The Korean War may seem “over” for most of the world with nothing more than a couple of pages devoted to it in American history textbooks, but in South Korea, it goes on, literally. The Korean people don’t believe the war to be officially over, so even though the last instances of fighting occurred almost 60 years ago in 1953, only a cease-fire was ever signed. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) or the 38th Parallel, the line that separates the North from South Korea is considered one of the most dangerous borders in the world since the two countries are still technically at war with each other.
It was during the summer that I studied in Seoul, South Korea where I learned about the long lasting effects of the war. Many South Koreans do not want reunification with North Korea since the latter country is incredibly behind in everything from health care to education to the economy. Simply put, they feel it would contribute to the ruination of their country and everything they have worked hard to build these past 60 years. While both countries were decimated following the end of fighting in the 1950s and considered third world countries, today South Korea’s GDP (gross domestic product) is estimated to be at over one trillion USD according to the World Bank. In a lecture, a Korean-American journalist said that many Koreans have wanted to move the capital of Seoul to somewhere more in the southern part of the country due to its close proximity to the North Korean border; it’s only 35 miles away. Since the demarcation of the DMZ there have been countless incidents and incursions by the North Koreans, many of which involved the deaths of South Korean and even American soldiers stationed there (the North Korean government has never acknowledged direct responsibility for any of these events). The Korean War also pitted brother against brother and divided innumerable families, many of which remain separated or unsure of the fate of loved ones more than half a century later due to North Korea’s despotic rulers. (Some reunions have taken place during the last couple of decades but the majority of separated relatives remain without any contact.) The South Korean film Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of the War tells the story about the effects of the Korean War on two brothers who fight on opposite sides. It was one of the highest grossing and acclaimed film in Korean cinematic history.
While nothing could compare in terms of sobering uniqueness with my visit to the DMZ, touring the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul was worthwhile and provided with a greater understanding to the war. While it is a museum that exhibits and memorializes the military history of Korea spanning thousands of years, the Korean War is its focal point. The War Memorial was also the first non-organized site I visited without the aid of the study abroad program’s staff, and so I felt pretty proud of myself navigating the Seoul metro alone for the first time.
The museum opened in 1994 on the former site of the army headquarters. It has six indoor exhibition rooms and an outdoor exhibition area displaying over 13,000 pieces of war memorabilia and military equipment. What’s most striking about the memorial is the Statue of Brothers, a large display located in the center of the plaza which depicts a South Korean soldier embracing one from the North, perfectly symbolizing the division between brothers the war brought.
Nations from around the world helped South Korea, the pro-democratic forces, in its fight and moreover, thousands of foreign soldiers lost their lives in the war including roughly 36,000 Americans. As such, flags of those nations are displayed at the memorial along with information on the countries and their soldiers during the war.
For me one of the saddest parts of the memorial was the life size exhibits depicting the turmoil of the civilians during the war. No matter the conflict or the location, civilians throughout history are generally the ones to suffer the most during a conflict. Although it was hard to imagine Seoul not having its plethora of high rise buildings, its dazzling lights and signs, its feeling of frenzied excitement, during the war and certainly in the period immediately following, it didn’t have any of those things. Civilians suffered terrible food shortages, lacked adequate housing and worse. In addition, winters in Korea were particularly brutal during the war.
Although there are incredible palaces and awe inspiring temples found throughout the country, a visit to Korea would not be complete without spending some time learning about the most devastating war in its history. If a visit to the village of Panmunjom, site of the DMZ, is not possible, then be sure to visit the War Memorial. It is a first rate museum and offers more information and knowledge than one could possibly glean from a textbook.