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Five young women wearing black outfits pose for a photo.
Hanni (far left) and the other four members of K-Pop group NewJeans pose for photos on the red carpet at the Fact Music Awards in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Backlash against K-pop star Hanni shows Vietnam still struggles with the legacy of the war

The Vietnamese-Australian singer Hanni of the K-pop group NewJeans recently came under fire and faced online harassment for her family’s supposed links to the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

In February 2023, a K-pop Facebook group called K Crush Động published pictures that allegedly showed members of Hanni’s family in Australia. K Crush Động is one of the biggest K-pop forums in Vietnam, with more than half a million members.

The forum pointed out old emblems of the South Vietnamese regime inside the family’s house and businesses. After several online “investigations,” Hanni’s family was accused by forum members of still being loyal to South Vietnam.

The campaigns against Hanni quickly gained national attention. Major Vietnamese outlets, such as Tuổi Trẻ and Người Lao Động, covered the news. The online uproar over Hanni is emblematic of the unfinished reconciliation process after the Vietnam War.

The legacy of the Vietnam War

South Vietnam was the U.S.-backed state that existed from 1955 until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when it was reunited with the north. There have been several attempts to recognize South Vietnam as a political entity in the long history of Vietnam.

However, in Vietnam today, it is almost a political duty to view the former regime in the south negatively. Terms like “puppet regime” and “puppet army” are used in textbooks and state communication to describe South Vietnam.

Hanni has never publicly professed any political opinions. Nevertheless, members of the K Crush group questioned her loyalty to the Vietnamese Communist Party that governs the country.

There was also discussion about whether supporting Hanni or NewJeans could be deemed anti-revolutionary or reactionary. This is common in the vocabulary of contemporary Vietnamese political discourse.

Vietnamese ideologists and nationalists quickly capitalized on the situation.

For instance, pro-government social media page Tifosi said “there are many idols but only one fatherland,” implying that supporting Hanni would be unpatriotic.

Such sentiments against those associated with the South Vietnam regime, their offspring and their families sound familiar. In fact, they resemble rhetoric that permeated in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon.

Women take part in a parade waving flags.
Vietnamese women wave the National Liberation Front and Vietnamese national flags during a parade celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in April 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

The background-check mentality

A regime of checking backgrounds existed in Vietnam after the war ended. It was part of a series of attempts by the government to wipe out remnants of the defeated regime in Southern Vietnam. The assumption was that life in the south before 1975 was a crime that needed to be punished, or a sin for which people needed to atone.

From 1975 to the 1980s, an estimated one million to 2.5 million people from South Vietnam were detained in re-education camps. This was roughly 10 per cent of the region’s total population. It formed a massive exercise in the criminalization without trial of anyone who was even remotely associated with the former South Vietnamese regime.

It created an arbitrary and discriminatory system of continuous criminal detention and suspension of citizenship.

Doctors drafted into the South Vietnamese army were accused of “strengthening the puppet forces” by treating sick and wounded South Vietnamese soldiers.

University graduates, who had to attend mandatory officer’s training school to become military reserve officers, were considered guilty of collaborating with the “puppet army.”

However, re-education camps are just one layer of the background check mentality in post-war Vietnam. There was also a campaign to purify the education system. This campaign seemingly originates from two 1975 communist party policies: Directive 221 and Directive 222.

Directive 221 dealt with secondary education. It dismantled private and public institutions in South Vietnam and excluded teachers viewed as anti-revolutionary.

Directive 222 dealt with higher education and focused on the nationalization and bureaucratization of institutions. More importantly, it effectively established an official discrimination policy in higher education.

A black and white photo of a tank driving through a destroyed gate.
A North Vietnamese tank rolls through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30, 1975. (AP Photo)

People classified by the state as reactionary or anti-revolutionary could not attend universities or vocational schools. However, there was no clear definition of who or what classified as reactionary. This opened the door for abuse. Anyone vaguely associated with the former southern regime could be labeled a reactionary.

These policies severely hindered the prospects of a post-war reconciliation and violated basic principles of human rights and international law. They effectively precluded many from southern Vietnam from meaningful political participation while also limiting their social and economic prospects.

Records on how the government carried out the policies are not accessible to the public. However, stories about the background classification system and its sociopolitical repercussions survive through oral history.

The practice of political background discrimination practically ended after the reform policies launched in 1986 known as Đổi Mới (Reformation). But the damaging legacy of the post-war period and the unfinished reconciliation still impact people’s lives today.

The fact that a K-pop singer can be lambasted for her family’s seeming connection to the South Vietnamese regime almost 50 years after the war ended highlights how its social and cultural legacy lingers.

To borrow from cultural theorist Mark Fisher, the war is over, but it still holds sway through a traumatic “compulsion to repeat” its mistakes.

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