OHMYNEWS, SOUTH KOREA, SEPTEMBER 6, 2006
Tens of thousands of South Korean Agent Orange victims demand justice
On Aug. 31, dozens of South Korean veterans of the Vietnam War gathered in front of the White House in the United States to demand compensation for their exposure to Agent Orange (AO) — a toxic defoliant widely used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Holding pictures of AO victims with the slogan, “Becoming diseased by spread of Agent Orange,” the veterans demanded compensation or medical treatment from the U.S. government or the companies that manufactured the chemical.
From 1961 to 1971, U.S. forces dropped more than 100 million liters (26.4 million gallons) of toxic chemicals, mostly Agent Orange, on South Vietnam to destroy forest cover and undergrowth that was shielding North Vietnamese troops, food crops, and supply lines.
Agent Orange, which contains the lethal carcinogen dioxin, is one of the planet’s deadliest toxins. According to a report by the U.S. National Academy of Science, there is a “causal relationship” between AO and 11 diseases, such as cancers of the lungs, prostate, and larynx.
During the Vietnam War, South Korea sent about 320,000 troops to fight alongside American and South Vietnamese forces. Of those, 5,077 lost their life, leaving 10,962 wounded. The authoritarian President Park Chung-hee sent a large contingent to Vietnam in return for a US$1 billion aid package and other benefits from the U.S., money that helped to rebuild war-torn South Korea into an economic dragon.
According to Charles Choy, a spokesman for the Korean Disabled Veteran’s Association for Agent Orange, tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers were affected by Agent Orange during the war. “The American government has done wrong, the U.S. government or the companies that manufactured the chemical should compensate the veterans or provide medical treatment,” Choy said.
Since 1999, South Korean veterans have taken U.S. chemical companies to court several times in an attempt to seek justice for AO victims. After many failures, they won the first battle in the war. In January 2006, the South Korean Appeals Court ordered two U.S. chemical companies, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, to pay $62 million in compensation to about 6,800 South Korean AO victims. It was the first time for any court of law outside the U.S. to rule in favor of Agent Orange victims.
The South Korean veterans remained dissatisfied, however, since the ruling didn’t cover peripheral neuropathy, a condition most common in AO victims.
The fight for justice was not an easy one. After the court issued its ruling, Monsanto and Dow released a joint statement denying their responsibility, “The court’s decision is contrary to the facts presented during the hearing … contrary to the overwhelming weight of independent scientific evidence, which has not found a causation between exposure to Agent Orange and any serious human illness, as all other courts addressing this issue have found.” Moreover, neither firm has any attachable property in Korea, making it harder for any compensation verdict to be carried out if they refuse to abide by it.
In 1984, seven U.S. chemical companies, including Dow and Monsanto, agreed to pay U.S. AO victims US$180 million in an out-of-court settlement. U.S. Federal courts have dismissed several lawsuits filed by South Korean and Vietnamese veterans, however, citing that there has not been enough scientific evidence proving the deadly effects of the powerful herbicide.
Vietnam was the nation most affected by AO. Millions of people have suffered a range of illnesses and birth defects as the result of direct and indirect exposure to AO. However, no Vietnamese victim has ever received compensation. In 2005, a lawsuit filed by the Vietnamese victims of AO against U.S. chemical companies was dismissed by a New York court. The appeal court hearing will be held this fall.