Thursday May 11, 2023
A War Memorial For a War That's Not a Memory
The Big Three (shitty version)
6-25 and 7-27 are just dates in the U.S., but in South Korea they resound with as much meaning as December 7th or November 11th. Or, yes, 9/11. They are the dates the Korean War began and ended—and ended, I should add, with an armistice that the South didn't even sign since it didn't agree with it. Both dates are all over the War Memorial of Korea, a museum in Seoul that isn't just dedicated to the Korean War but to the history of all Korean wars—to, in a way, the creation of the country through war. Befitting a country technically still at war, its tone isn't just somber but semi-martial.
The third day of our trip, Patricia and I walked there from our hotel in the north (no double meaning intended by that) and kind of came in by the back door (ditto), so we missed the grandeur of a proper entrance. We missed most of the huge armaments out front. We saw them in the end. They are stunning and sad.
Inside, even though there's an exhaustive amount of history there, for a time, we had difficulty finding that, too. (I'm beginning to think it's us.) I guess we were distracted by the tiger tanks and suspended fighter planes—as well as Syngman Rhee's Cadillac—on the basement level. But eventually we found it: on the other side, along the wings.
I have to admit: Museums can be a grind. You're walking at a slow pace, trying to absorb a wealth of information. It shouldn't be exhausting but it is. We spent a lot of time reading about the Three Kingdoms period: Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje, which, in the early part of the first Millennium, lived in peace—until they didn't. Has a movie been made about the end of this period—when Silla, backed against the wall, alllied itself with the Tang Dynasty of China, and wound up defeating the others; and then, when the Tang tried to take the peninsula, re-allied with its fallen enemies to beat back China? All of it felt very cinematic to me. Not to mention relevant. History keeps repeating itself.
Once we got all the clashes of the second Millennium, I allowed myself to slip through a bit faster. One millennium at a time, Erik.
Other thoughts as we made the rounds:
- Almost all the big moments that happened in the Korean War happened in the second half of 1950.
- Gen. Douglas Macarthur comes off better here than he tends to do in the States. Maybe my memory is faulty, but in the U.S., the late 1950 push beyond the 38th Parallel toward China is viewed as a Macarthur error that gave the Chinese an excuse to enter the war. Here, it's credited to Rhee with the additional implication that the Chinese would've entered anyway. It was necessary, the Koreans are saying, even if it didn't work.
- There's a display for the medical personnel of the Korean War but not even a glimmer of a mention of “M*A*S*H,” one of the most popular TV shows in American history, a show that lasted three times longer than the fighting itself. The ommission feels purposeful. I doubt the show was even broadcast in Korea. Much of it was Americans complaining about the futility of war, about the futility of that war (a stand-in for Vietnam in many ways), all of which would be like telling South Koreans in the 1970s that their lives don't matter.
- As Vietnam War veterans had the MIA issue, South Koreans have the kidnapping of 80k people (intellectuals, technicians, etc.) when the North occupied Seoul in the early part of the war. There are several displays about this. It's a huge emotional issue and I didn't even know it was a thing.
The rest of our day wasn't as good as the War Memorial. It's a recommended stop for anyone visiting Seoul.
We signed the armistice then forgot 7/27; they didn't and didn't.