Koreans, Vietnamese Join Hands for Agent Orange Compensation

March 16, 2006

Koreans, Vietnamese Join Hands for Agent Orange Compensation
By Kim Tong-hyung
Staff Reporter
Korean war veterans and Vietnamese civilians will make joint efforts to seek compensation from U.S. manufacturers of Agent Orange for their alleged damage from the defoliant chemical widely used during the Vietnam War.

The retired soldiers and war-zone civilians from both countries have recently been engaged in legal battles over the harmful effects of Agent Orange, claiming that exposure to it caused skin disease, diabetes, cancer and birth defects.

The Korean Victims of Agent Orange Veterans Association (KAOVA) said it will join a group of Vietnamese civilians to hold a rally in front of the White House in Washington sometime during April, calling for the U.S. government to provide a framework for compensation.

The Vietnamese group had their compensation claim rejected by a U.S. federal court in New York last year, which ruled that there is no proven link between Agent Orange and the medical conditions suggested by the plaintiffs such as birth defects, miscarriage and cancer.

The KAOVA said it plans to hold a seminar in Hanoi next month with its Vietnamese counterpart to discuss their joint efforts for compensation, which could possibly include further legal actions.

It is the first time that the civilians of both countries have joined efforts to seek compensation from the U.S. government and its contractors for wartime damages.

“We hope that our planned rally in Washington will increase international focus on the people suffering from effects caused by exposure to Agent Orange,’’ said KAOVA spokesman Kang Chang-ub.

“More than one million former soldiers and civilians in Vietnam are suffering from the effects from Agent Orange, so combining efforts with them will certainly help our cause,’’ he said.

“The recent ruling by the Seoul High Court and other recent studies acknowledging the chemical’s association with various medical conditions will certainly add strength to our call for compensation,’’ he said.

According to U.S. government records, the American army used more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange to spray around Vietnam’s battlegrounds from 1962 to 1971, hoping to destroy forest cover and undergrowth that shielded enemy troops from view.

War veterans from Korea, the U.S. and Vietnam, along with a large number of civilians, claimed they have been suffering from severe medical effects caused by exposure to chemical.

Korea sent more than 320,000 troops to Vietnam to fight alongside the United States against the North Vietnamese communist forces during the 1965-73 war, accounting for the largest outside contribution.

According to the Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs, there are more than 131,000 Koreans who claim they have suffered from illnesses associated with Agent Orange.

In a landmark decision last month, the Seoul High Court ruled two U.S. makers of Agent Orange, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, to pay 63 billion won ($62 million) to a group of 6,700 Korean war veterans who first filed lawsuits against the U.S. companies in 1999.

The court associated Agent Orange with 11 types of medical conditions, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and diabetes.

It also added that the defoliants produced by the U.S. companies contained dioxins, toxic substances known to cause cancer in humans, in excess of permitted levels.

However, the ruling had more of a symbolic value than actual impact, as there is little Korean authorities could do should the U.S. chemical makers refuse to abide by the court orders, since both companies have no listed properties in Korea.

Although Korean authorities could seize the patent rights owned by the U.S. companies, their combined value is believed to be minuscule compared with the 63 billion won the High Court ordered in compensation.

If the U.S. companies refuse to pay the plaintiffs, the Korean war veterans will have to take their legal battle to the United States for possible compensation. However, a U.S. court has already rejected a compensation claim by Korean war veterans in 1994.

Over contentious lawsuits in past years, a U.S. court has never associated Agent Orange with health problems other than minor skin disorders, citing the lack of scientific proof that the defoliant was linked serious conditions such as cancer and birth defects.

In 1984, seven U.S. chemical companies, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, paid out $180 million won to U.S. war veterans who claimed that they suffered medical conditions caused by Agent Orange.

However, it was settlement reached after a federal judge persuaded the companies to buy themselves out of protracted litigation, with none of them admitting of doing anything wrong.

In rejecting the claims of the Vietnamese groups last year, the U.S. federal court also ruled that the chemical companies cannot be held liable for the medical damages since they were ordered by the U.S. government to produce Agent Orange.

KAOVA officials hope that new scientific evidence gathered over the years about the dangers of Agent Orange could provide them some hope in possible court battles in the future.

thkim@koreatimes.co.kr

02-15-2006 17:45


 
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