugees were made up of 355 men, 425 women, and 562 children. Among them were 392 South Vietnamese nationals who had no relatives or any other connection to Korea.12)“1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1. The Maeil Gyeongje broke down the ethnic background of the refugees as follows: 319 Koreans, 988 Vietnamese, some of whom were related by marriage or were children of mixed marriages, 23 family members of the Seoul Vietnamese Embassy’s staff, 33 Chinese, and 3 Filipinos.13)월남난민 입항 부산” [Vietnamese refugees arrive at Busan port], Maeil Gyeongje, May 13, 1975, 7. These numbers were revised the next day.

As the Maeil Gyeongje described their arrival, “At the end of a long voyage… overseas Koreans and Vietnamese refugees who escaped Vietnam to find freedom were warmly embraced by their homeland or by a free, allied nation,”14)Ibid. while according to the Chosun Ilbo, “It was a moment of unforgettable emotion” for the 1,335 arrivals, including “Vietnamese refugees who set foot in the country of their husbands or fathers for the first time ever and overseas Koreans who had not set foot in the land of their ancestors in years.” Reunions had to wait, however, because other than around 10 refugees sent to a local hospital, they were immediately ushered into 31 buses and taken to the refugee camp.15)“피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤” [17 day evacuation voyage, first night of relief], Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7. There was no welcoming ceremony on the pier due to quarantine concerns, and no relatives or friends were allowed into the site of disembarkation, with one exception: the 23 family members of the Seoul Vietnamese Embassy’s staff, who were not sent to the refugee camp but were instead directly turned over to their families who had come to meet them.16)월남난민 입항 부산,” Maeil Gyeongje, May 13, 1975, 7. Despite the quarantine measures, 30,000 citizens came out to the port or stood along the roads to the refugee camp to greet the arriving refugees.17)“피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7. It is likely they were mobilized by the government to do this, much in the way 1.4 million Seoul citizens were mobilized three days earlier to take part in a rally at May 16 Plaza in Yeouido to “manifest their determination to devote themselves to the defense of the nation.”

The caption reads: “Children of Vietnamese refugees, wearing number tags on their chests and innocent smiles on their faces, try to get acquainted with each other recently in the compound of a refugee camp set up at the old Pusan Girls’ Middle School in the southern port city of Pusan.” | Image: Korea Times (1975)

According to the Korea Times, “At the refugee camp, the evacuees were accommodated in 43 rooms. Some 162 officials and workers are assigned to the refugee camp for treatment of the refugees. They include 25 officials of the relief center, four doctors, 11 nurses, 21 guards, two security officers, 15 Red Cross volunteers, two interpreters, 43 guides and 25 cooks.” The Chosun Ilbo detailed the refugees’ activities after arriving at the camp, starting with an 11am meeting with the press involving 17 representatives of the overseas Koreans and Vietnamese refugees. The refugees had free time after arriving, and had lunch at 12:40 consisting of rice, a soup based on fermented soya beans, and some local side dishes. There was free time after lunch when people could bathe and do laundry or nap. Dinner was fried pollock, rice, and salad.18)“피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7. Families were finally allowed to meet the refugees on May 16, three days after arriving.19)“언어장벽…눈물만 뚝뚝” [Language barrier… tears alone flowed], Chosun Ilbo, May 17, 1975, 7.

On May 23, 215 more refugees arrived on the cargo ship Twin Dragon, which had rescued them from four sinking South Vietnamese naval ships and brought them to Busan after Thailand and the US refused to accept them. Below is the route of the Twin Dragon, which left Incheon on April 23, picked up the refugees on May 2, arrived in Bangkok on May 5, left Bangkok May 12, and arrived in Busan on May 23.20)The exact number of refugees varies from article to article. While the government revised the total of initial refugees from 1,341 to 1,335 immediately after their arrival, a June 4, 1975 Korea Times article stated a total of 1,040 total, refugees, counting only 820 on LSTs and therefore 220 on the Twin Dragon, rather than the initially reported 215 refugees. It is possible the overseas Koreans were subtracted from the total.

Route of the cargo ship, Twin Dragon. | Image: Kyonghyang Sinmun (1975)

The Korean government’s aid to the refugees was said to show “the traditional ties between Vietnam and Korea,”21)“피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7. and these friendly ties were highlighted not just by government aid but by personal donations to the refugees. On May 22, 30 employees of a petrochemical firm in Yeosu donated 72,000 won to help the refugees, which was followed the next day by a donation from President Park Chung-hee.22)“월남 피난민에 의연금” [Contribution of money for Vietnamese refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 23, 1975, 7; “朴대통령 월남 난민에 금일봉” [President Park gives gift of money to Vietnamese refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 23, 1975, 1.

On May 28, 49 Red Cross youth representatives from 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific area toured the refugee camp, said they wanted to spread the movement to help the refugees when they returned home, and were told of how thankful the refugees were to the Korean government for “warmly protecting” them. Keeping in mind that North and South Korea were then competing for legitimacy on the global stage, the ROK’s “warm” treatment of the refugees – contrasted with politicians in the US who opposed the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees – may have been presented to outsiders in order to help legitimize South Korea as a worthy member of the “free world.”

A handful of refugees were also recruited to promote the government’s viewpoint on the dangers of communism. Tam Nguyen, who was 18 at the time and evacuated with the Korean embassy staff on the first LST to leave Vietnam, stayed in Busan for four months, but saw much more of Korea than most of the refugees. As he put it, “I was chosen as one of four speakers giving talks to school and college students throughout the country.” The speakers included “a Colonel, a Lt. Colonel, a college instructor, and I, a student. We went separate ways in one month and toured the country speaking at high schools and colleges accompanied by officials from Ministry of Information and excellent interpreters.”23) Of the interpreters, he wrote, “There was a very strong Vietnamese study program in Korea with a counterpart in Vietnam. The Korean interpreters were exceptionally skilled and knowledgeable on both Vietnamese culture and history. Their Vietnamese language skills were astonishing.” Personal email to author, Aug. 10, 2018. “I talked about the threat of communism and their cruelty that I saw and lived through in my childhood and growing up.” One of the speaking engagements stood out in his memory: “Ewha women’s college was memorable because it was all women, and after the talk, hundreds swarmed over me shaking hands and touching me. Many of them never met a foreigner.” After this speaking tour, “I left the camp in September 1975 and headed to Fort Chaffee camp in Arkansas.”24)Personal emails to author, July 31, Aug. 7, Aug. 10, 2018.

Tam Nguyen, second from right, in the Busan refugee camp being interviewed by newspaper reporters from Seoul. | Image: Tam Nguyen

Onward Migration or Resettlement? Divergent Paths for Vietnamese Refugees | Nguyen was one of hundreds of refugees who left Korea to settle in a third country. Refugees with ties to Korea began leaving the camp on May 28,25)“‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” [Now we’ve developed a taste for kimchi and bean paste], Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3. and the next day 33 refugees of Chinese descent were flown on a Korean Airlines flight to Taiwan, with more planned to follow in the near future.26)“중국계 월남난민 33명 대만으로” [33 ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam go to Taiwan], Chosun Ilbo, May 30, 1975, 7. On June 4 the French embassy asked the Korean government to issue transit visas to 30 families of refugees it planned to settle in France.27)“주한프랑스 대사관, 월남 피난민 30가구 프랑스에 정착할 방침이라고” [French Embassy says it will settle 30 households of Vietnamese refugees in France], Chosun Ilbo, June 5, 1975, 7. On July 20 it was reported that 627 refugees had left the camp, with 502 settling with Korean family or acquaintances, and 125 leaving for other countries, leaving 927 people in 329 households in the camp.28)“627 Vietnam Refugees Leave,” Korea Times, July 20, 1975, 8. By early August, when there were still 863 refugees in the camp, it had been decided that 600 refugees would be sent to third countries such as the US, France, Canada, and Australia by the end of the month, and on August 8 a farewell party was held at Busan Citizens’ Hall. There a choir of refugees sang “Arirang,” which “sadly echoed through the hall,” and during the proceedings the hall became a “sea of tears.” A message sent to Park Chung-hee by the refugees reportedly read, “We sincerely thank our saviors, President Park Chung-hee and the Korean people, and we wish for reunification to occur as soon as possible for the Korean people who taught us the true meaning of humanitarianism.”29)제3 국행 6백여 월남난민들 아리랑 가락에 아쉬운 이별” [Sad parting as 600 Vietnamese refugees headed to third country sing Arirang], Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 9, 1975, 7.

On August 20, 252 refugees flew from Daegu on a chartered flight to the US.30)“월남 피난민 2백 52명, 어제 낮 이한” [252 Vietnamese refugees left Korea yesterday], Chosun Ilbo, August 21, 1975, 7. A day later, 13 left for Canada, and a second group numbering 326 people left for the US on August 22. By that point 279 remained in the camp.31)“월남 난민 3백 26명, 어제 미국 향발” [326 Vietnamese refugees left for the US yesterday], Chosun Ilbo, August 23, 1975, 7. By the time of Chuseok, or the autumn harvest festival, in late September, 119 people in 40 households remained in the camp. After numerous families in Busan had reportedly offered to host refugees for Chuseok, 23 of these families were chosen by the camp authorities and the refugees were invited to their homes for the day.32)“월남난민…되찾은 「추석」. 한국가정 초대” [Vietnamese refugees recover Chuseok, invited to Korean households], Chosun Ilbo, September 21, 1975, 7. This article details how one refugee woman spent the day in the home of a Korean businessman. As well, those without relatives or friends in Korea or overseas to provide them with financial support were given pocket money by the Korean Red Cross, and guides showed them around the city. Many learned the streets well enough to go shopping in markets or department stores by themselves.33)“‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3.

Because so few refugees remained, the refugee camp at the former girls’ high school was closed on September 23 and the remaining 118 refugees were moved to a new camp located in 12 classrooms of the former Police School in Goejeong-dong.34)Ibid. On October 29, in what turned out to be the final mass emigration of these refugees, 45 refugees left Korea for the US.35)“월남 난민 45명 또 도미” [45 more Vietnamese refugees go to US], Chosun Ilbo, October 31, 1975, 7. According to this page, of the refugees from Vietnam who arrived in Korea in May, 697 settled in the US, 506 in Korea, 167 in Canada, 53 in France, 45 in Taiwan, and 14 elsewhere. The number 506 differs from contemporary sources, however. For example, on December 17, 1975, the Korea Herald reported that 546 Vietnamese were still in Korea: 473 who already settled with Korean relatives, and 73 without relatives to be settled in Korea the next day. On January 1, 1976, the Korea Times reported that 584 Vietnamese settled in Korea and that 78 without Korean relatives, rather than 73, settled in Korea.

When it became clear that a hundred or more refugees without ties in Korea might have to settle in Korea, the government took action. On September 26 the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare announced that it would provide Korean language and technical training for Vietnamese refugees unable to go to a third country and find jobs for them in Korea.36)“잔류 월남난민들에 국내취업 알선키로” [Remaining Vietnamese Refugees to be found jobs in Korea], Chosun Ilbo, September 27, 1975, 7. From October 1, a Korean teacher came to the refugee center and taught the refugees Korean from 9:00am to 12:00pm every morning. The authorities also took seven young men to the Korean-German vocational training center where they were taught electronic technology every afternoon from 1:00pm to 5:00pm. Twenty-three young women were likewise taken to a women’s center every afternoon to learn dressmaking and knitting so as to enable them to make a living when they settled in Korea.

Son Jeong, head of the refugee camp, received around 150 letters thanking the Korean government for its support, including 4 from Din, who had moved to Australia to work as a high school English teacher, and who said he thought of Korea as his second home. Seven children were born in the camp; two were named Busan, after the city that took them in. The refugees had become so used to Korean food, one said, that it was hard to eat rice without kimchi.37)“‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3.

While one young woman was quoted in late September as saying she wanted winter to come faster so she could see lots of snow falling,38)“‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은” 공단의 월남아가씨” [Factory-working Vietnamese women: “I want to become Korean more quickly”], Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7. and Nguyen Thi Nam later seemed to enjoy seeing and walking in snow “for the first time in my 25 years of life,39)Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17. most refugees found adjusting to the cold winter weather to be a challenge. As one woman put it, “I hate the cold in winter but everything else is good,”40)새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,”[Sympathy for the will to start a new life inculcated in refugees], Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7. while the Korea Herald published a photo of Nu Thi Phuong, who was working at the Korea Airlines Office at the Chosun Hotel, wearing a scarf wrapped up to her chin. As the accompanying article put it, “The room temperatures at the camp were kept at 18C (64F) and above in recent days with a heating system,” suggesting this was a warm temperature, showing just how cool homes and public buildings were in Korea at that time.41)“Viet Refugees Resettled,” Korea Herald, December 17, 1975.

The caption reads: “Mrs. Le Thi Ninh, 37, and her son, Kim Il-kwang, learn the Korean language while they were in a Pusan camp (right). Mrs. Nu Thi Phuong, 25, who works at a Korean Air Lines office in the Chosun Hotel, is bundled up (left).” | Image: Korea Herald (1975)

At a joint meeting held by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare on December 2, it was decided to settle the remaining 78 people in 26 households throughout the country, with 5-6 people in each city and province.42)“월남난민 78명 한국정착 알선” [78 Vietnamese Refugees settled in Korea and found jobs], Chosun Ilbo, December 5, 1975, 7. The remaining 73 refugees at the center moved to homes throughout the nation (except Jeju) on December 18, 1975. The government provided 1.5 million won to each household so they could find housing, and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs provided a subsidy to cover six months of living expenses,43)Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17. while the Office of Labor Affairs arranged jobs for 56 refugees particularly for those “who were known as having no connections with Koreans.” Among the Korean firms that hired Vietnamese refugees were Korean Air Lines, Hanyang Chemical Industrial Co. in Ulsan, and Pohang Iron and Steel Co.44)“1st ‘Tet’ for Viet Refugees,” Korea Herald, January 31, 1976. By April 1976 the Korean government had paid 158 million won to settle the Vietnamese refugees, a figure which included those with marriage ties to Koreans. One woman married to a Korean man, for example, received 84,000 won in settlement money from the government when she was in the Busan refugee camp.45)“한국속의 월남인들” [Vietnamese Refugees in Korea], Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4.

In the spring of 1976, the Chosun Ilbo reported that 110 people had received Korean citizenship by being married to Koreans or by being children of Korean citizens. The rest were either unable to enter wives on family registers or had no family or friends in Korea. These people had to renew their 7-13 Visitor’s Visa every six months, as Korea at the time had no permanent residency system and people could only naturalize after living in the country for more than 10 years.46) “한국속의 월남인들,” Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4. Additionally, these refugees were stateless because Vietnam was not officially recognized by South Korea at this time.47)Hans Schattle and Jennifer McCann, “The Pursuit of State Status and the Shift toward International Norms: South Korea’s Evolution as a Host Country for Refugees,” Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 27, No. 3, 321.

Those with marriage ties or other previous links to Koreans were initially reported to have found the process of adapting to Korea easier. One woman whose husband was in Australia was quite comfortable thanks to government aid and the $100 USD her husband sent her every month. She said her parents-in-law kindly suggested they live together, but as she couldn’t speak Korean well she thought they would burden each other. So, they lived apart, although she said, “I’d like to learn Korean quickly so I can converse more freely.”48)새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.

Wen Le Sun, the former sister-in-law of former South Vietnam head of state General Nguyễn Khánh, married a Korean in Saigon after her first husband fell in combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and they arrived in Busan with the other refugees. They soon found themselves running out of money despite the settlement allowance. But thanks to the advice of her husband’s friend, she began selling iced tea from a cart outside a market in Incheon and was soon making 30 to 40,000 won per day which, along with a loan, she used to open a restaurant there serving French cuisine in early 1976. To fit into Korean society, her children from her first marriage were entered in her husband’s family registry and they all took Korean names.49)“한국속의 월남인들,” Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4.

Other refugees also opened restaurants. Mrs. Hong, who opened what was likely the first Vietnamese restaurant in Korea in early 1976 (the “Saigon Noodle House” in Myeong-dong), did so with the help of a Korean man who had managed the cafeteria at the Korean embassy in Saigon where she had worked. He brought her from the refugee camp in Busan to Seoul with her two young daughters and found a friend willing to loan her the store space. Selling 100 bowls a day of pho and another noodle dish, she figured she would be self-sufficient in six months.50)Ibid. At least two other Vietnamese restaurants opened in Seoul at this time, including “Nha Trang” in Cheongjin-dong, which served noodles, roast chicken, and crab dishes,51)“Viet Refugees Open Restaurant in Seoul,” Korea Times, August 13, 1976, 8. and “Da Nang” in Euljiro 3ga.52)새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.

Much as Mrs. Hong was able to adapt pho to Korean tastes thanks to her familiarity with those tastes in her former job at the Korean embassy, Le Thi Phung Nhieu, a graduate of Saigon University Law School who had worked at ROK Armed Forces Headquarters in Vietnam as secretary to the commanding general before 1973, said she “could easily adapt herself to Korean way of living thanks to the profound knowledge of it she had before.”53)“1st ‘Tet’ for Viet Refugees,” Korea Herald, January 31, 1976.

The caption reads: “Mme. Le Thi Phuong Nhu, left, and her co-proprietresses of restaurant Nha Trang, newly opened in Cheongjin-dong, Seoul, look happy starting the business to cater to both Korean veterans of the Vietnam war and the refugees from that country. | Image: Korea Times (1976)

Sometimes it was their Korean husbands who found it harder to adapt after being away from Korea for a decade because Korea had “greatly changed.”54)Ibid. In some cases Vietnamese refugees married to Korean husbands lived without them because their husbands worked overseas in places like Australia or Iran.55)Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17.

Three women whose husbands were outside Korea lived together in an apartment in Seoul and were reportedly treated well by the locals. As the Korea Times put it in early 1976, “Mothers and grandmothers sympathetic to the suffering of the Vietnamese women rushed to the apartment with food and small presents like soap, towels and pans when they arrived in their new homes.” One woman said she wouldn’t need to make kimchi for the coming year since so many neighbors brought her bowls of it, and similar stories were reported about other refugees.56)Ibid. In July that year the Kyunghyang Shinmun reported that these women, whose three households totaled 23 people, had received a donation of 130,000 won from Yeongdeungpo-gu. A Kyunghyang Shinmun article at the time similarly reported that a youth association in Eunpyeong-gu, Seoul had donated clothes such as sweaters, laundry soap, soap, toothpaste and other daily necessities to seven Vietnamese residents who settled in the area.

Those without family ties were also reportedly aided by citizens in positions to help them. 24 year-old Lee Ok-gyeong, the son of a Korean father and a mother of Chinese descent, was raised in Vietnam by his mother after losing his father when he was young, and graduated from high school there. He left his mother behind in Vietnam and, via an arrangement by Korean refugee authorities, was taken in by Korean foster parents who ran a restaurant in Busan. With their help and the aid of the Ministry of Culture and Education and the city of Busan, he was able to enter Busan University in early 1976.57)“월남난민 청년 대학입학” [Vietnamese Refugee youth admitted to university], Chosun Ilbo, February 13, 1976, 7.

Koreans who had worked in Vietnam also apparently felt compelled to help the refugees. By the fall of 1975 five young refugee women were working in a factory making sewing goods in Busan as arranged by the company owner who worked in Vietnam for six years as an importer and contractor for the US military. They were earning 20,000 won a month and living in a factory dormitory. The women were said to be becoming less homesick due to the kind treatment they received, which included coworkers giving them blankets to deal with the unfamiliar cold.58)“‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은’ 공단의 월남아가씨,” Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7. One cannot help but notice the male refugee gaining university entrance as compared to women being given factory work.

Reiterating the oft-repeated refrain of gratitude seen in the news media, refugee Do Thi Tu was quoted as saying, “From the day we arrived in Busan, we owe everything to the Korean government and people. We are especially grateful to them for having us settle with generous financial aid. We feel the only way to express our gratitude is to become Koreans quietly.” While government stipends and the need to renew visas ensured the government knew where the refugees were, media reports from the time suggests that “becoming Koreans quietly” is exactly what the refugees attempted to do. The woman who opened the restaurant Da Nang in January 1977, for example, said she was proud that her sons, who were in grades 1 and 2 at Ahyeon Elementary School, did not know Vietnamese but were proficient at Korean.59)새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7. Considering the number of children among the refugees, their ease at learning Korean may have smoothed the transition for the adults.

News coverage of the Vietnamese refugees who settled in Korea highlighted both the government and individual Koreans’ kindness toward their less fortunate compatriots as well as the thankful and diligent nature of the Vietnamese. The fall of Vietnam not only justified increased authoritarianism, as exemplified by the promulgation of Emergency Measure 9, the refugees’ “sadness at the loss of their country” was brought up so consistently that one assumes the phrase’s use was mandated by the government to warn Koreans of the fate that could befall an unwary South Korea. Within the positive reports on the refugees, however, some cracks in the happy façade can be discerned. A Korea Times article highlighted a refugee mother’s “faltering Korean,” while another woman was said to speak in a “mixture of broken English and Korean,” suggesting their struggle to communicate.60)Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year with New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17. Another article described how “the sadness over the loss of their country” cast a “shadow as dark as their skin colour,” highlighting another factor which may have impeded the refugees’ attempts to blend in.61)“‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은’ 공단의 월남아가씨,” Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7.

Despite such difficulties, they clearly remained of interest to the government. As reported by the Maeil Gyeongje, on April 30, 1982, the seventh anniversary of South Vietnam’s fall, President Chun Doo-hwan hosted 27 Vietnamese refugees living in the Seoul area to a dinner to comfort and offer encouragement to them. Among those invited were a 36 year-old confectionery plant worker, a 17 year-old Hongik Girl’s Middle School student, and a 22 year-old restaurant worker. Chun fought in Vietnam for a year in the early 1970s and discussed the past and present of communist Vietnam and heard about the refugee’s lives in Korea.

President Chun was quoted as saying, “It must be difficult to express the hardships you have faced in Korea, a country so different in culture and language [from your own].” “Despite these difficult conditions, take courage and make every effort to develop your second life.” He also urged the vice minister of Health and Social Welfare to make efforts to work with the Ministry of Labor to provide job training for young refugees.62)“전대통령 월남 난민들에 만찬” [President Chun hosts dinner for Vietnamese Refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 1, 1982.

Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the USS Blue Ridge. | Image: Phil Eggman/Wikicommons

Closing the Door: Korea’s Refugee Policy Goes Restrictive | Korea’s willingness to accept Vietnamese refugees was short-lived. When Vietnamese “boat people” began setting out to sea in small rafts and boats to escape Vietnam starting in 1977, the South Korean government reacted rather differently than they had to the refugees who arrived two years earlier. In 1977 a new Vietnam Refugee Center was opened in Busan’s Haeundae-gu63)조정호 [Jo Jeong-ho], “부산 난민보호소 아시나요… 베트남 보트피플 임시 체류” [Do you know of the refugee center in Busan? Vietnamese boat people stayed there temporarily], Yonhap, July 8, 2018. and by early 1978 there were 91 boat people in Korea, which the government, working with the UN, hoped to resettle abroad by the end of March.64)“‘모두 1천6백37명의 월 피난민을 구조’” [In all, 1,637 Vietnamese Refugees were rescued], Donga Ilbo, January 14, 1978, 2. According to Hans Schattle and Jennifer McCann, the South Korean government perceived them less as fleeing persecution and more as economic migrants, and so did not join the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue that “was specifically drawn up in order to encourage the rescue of Indochinese boat people by passing ships” and even went out of its way to discourage ROK ships from rescuing Indochinese boat people found at sea, in one case investigating and firing fishing boat captain Jeon Je-yong for saving them from a sinking boat.65)Schattle and McCann, 321. More about Captain Cheon Che-yong can be read herehere and here. As Schattle and McCann put it, South Korean officials “pressed hard for third-country resettlement, and as a result, not a single Indochinese refugee who arrived between 1977 and 1989 was permitted to settle in South Korea.”66)Ibid.

Over the years hundreds of Vietnamese boat people picked up by Korean ships were housed in the refugee center in Busan before being sent on to other countries, though in some cases this followed stays of up to six years in the center.67)조정호 [Jo Jeong-ho], “부산 난민보호소 아시나요.”In December 1992, two events occurred that were pertinent to 150 or so Vietnamese refugees then housed in the Busan refugee center. South Korea applied to join the UN Refugee Convention on December 3,68)Schattle and McCann, 322. and South Korea established formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam on December 22.69)한국 베트남 22일께 수교” [Korea and Vietnam to begin diplomatic relations Dec. 22], Hankyoreh, December 20, 1992, 1. Amid these milestones, South Korea carried out negotiations through the International Organization for Migration and convinced New Zealand to accept the Vietnamese refugees remaining in the Busan refugee center. The removal of these refugees and the closure of the refugee center on January 29, 1993 may have occurred because their presence was politically embarrassing for South Korea in regard to its relations with Vietnam, but the more likely reason for their hasty removal is that it took place just prior to South Korea’s implementation of the Refugee Convention.70)Schattle and McCann, 322. The removal of 150 potential refugees left South Korea in a position to accept only a small percentage of refugee applicants – a practice that continues to this day.

Note: An earlier version of this essay did not identify Tam Nguyen by his name. That has been changed, and the text updated accordingly. A photo of Mr. Nguyen has also been added.

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1. This essay is an expanded version of the author’s original post from his blog, “Gusts of Popular Feeling.”
2. Tae Yang Kwak, “The Nixon Doctrine and the Yusin Reforms: American Foreign Policy, the Vietnam War, and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Korea, 1968–1973,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Volume 12, Issue 1.
3. For example, Korean newspapers reported on the young Vietnamese woman who came to Korea in 1967 looking for the Korean father she had never seen, who met her mother when he was serving in the Japanese Army in Vietnam during World War II. She would go on to marry a Korean, the head of the Vietnam branch of Korean Optics, an optician company, in Saigon the next year.
4. “1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1. As the end began to draw near, the Saigon Government designated the remote island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s southernmost island, as a resettlement center. By early April there were an estimated 40,000 refugees on the island and “a continuous airlift of American and Australian planes was bringing in food and supplies.” At the end of April 29,000 refugees boarded American ships but 30,000 to 50,000 were left behind. See Malcolm W. Brown, “A Refugee Barge Yields 50 Dead at Vietnam Pier,” New York Times, April 7, 1975, and “30,000 Refugees Left In Vietnam,” New York Times, May 8, 1975.
5. Byung-chan Ahn, “Taegukki Folded at Saigon Embassy,” Korea Times, April 30, 1975, 4.
6. Byung-chan Ahn, “Saigon Koreans Rescued After Extreme Anxiety,” Korea Times, May 6, 1975, 1.
7. “Facilities Readied For Evacuees at Pusan,” Korea Times, May 7, 1975, 7.
8. “1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1.
9. Sunchi Hospital appears on this 1946 US military map of Busan, and is mentioned briefly here. Information about the German Red Cross Hospital can be found here; there is also a video about it. The former school building has been demolished and the area redeveloped; the only reference to it in the area is the monument commemorating the German Red Cross Hospital, which can be reached from exit 8 of Dongdaesin Station on Busan Subway Line 1.
10. “월남타운 마지막 손질” [Final touches made on Vietnam town], Chosun Ilbo, May 11, 1975, 7.
11. “Relatives Give Welcome to Vietnam Returnees,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 4.
12. “1,300 Refugees Land At Pusan Amid Welcome,” Korea Times, May 14, 1975, 1.
13. 월남난민 입항 부산” [Vietnamese refugees arrive at Busan port], Maeil Gyeongje, May 13, 1975, 7. These numbers were revised the next day.
14. Ibid.
15. “피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤” [17 day evacuation voyage, first night of relief], Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7.
16. 월남난민 입항 부산,” Maeil Gyeongje, May 13, 1975, 7.
17. “피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7. It is likely they were mobilized by the government to do this, much in the way 1.4 million Seoul citizens were mobilized three days earlier to take part in a rally at May 16 Plaza in Yeouido to “manifest their determination to devote themselves to the defense of the nation.”
18. “피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7.
19. “언어장벽…눈물만 뚝뚝” [Language barrier… tears alone flowed], Chosun Ilbo, May 17, 1975, 7.
20. The exact number of refugees varies from article to article. While the government revised the total of initial refugees from 1,341 to 1,335 immediately after their arrival, a June 4, 1975 Korea Times article stated a total of 1,040 total, refugees, counting only 820 on LSTs and therefore 220 on the Twin Dragon, rather than the initially reported 215 refugees. It is possible the overseas Koreans were subtracted from the total.
21. “피난항해 17일…안도의 첫밤,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 1975, 7.
22. “월남 피난민에 의연금” [Contribution of money for Vietnamese refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 23, 1975, 7; “朴대통령 월남 난민에 금일봉” [President Park gives gift of money to Vietnamese refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 23, 1975, 1.
23. Of the interpreters, he wrote, “There was a very strong Vietnamese study program in Korea with a counterpart in Vietnam. The Korean interpreters were exceptionally skilled and knowledgeable on both Vietnamese culture and history. Their Vietnamese language skills were astonishing.” Personal email to author, Aug. 10, 2018.
24. Personal emails to author, July 31, Aug. 7, Aug. 10, 2018.
25. “‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” [Now we’ve developed a taste for kimchi and bean paste], Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3.
26. “중국계 월남난민 33명 대만으로” [33 ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam go to Taiwan], Chosun Ilbo, May 30, 1975, 7.
27. “주한프랑스 대사관, 월남 피난민 30가구 프랑스에 정착할 방침이라고” [French Embassy says it will settle 30 households of Vietnamese refugees in France], Chosun Ilbo, June 5, 1975, 7.
28. “627 Vietnam Refugees Leave,” Korea Times, July 20, 1975, 8.
29. 제3 국행 6백여 월남난민들 아리랑 가락에 아쉬운 이별” [Sad parting as 600 Vietnamese refugees headed to third country sing Arirang], Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 9, 1975, 7.
30. “월남 피난민 2백 52명, 어제 낮 이한” [252 Vietnamese refugees left Korea yesterday], Chosun Ilbo, August 21, 1975, 7.
31. “월남 난민 3백 26명, 어제 미국 향발” [326 Vietnamese refugees left for the US yesterday], Chosun Ilbo, August 23, 1975, 7.
32. “월남난민…되찾은 「추석」. 한국가정 초대” [Vietnamese refugees recover Chuseok, invited to Korean households], Chosun Ilbo, September 21, 1975, 7. This article details how one refugee woman spent the day in the home of a Korean businessman.
33. “‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3.
34. Ibid.
35. “월남 난민 45명 또 도미” [45 more Vietnamese refugees go to US], Chosun Ilbo, October 31, 1975, 7. According to this page, of the refugees from Vietnam who arrived in Korea in May, 697 settled in the US, 506 in Korea, 167 in Canada, 53 in France, 45 in Taiwan, and 14 elsewhere. The number 506 differs from contemporary sources, however. For example, on December 17, 1975, the Korea Herald reported that 546 Vietnamese were still in Korea: 473 who already settled with Korean relatives, and 73 without relatives to be settled in Korea the next day. On January 1, 1976, the Korea Times reported that 584 Vietnamese settled in Korea and that 78 without Korean relatives, rather than 73, settled in Korea.
36. “잔류 월남난민들에 국내취업 알선키로” [Remaining Vietnamese Refugees to be found jobs in Korea], Chosun Ilbo, September 27, 1975, 7.
37. “‘이젠김치·된장국이 입에맞아’” Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 9, 1975, 3.
38. “‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은” 공단의 월남아가씨” [Factory-working Vietnamese women: “I want to become Korean more quickly”], Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7.
39. Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17.
40. 새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,”[Sympathy for the will to start a new life inculcated in refugees], Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.
41. “Viet Refugees Resettled,” Korea Herald, December 17, 1975.
42. “월남난민 78명 한국정착 알선” [78 Vietnamese Refugees settled in Korea and found jobs], Chosun Ilbo, December 5, 1975, 7.
43. Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17.
44. “1st ‘Tet’ for Viet Refugees,” Korea Herald, January 31, 1976.
45. “한국속의 월남인들” [Vietnamese Refugees in Korea], Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4.
46.  “한국속의 월남인들,” Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4.
47. Hans Schattle and Jennifer McCann, “The Pursuit of State Status and the Shift toward International Norms: South Korea’s Evolution as a Host Country for Refugees,” Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 27, No. 3, 321.
48. 새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.
49. “한국속의 월남인들,” Chosun Ilbo, April 30, 1976, 4.
50. Ibid.
51. “Viet Refugees Open Restaurant in Seoul,” Korea Times, August 13, 1976, 8.
52. 새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.
53. “1st ‘Tet’ for Viet Refugees,” Korea Herald, January 31, 1976.
54. Ibid.
55. Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year With New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17.
56. Ibid. In July that year the Kyunghyang Shinmun reported that these women, whose three households totaled 23 people, had received a donation of 130,000 won from Yeongdeungpo-gu. A Kyunghyang Shinmun article at the time similarly reported that a youth association in Eunpyeong-gu, Seoul had donated clothes such as sweaters, laundry soap, soap, toothpaste and other daily necessities to seven Vietnamese residents who settled in the area.
57. “월남난민 청년 대학입학” [Vietnamese Refugee youth admitted to university], Chosun Ilbo, February 13, 1976, 7.
58. “‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은’ 공단의 월남아가씨,” Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7. One cannot help but notice the male refugee gaining university entrance as compared to women being given factory work.
59. 새삶 의지 심어준 따이한 인정,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, May 23, 1977, 7.
60. Ji-young Kym, “Vietnam Refugees Greet New Year with New Hope,” Korea Times, January 1, 1976, 17.
61. “‘좀더 빨리 한국인이 되고싶은’ 공단의 월남아가씨,” Chosun Ilbo, September 28, 1975, 7.
62. “전대통령 월남 난민들에 만찬” [President Chun hosts dinner for Vietnamese Refugees], Chosun Ilbo, May 1, 1982.
63. 조정호 [Jo Jeong-ho], “부산 난민보호소 아시나요… 베트남 보트피플 임시 체류” [Do you know of the refugee center in Busan? Vietnamese boat people stayed there temporarily], Yonhap, July 8, 2018.
64. “‘모두 1천6백37명의 월 피난민을 구조’” [In all, 1,637 Vietnamese Refugees were rescued], Donga Ilbo, January 14, 1978, 2.
65. Schattle and McCann, 321. More about Captain Cheon Che-yong can be read herehere and here.
66. Ibid.
67. 조정호 [Jo Jeong-ho], “부산 난민보호소 아시나요.”
68. Schattle and McCann, 322.
69. 한국 베트남 22일께 수교” [Korea and Vietnam to begin diplomatic relations Dec. 22], Hankyoreh, December 20, 1992, 1.
70. Schattle and McCann, 322.

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