As an historian, I find the end of wars to be fascinating historical moments, because they are times when one world comes to an end and another world has to form, and in that transition all manner of complex human interactions take place.
The end of World War II is particularly fascinating, especially given the global scale of that conflict. The end of the wars in the Indochinese Peninsula in 1975 are also fascinating, and there is still so much more that we can learn about that period.
I was reminded of this fact when I came across a memoir in the Virtual Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University written by Rhee Dai Yong, a South Korean military officer who in 1975 was serving in a diplomatic capacity at the South Korean embassy in Saigon and who was in charge of the evacuation of South Koreans from South Vietnam at the end of the war.
In his effort to do so, Rhee stayed in South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and was eventually arrested in October of 1975 and remained imprisoned until 1980. His memoir, written in English, covers this entire period and contains some fascinating information.
When the war ended, the South Koreans in South Vietnam were one could say “in double trouble.” First, they were on the “losing side” of the war. However, in addition to that, the other side of their own civil war – North Korea – was a close ally of North Vietnam, and when Saigon fell, North Korean agents quickly arrived on the scene and were determined to convince or coerce the South Koreans there to join their side.
Rhee notes, for instance, that already in early May 1975, “The Caravelle Hotel, located in a very busy section of Saigon, was flying a North Korean flag. Many members of the North Korean diplomatic mission could be seen at a hotel called Continental Paris located near the Caravelle. The North Korean Ambassador’s car was observed cruising through the city with an escort of Saigon police.” (39)
What transpired in the months that followed was a complex “cat and mouse” game where Rhee and other South Koreans sought to get out of the country but the North Koreans together with the security bureau of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam sought to keep them there.
There was a plan to escape by boat from Vung Tau, but many of the Koreans opposed this idea as they didn’t trust the drivers who were to transport them from Saigon to Vung Tau. In the end, only one Korean diplomat took this path, and his account of his escape has apparently recently been published.
Then there were efforts to leave the country officially/legally, but Cold War politics obstructed those efforts. In the summer of 1975, Rhee and others obtained approval to depart on a Red Cross plane but they were prevented from doing so.
“It became time to board. We were just on the verge of moving towards the boarding area with the UN diplomats when a man who looked as though he might be a high ranking official with the Security Bureau appeared. He asked that the Korean diplomats assemble separately. He then said, ‘The departure of the South Koreans will be postponed until further notice due to administrative problems.’” (41)
Then later in the summer the following events transpired:
“On August 29, it was announced that the UH had rejected the admission of both North and South Vietnam. The United States had exercised its veto powers. The Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam immediately suspended departures from the country of any national of the seven nations which had participated in the Vietnam War: Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea.”
American president, Ford, criticized this action, and the ban was lifted, except for Koreans. Lee writes that “The Koreans remained stranded. According to rumor, the North Koreans had compelled the South Vietnamese to tie the Koreans down. Here, there was no way of knowing the truth.” (57)
Finally, in the midst of all of these global-level politics were individuals who made their own individual political decisions. When, for instance, Rhee was finally arrested on 3 October 1975, he noticed that the interpreter who accompanied the security officers was a Korean-speaking and pro-North-Korean French-Vietnamese mixed-blood man who had formerly worked at the French Embassy in Saigon.
“His Korean was excellent,” Rhee recorded. “His face was white. His eyes were more Caucasian than Oriental. He was about 1 meter 60 cm tall. He was certainly of mixed blood.” (65)
Much of Rhee’s memoir is devoted to a record of information about his years in prison, and there are fascinating details that emerge. He provides quite a bit of information about time he spent in a cell with a Hoa Hao leader, for instance. And he talks about the love affairs between female prisoners and their guards (“All women in the prison acted in that fashion except for President Thieu’s sister-in-law.” ), all of which seemed to have ended badly.
Indeed, if any single point comes through Rhee’s memoir is that nothing seemed to be good for anyone at that time, and a change for the worse could come at any time.
Rhee, for instance, records some fascinating information about how the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia led to changes at his prison. To quote:
“December 25, 1978: Vietnam invaded Cambodia and controlled Phnom Penh on January 9. It was an easy victory.
“The Hanoi government then purged Vietcong leaders. Some prison officers of the ED and ID buildings were ousted between January 25 and February 5. Ten were gone and only three remained. They just did custodians work. Former Vietcong became a laughing stock to the North Vietnamese.
. . .
“I asked a question to a former Vietcong Police Lieutenant who came to inspect our place: ‘How are you?’
“He signed and told me over a pack of cigarettes I offered. ‘I had had 20 years revolutionary work in the jungle. There I had three meals a day. Now, I’m hungry, starved to death.’” (205)
Given the fact that this memoir was written in English by a non-native speaker and appears to be a combination of both some of the notes he kept while in prison in combination with later explanations, it is not a “literary masterpiece.” But the information it contains is invaluable.
I had never heard, for instance, that there were Vietnamese who fled Vietnam and then returned, but this is what Rhee records:
“Seventeen hundred South Vietnamese in Guam returned to Vietnam several months after they had left Saigon. They had hopes of seeing their relatives, friends and homeland under the new regime. Their hopes were shattered. They were all sent to a prison in the northern Canhwa [Khanh Hoa] Province jungle. Many escaped the prison and many attempted to break. So the Vietnam government dispersed them in all prisons in the nation.”
Clearly this memoir records many fascinating issues for an historian to pursue further, and it is also a fantastic document to build a movie screenplay from. A movie definitely needs to be made about this!!!