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Fighting for Peanuts: Reimagining South Korean Soldiers’ Participation in the Wŏllam Boom

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Using oral history sources, this article takes a bottom-up approach to explain why South Koreans volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War, comprising the largest group of foreign troops that participated after U.S. forces. Because these soldiers received pay in U.S. dollars for their military service in Vietnam, there has been considerable scholarly debate about whether they were mercenaries. This article goes beyond this question to examine how the South Korean socio-economic context and political culture pushed these men to fight in another postcolonial civil war so similar to the one they themselves recently had experienced. An obligation to provide financial support for their impoverished families and a cult of militarized valor prompted young men to choose war as a way to fulfill their masculine roles. South Korean President Pak Chŏng-hŭi [Park Chung Hee] also urged young men to see themselves as defenders of the “Free World” and inspired them to fight alongside American soldiers they had respected as children during the Korean War. Ultimately, this article explains how South Koreans found themselves fighting in a new Cold War conflict in Asia even while their own nation remained precariously divided and damaged because of a similar war.

Affiliations: 1: Stanford University,


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