In a rice field in North Vietnam, 14 tombstones are a lasting symbol of the warmth of Vietnam and North Korea. They are the original burial site of North Korean pilots who died in the Vietnam War in secret combat against Vietnamese comrades against US Air Force and Navy aircraft.
The role of North Korea is a footnote in the broader history of this conflict, which speaks mainly of the fraternal relations between two nations that have waged armed conflicts against the United States separately during the Cold War. Decades later, the friendship of the communist nations is evident as Vietnam prepares to host the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week.
"When they died, the Vietnamese treated them just as much as Vietnamese martyrs sacrificed for the land," said Duong Van Dau, the museum's janitor, last week. On the hill where the fallen pilots were buried, their graves face northeast towards their homeland.
The role of South Korea in the war is much better known. From 1964 to 1973, Seoul deployed over 300,000 troops to support US efforts in South Vietnam against the Communists.
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By contrast, the North Korean air force contingent stationed near Hanoi in what was then North Vietnam – the Communist half of the war-torn Southeast Asian nation – had over 200 to 400 workers, including about 90 pilots over two years of Vietnamese post-war bills.
According to Vietnamese historical documents received by the CIA analyst Merle Pribbenow, in September 1966 Hanoi accepted an offer from Pyongyang to send three companies of pilots to form a regiment of 30 aircrafts. They were to wear North Vietnamese uniforms and Vietnam would provide the aircraft, equipment and equipment.
It was timely help. The Vietnamese fleet of older MiG-17 fighter aircraft from Russia had suffered heavy losses in the defense of the US bombing campaign against North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder. China and Russia provided material support, but the number of trained Vietnamese pilots shrank due to erosion.
The first North Korean contingent, also planned for Mig-17, was sent to the Kep Air Force Base in Bac Giang Province, 70 kilometers northeast of Hanoi, before the end of 1966, to help with training and combat operations.
"The agreement was signed by the two governments, but we knew nothing about it – I knew that North Korea wanted to send pilots to Vietnam so they could practice and gain experience building their air force." Vu Ngoc Dinh, one of the Vietnamese pilots who served alongside the Koreans, recalled in an interview with István Toperczer, a Hungarian air force officer who became a historian.
"The pilots were their best, their parents or relatives have worked for the Politburo of the Central Committee of the North Korean Party," Dinh is quoted in Toperczer's book MiG Aces of the Vietnam War. "They sent their pilots and commanders to Vietnam and we delivered the hardware they needed during their service."
"They kept everything secret so that we did not know their loss ratio, and the North Korean pilots claimed 26 American aircraft had been destroyed," Dinh said. "Although they fought bravely in the aerial battles, they generally reacted too slowly and too mechanically, so many of them were shot down by the Americans, and they never followed directions and regulations."
Dau, the cemetery administrator, is also a war veteran. He joined the army and marched south in 1966 to fight for the Communist side in South Vietnam. He was released three years later, after he was shot shortly before Saigon, today's Ho Chi Minh City, to his knees.
"For the North Korean pilots who have worked to protect our country and died for our country, I welcome them, as a soldier, I have great sympathy with them, I see them as my comrades, regardless of nationality," said Dau ,
In 2002, the remnants of the pilots were repatriated in a ceremony of the military of both countries from Vietnam to North Korea. But the gravestones are still lined up in two rows behind a plaque with Vietnamese inscription: "Here were 14 North Korean comrades."
Since the repatriation, the number of visitors to the website has decreased. But Dau said he would continue to look after the fallen pilot's memorial.
It was only in the years 2000-2001 that the participation of the North Korean pilots of Hanoi and Pyongyang was officially recognized. Since then, further details of North Korea's participation in the Vietnam War have become known, mainly from Vietnamese memoirs and state press reports and from Eastern European diplomatic archives.
It also turned out to be a revisionist view of North Korea's aid, suggesting that Pyongyang was happy that Hanoi would fight to the last Vietnamese.
"The US government wanted to delve deeper into the swamp of the Vietnam War and did not want to open a new front in Korea if it could help," wrote Hungarian historian Balázs Szalontai. He claims that Kim Il Sung, the then leader of North Korea, "had much of it to gain if America got stuck in Vietnam," and therefore made every effort to support the struggle of North Vietnam.
Conversely, "the fact that North Korea's aid to Hanoi was strongly motivated by self-interest also implied that Pyongyang did not take steps that would enable the US to abandon the Indo-Chinese hook and concentrate on the Korean peninsula," he wrote in an essay in nknews.org, a website with news and analysis on North Korea.
When Washington and Hanoi began peace talks in Paris in 1968, North Korean aid began to be sharply defined, Szalontai noted. Pyongyang welcomed the Paris peace agreement of 1973 cold.