‘Descendants of the Sun’ and Vietnam War – an Unexpected Relation

By Thu Ngo

The South Korean troops executed civilian massacres [in the South Vietnam] but no apologies have been heard. And today, we are enjoying such a series as ‘Descendants of the Sun’?

What are we then? Have we lost our mind?


Please think of our innocent people whose death has not been properly acknowledged …

That is my translation of a long message entitled “Please…” which has been rampantly shared among Vietnamese facebook users since yesterday. Written by a local reporter who used to write about the Hallyu as well as he self-claimed, the status received more than 70,000 likes shortly after being posted [1].

Perhaps when starting the filming, the staff of ‘Descendants of the Sun’ (DOTS), the series mentioned directly in the post, did not expect the drama would stir up the public opinions in this way: bringing up to the public a war that the South Korean government is trying to keep secret.

Starring Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo, two A-listed actors of the South Korean film industry, DOTS evolves around the love story that develops between a surgeon (Kang Mo-yeon) and a special force officer (Captain Yoo Shi-jin) while both work in the fictional war zone of Uruk [2]. DOTS is the first South Korean drama to be aired simultaneously in South Korea and in China. Several minor changes are made to the version in China, but in general, it has enjoyed so much love, and even seen as a threat to family happiness when Chinese female viewers feel disappointed about their husbands not being as fabulous as Captain Yoo [3], [4].


The series poster featuring the two leads (PC: asianwiki.com)

In Vietnam, housewives, retired women and young ladies at twenty-something-s are the main consumers of the series. Hearty discussions on the level of manliness of baby-faced Song Joong-ki’s Captain Yoo, his quirkiness, his ‘aim-and-shoot’ strategies on missions and in love are not uncommon. Whether it is intentional or not, it is not an exaggeration to say that DOTS and Captain Yoo are successful promoting a perfect image of South Korean soldiers. Floods of compliments can be found on the internet saying how gorgeous the South Korean soldiers (in the drama) look, how brave they act on missions, and how sweet they behave towards women and the vulnerable people. My students were even so eager discussing during the break how much flattering the South Korean army uniform is compared to the Vietnamese one. Some modified their photos with the uniform on by using an app on Facebook.

The discussion was just for fun. And I also believe the young people did not think much when playing with their photos either. But it can be seen that the abovementioned author’s frustration comes from his seeing such photos rampantly on the internet.  He is upset about the audience’s ignorance about the country’s history which makes them a blinded fan crowd [1].


Vietnamese young celebrities with their images in Captain Yoo’s uniform. (PC: ihay.thanhnien.com)

How the public reacts to the posts is far more amazing. Some pressed the ‘Like’ button to make a statement that they are different – they are aware of the history; or they are not South Korean drama chicken brains; or simply they are annoyed by the drama fever. They mock who defend the drama and South Korean pop-culture products; and verbally devalue the Hallyu. The main argument they use is if you know what the South Korean troops did to your people, you cannot like South Korean products; if you like, you are brainless.

Personally when I read the post, I did think “Why so serious (again)?” I found the author of the post is making a wild connection between the anti-communist South Korean troops participating in the Vietnam War and the fictional one representing South Korean engagement in the UN peace-keeping force. The two share nothing in their missions and principles. So what’s the point in bearing the grudge over a drama and its audience? Should we also react similarly to Hollywood movies portraying the US Army as saviours of the world? Should we boycott other South Korean products like Samsung, LG, and so on to show our resentment as well?

But the author did make a point here. During the Vietnam War, in response to President Johnson’s call for assistance from ‘many flags’, South Korea under the presidency of Park Chung-hee sent combat troops to the South Vietnam to fight against the VC force. After the US, South Korea had the largest contingent of soldiers fighting Hanoi. In the post, the author also showcases stories showing how haunting the period was and has been to the local people in Quang Nam, Binh Dinh[1]. Historical records and witness survivors prove that the South Korean troops did conduct a number of civilian massacres; pregnant women and children and the elders were of no exception. And yet the South Korean veterans, and beyond that, the South Korean government, have shown little concern about their wrongdoings to Vietnam [1], [5].

In Seoul, there is no memorial dedicated to the conflict in Vietnam. The 50th anniversary of the deployment of the first South Korean troops to Vietnam was held in 2014 although the Vietnamese government did request for a cancellation. The country’s president Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, also made no mention of South Korea’s role in the war during her official visit to Vietnam in 2013 [5]. And as far as I am concerned, early this year a South Korean professor attending a ceremony commemorating the victims of Binh An Massacre in 1966 where he showed up on the stage and kneeled down to apologise the local people, relatives of those who had been killed by the South Korean soldiers – but yes, it was only at personal level [6].


Professor Roh Hwa Wook, Chairman of Korea-Vietnam Peace Fund Promotion Association, kneeled to apologise the relatives of the villagers killed in Binh Dinh 1966 massacre. (PC: nld.com.vn)

I do not watch the series, for your information. One reason is I have lost interest in novelistic romance usually depicted on TV in general (not only South Korean ones) for a while. And as someone that has been spending nearly thirty years living in a military tradition family, I personally did find the ‘shuai-ge’ craze ** and the ‘army officer-slash-shuai ge’ one stemming from DOTS in particular childish and ridiculous to some extent. The image of one of the toughest careers has been over-romanticised under the pen of the South Korean scripters. But it is not a new thing in this drama industry, is it?

And personally I think the Vietnamese government should also share the responsibility for making this situation happen. School history lessons provide inadequate information about, say, the 2nd Marine Division, also known as the Blue Dragon, executing civilian massacres during their anti-VC operations. Or at least, that content is not a learning focus in the education system famous for its exam-oriented assessment.

Who knows after this heated debate (the post is still being shared and counter-argued now), more topics which are normally seen boring and hard-to-digest and even being hidden away will be put on the table for discussion. Just like the South Korean armed force’s role in the Vietnam War in this case. (I also found myself reading more about this topic). If that scenario does happen, the Hallyu may achieve a new level of power – sort of encouraging people to seek for the truth, perhaps?

Pretty overwhelming  then 🙂

** ‘Shuai ge’, or ‘soái ca’ as naturalized in Vietnamese, is the most-used term in the internet nowadays thanks to waves of Chinese online romantic novels into Vietnam once a while. It has in fact gone beyond its original meaning which simply refers to a handsome guy in Chinese language, and become a brand promoting the image of Mr. Perfect in the modern life: a good combination of brain and brawn, of money and moral, and the most important thing is he is loved by all but keeps his heart for only one – either a clumsy insignificant girl or his female version, an alpha lady.


[1] Lịch Sử Quân Sự Việt Nam Facebook Page. Retrieved 28 Mar 2016, https://www.facebook.com/qsvnfp/photos/gm.885087571608204/727769960699130/?type=3&theater

[2] Descendants of the Sun. Retrieved 29 Mar, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descendants_of_the_Sun

[3] Foong Woei Wan, 2016, “Descendants of the Sun Producer on K-Dramas Unlikely Success:  Song Joong Ki’s Captain Yoo didn’t even exist in early script”, Straits Times. Retrieved 29 Mar, 2016 http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/descendants-of-the-sun-producer-on-k-dramas-unlikely-success-song-joong-kis

[4] Quang Duy & Nhat Anh, 2016, VTV. Retrieved 29 Mar, 2016, http://vtv.vn/the-gioi/trung-quoc-canh-bao-con-sot-bo-phim-hau-due-mat-troi-20160316155643471.htm

[5] Steven Borowiec, 2015, “Allegations of S. Korean atrocities arising 40 years after Vietnam War”, Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 Mar, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-korea-vietnam-20150516-story.html

[6] “Giáo sư Hàn Quốc quỳ gối xin lỗi thường dân bị sát hại ở Bình Định”, 2016, Người Lao Động. Retrieved 28 Mar, 2016, http://nld.com.vn/thoi-su-trong-nuoc/giao-su-han-quoc-quy-goi-xin-loi-thuong-dan-bi-sat-hai-o-binh-dinh-20160227123305116.htm



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