Monday, August 6, 2012

The Korean War: History From the Other Side

Last weekend I took a trip to the Korean War Museum in Seoul. I think it was the first time I'd been to such a large museum dedicated to something that barely registers blip on the radar of the American conscious (at least for my generation). Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the exterior, but here's a picture of all the old military airplanes sitting out on the side lawn.

The museum was a big reminder of how selective our history textbooks are when it comes to re-creating the past. A brief history lesson for those whose memories might need refreshing (or just a complete freshing): After WWII, the Japanese surrendered Korea to the Allies (Japan had been ruling it officially since 1910- I'd give some background on the history between Japan and Korea, but I only have a blog post and not a 1,000 pages to write- what I will say is that if you're watching a Korea vs. Japan match in the Olympics, and you get the feeling that it's a little're probably right). The Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910-1945 resulted in much of the conflict we see between Japan and South Korea today.

Eyes glued to the Korea vs. Japan Judo match....
To the point: the Korean War broke out because of an arbitrary political division, that is, a border imposed along the 38th parallel by the Allies to separate Soviet (communist) controlled North Korea, from US (democratic-ish) controlled South Korea. Now if we take away anything from imperial/ colonial history, I think it should be that arbitrary, externally imposed divisions of any kind: geographic, ethnic, economic...usually result in big problems.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and briefly occupied the majority of the country. The UN permitted an intervention, for the which the US provided the vast majority of foreign troops. The UN forces helped quickly push back the North Koreans behind the 38th parallel, and most thought it would be a swift victory...until the Chinese intervened on behalf of the North Koreans.  The bloodiest months of the war were spent fighting over mere kilometers surrounding the border that still exists today, the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. (*Note: this is a brief, bare bones summary of what happened...most of which I learned at the museum).

Most reasons for the lack of attention given to the Korean War tare obvious: it came after the largest war in history, it never generated as much controversy as the Vietnam War, and unless you've been following the Samsung v. Apple lawsuit, South Korea isn't a country we normally think about when it comes to international issues (North Korea on the other hand...).  It's easy to forget that the Korean War technically isn't over. In 1953 North and South Korea signed an armistice or ceasefire, not a peace treaty, which is why there are still fears about attacks from North Korea. Though I don't think it's at all likely, it does explain all of the emergency gear in the subways, which I naively pointed out in a previous post as weird, zombie- apocalypse precautions:

The oddest thing about the museum was the mock firing range. I usually think of war museums as places that promote a "never again" message. But considering that tensions still exist and military service is compulsory, I guess it doesn't seem so out of place. The "guns" even had kick back:

In the museum they also have some ideas about what future soldiers will look like:

And due to what seems to be a lack of primary images, etc, there are also a lot of natural-history-museum style dioramas depicting certain events. I don't have any photos, but there was even an entire room modelled after a war time South Korean village- i.e. lots of shacks.

This is a model of an infamous incident where North Korean troops massacred South Korean soldiers trying to cut down a tree that was blocking their line of sight.
I have had a few discussions with Koreans and foreigners about whether or not they think South and North Korea will, or ever even could reunite (it would be a huge economic and social burden on South Korea). Opinions are definitely mixed. My English class today provided a great example. I had the students create their own mascots for the 2018 Winter Olympics which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. One group named their mascot after a mountain in North Korea to express their desire for unification.

To me this demonstrates not only how students feel about the state of the country, but also indicates something about how important it is for them to confront their identity as South Korea continues to open up to global culture. As I've said before, one of the most interesting things about being here is that in terms of modernization, South Korea is still a young country, navigating the cultural and social woes of entering an increasingly interconnected world, where Eastern and Western cultural lines are becoming more and more blurred.

To end on a lighter note, the haze finally cleared up enough for me to get some good pictures of the mountains I see on the bus ride coming from Seoul to Yeoju. Even along the highway the Korean landscape is beautiful.

In cute news, I recently discovered that these guys live across the street from my apartment complex. Korea is a tiny country so you have to squeeze in farms and animals where ever you can.

The big guy at the front was quacking at me as I drove by on my bike.

And finally, in awesome news...I got my first paycheck and decided to upgrade to a much newer, faster bike. It originally had a flower sticker on the front which I had to rip off. Now I'm really cool:

Watch out pedestrians of Korea...I can break 35 mph now...


  1. Just discovered your blog. Very enjoyable reading. Its making me really nostalgic for Korea. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you! Your feedback is greatly appreciated!



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