SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's defense minister has ordered an inquiry into a report that the U.S. military used Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants along the border with North Korea in the late 1960s.
The report by SBS-TV in Seoul on Monday night quoted declassified U.S. documents. The U.S. government has never said it used Agent Orange in South Korea. South Korean Defense Minister Cho Sung-tae ordered a prompt
inquiry. "At this stage, factual verification is important," he said.
Lee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Seoul, said her command "is trying to determine facts reported by SBS-TV."
The use of Agent Orange during the 1964-1975 Vietnam War prompted several lawsuits by veterans from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
Copies of the declassified U.S. military papers and other documents provided by SBS-TV show that the U.S. military in Seoul,
with approval from the Pentagon, used Agent Orange and two other herbicides to improve observation and fields of fire along the
densely foliaged border.
The U.S. military used Agent Orange in South Korea from May 1968 through the next year, the documents said. The work was done
manually by South Korean soldiers with U.S. troops coordinating or supervising the job, they said.
Two U.S. Army divisions with 100,000 soldiers were stationed in South Korea at the time. Several former South Korean army officers, appearing on SBS-TV, confirmed that their men were mobilized in the spray work but said
they did not know they were spreading toxic chemicals that could cause health problems.
SBS-TV said the issue surfaced when the U.S. Army sent a letter to Sen. John Glenn of Ohio about a U.S. Army veteran from South
Korea with Agent Orange-related symptoms.
In the May 10, 1996 letter, the Army, citing records, said approximately 21,000 gallons of Agent Orange were used in 1968-69 in South Korea when the soldier, Thomas D. Wolfe, served there. The letter said, however, that U.S. soldiers only advised South Korean
soldiers and did not conduct any of the actual spray missions.
Declassified documents sent from the U.S. military command in Seoul to the Pentagon said the defoliants were used with the full
understanding of South Korea's government at the time. But the work was classified as secret with "a limited distribution on a need-to-know basis," they said.
The documents indicated that thousands of South Korean troops were mobilized to spray the defoliants. They say 7,000 soldiers
were needed for one small area, suggesting that more than 30,000 troops could have been used in the entire area along the southern
boundary of the 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone. The "vegetation control program CT1968" was pushed after a
North Korean commando team infiltrated Seoul in January 1968 to attack the South Korean presidential Blue House. The commandos were stopped several hundred yards from the house, and one who was
captured said his group intruded through a thickly foliaged border guarded by U.S. soldiers.
No South Korean soldiers from that period have come forward to complain about Agent Orange-related symptoms, which usually include cancer, deformities and birth defects.
But thousands of South Koreans who fought alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War are seeking compensation from the U.S.
government for exposure to Agent Orange. They have been waging a legal battle in the United States since 1994 and are seeking $1
billion compensation. A consortium of Dow Chemical and other manufacturers of Agent
Orange paid $184 million in 1984 in an out-of-court settlement of suits by Vietnam veterans from all countries except South Korea.
About 320,000 South Korean troops fought in Vietnam -- the second largest foreign contingent in that country. Veterans' groups
estimate 32,000 Korean troops were exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals during the war. The South Korean government
has confirmed 17,000 cases that it says are related to Agent Orange.