Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’
By Do Je-hae
Seoul has around 100 museums, and the War Memorial of Korea is the most relevant for museum-goers and foreign visitors in June.
South Korea marks Memorial Day on June 6 every year to honor the services of soldiers who died while in military service, during the Korean War (1950-1953) and other significant wars or battles. But more importantly, this month is permanently associated with the Korean War as North Korea invaded on June 25, 1950.
The War Memorial of Korea, which will mark the 18th anniversary of its founding on June 10, has been keeping the memory of the war alive for visitors from within and outside the country.
Around Memorial Day, the visitor count tends to soar. On a busy day, around 10,000 flock to one of Seoul’s largest museums, situated in Yongsan. In October 2011, CNN Go selected it among Seoul’s six best museums.
“What sets our museum apart from others is that we provide an educational platform for national security,” said Sun Young-jae, president of the War Memorial of Korea in an interview with the Korea Times.
“We are devoted to imparting to future generations about the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in serving the country,” said the former vice chief of staff and Army lieutenant general.
Since the Lee Myung-bak administration adopted a free admission policy for all national museums in 2010, visitors have steadily increased. Last year, around 1.53 million people visited the War Memorial. Around 10 percent were non-Koreans.
“I think the consistent rise in the number of visitors reflects the public’s positive reaction to the improvements we have made in our facilities, including updates to our exhibition halls, educational programs and the new citizens’ park within the War Memorial grounds,” Sun said.
The War Memorial opened in 1994 on the former site of the Army headquarters to exhibit and memorialize the military history of Korea.
The Memorial complex has six indoor exhibition halls and an outdoor exhibition center displaying over 13,000 items of war memorabilia and military equipment through the ages. In the center of the plaza in front of the museum stands the “Statue of Brothers,” the elder a South Korean soldier and the younger a North Korean soldier, symbolizing the division of the Korean Peninsula.
One of the most impactful experiences is visiting the Memorial Hall, which consists of rows of black marble monuments inscribed with the names of the U.N. troops who died during the Korean War. Because Americans were a major player in the three-year war that technically continues today, most of the monuments are covered with names of Americans. Around 38,000 U.N. troops lost their lives during the war, with 34,000 of them from the United States.
Seoul confirmed on May 7 that about 60 countries fought for or provided aid to South Korea during the war, a significant adjustment from the previous count of 41.
“We are planning to remodel the U.N. troops’ exhibition hall next year. We will try to reflect the involvement of the additional allies in the remodeled space,” Sun said.
Since taking office in 2011, Sun says he has tried to adhere to the principle of brining the War Memorial closer to people.
“Today, Koreans tend to think that war doesn’t have anything to do with them. But when you think about it, war involves not just those in uniform but also civilians. Those who are most vulnerable to the tragedy of war are women, children and the elderly,” he said. “If you trace our history since ancient times, we have had a war about every 60 years.” South Korea marked the 60th anniversary of the Korean War in 2010, with a variety of activities here and abroad. The 60th anniversary activities will continue until next year.
But there is still debate on the war, including its origins.
North Korea has its own version of a war memorial called the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, illustrating what they call “struggles against the Japanese and, later on, the Americans” in over 80 exhibition halls. They continue to claim that it was South Korea that invaded first.
“If you come and have a look around our memorial, you will learn about the war as it actually happened. People can see historic documents and evidence that fully support that the North Korean aggressors started the Korean War, such as letter exchanges between Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin,” Sun added.
The 67-year-old joined the War Memorial in July 2011. Right after he took office, he chaired a meeting of the five major museums of Korea to exchange ideas on advancing the nation’s museums. He is a graduate of the Korea Military Academy and has earned a Ph.D. in business administration from Jeonju University.
“I get the impression that those who fought with us never forgot their experience here,” Sun said. “They have expressed such pride in seeing Korea’s speedy re-building and economic development since the war.
“One can say that the Memorial Hall is also a diplomatic facility. Foreign heads of state and dignitaries often start their Korean trips here,” Sun said. “Korea is now recognized as a role model for underdeveloped countries, like Ethiopia, that fought with us. We can give them hope that it is possible to rise from such an agonizing experience to build an economic powerhouse.”
Visiting War Memorial of Korea
The month of June is the busiest time for the War Memorial of Korea. It is closed Mondays, and Tuesdays are usually the most crowded, according to the Yi Gyeong-eun, a public relations official with the War Memorial.
For English-speakers, it may be helpful to do some reading on the Korean War before visiting but there are many English-speaking guides on site, so foreigners will not be too inconvenienced while visiting the museum. All of the signs within the exhibition halls are translated into English and audio-visual materials are available in a variety of languages.
The grounds are extensive and the outdoor exhibits are some of the most interesting, so be prepared to spend a lot of time outside as well. Visitors are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes and use plenty of sunscreen.
Restaurants are not readily accessible at the War Memorial. One has to do quite a bit of walking to reach restaurants situated nearby so if one plans to visit for more than a few hours, it would be wise to bring some food and water.
Admission is free but donations are welcomed.
The War Memorial is also conducting weekly classes on the history of the Korean War. For more information, call 02-709-3048 or visit www.warmemo.co.kr.