Sunday, August 3, 2014

The War Memorial of Korea

Color guard rehearsal at the War Memorial of Korea
One of the last things on my Korea bucket list was a visit to the War Memorial of Korea, a museum dedicated to Korea's bellic history. It may not be as exciting as shark diving or bungee jumping, but I enjoy visiting museums on my own. When I go with a tour, there is never enough time scheduled to see everything at a properly slow pace, and when I go with friends, we always end up separated anyway because our interests differ. So, I first paid a visit to the museum with Monica on Monday, and although we caught the tail end of a really interesting color guard rehearsal taking place in front of the museum, we found out that the museum itself was closed, as is the case every Monday.


So, I went by myself a few days later, and the following photos are from this second visit. I'd heard that its exhibits are extensive and worth an entire afternoon's visit, and indeed, I spent a good four hours wandering its halls.
A South Korean flag carried by a member of the student soldiers' battalion during the Battle of Pohang (August 1950).
Memorial to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives at White Horse Hill
What surprised me straight off the bat was that it was not a museum about just the Korean War, fought from 1950-1953. True, the museum had more than two floors dedicated to this important and transformative period in Korean history, but it actually was meant to cover the entire war history of Korea. That being the case, the exhibits actually began with coverage of the wars fought between Korea's ancient kingdoms, as well as confrontations with Japanese invaders leading up to the twentieth century. I didn't find these very interesting, though, so I hurried on through.

The next thing that surprised me was -- for lack of a better way to describe it -- the entertainment value of the exhibits. Of course, I don't think a museum should be boring, but the way this museum chose to keep up interest for visitors, particularly children, was rather odd to me. Take for example the re-enactments of famous battles using animatronics and CGI bombs and explosions. It reminded me, unfortunately, of North Korea's war museum in Pyongyang, which I visited last February. Having been recently renovated, that museum made use of state-of-the-art technology to immerse visitors in as "realistic" a recreation of the war as possible. I use scare quotes because the information presented as fact in Pyongyang's museum is clearly distorted to present a DPRK-positive account.
Life-size diorama and multimedia display of one of the battles along the Han River during the Korean War.
"Shooting Area" for the kids to experience what it's like to use an assault rifle in a wartime situation. Classy.
In any case, I remain amused at the cornier aspects of the museum, but at the same time impressed by the depth and breadth of the exhibits. All the important information was provided in English and Korean, and many interactive screens provided additional facts in Japanese and Chinese. There were many tour groups visiting, as well as many people just wandering the halls on their own, children running from the prop guns to the model fighter planes. This was one drastic difference from my experience in Pyongyang: there, I had to stay with the tour guide at all times and listen obediently to her propagandistic explanations of history. There was only one other tour group in the museum, and otherwise all was silent and cold. In Seoul, I had the freedom to go anywhere in the museum that I wanted, and overall it was louder and felt more alive.

On that note, I also happened to visit on a "fourth Wednesday", which is the one day each month when soldiers from a local garrison give a free public concert in the main hall of the museum. The performances were extremely diverse, from traditional Korean instruments to classical opera to a guy who played "Fly Me to the Moon" on the harmonica. I like how a museum can be an active performance space that engages the community instead of just an inert building to walk through.
These tenors sang "Funiculì, Funiculà", and they were really good! This was the firs time I've seen opera performed live by Koreans.
These two soldiers performed the traditional Korean instruments 해금 (haegeum) and 장구 (janggu).
I think my favorite exhibit in the museum, or at least the one that touched me the most, was the hall on the third floor dedicated to the UN forces sent by sixteen countries to aid in the Korean War effort. Not only was it well designed, it was also extremely detailed. The exact statistics on how many soldiers each country sent, who led them, and what special things they did were all listed, and their uniforms were on display along with small things like soldiers' diaries. I think it was noble of South Korea to devote so much space to thank the international community that helped them.

In contrast, Pyongyang's war museum presents the conflict as one of Korea versus the evil United States and barely mentions Russia, China, or the UN. There is supposedly an exhibit that covers the Chinese troops' (invaluable) participation in the latter half of the war, but it certainly was not part of our tour.
A memorial for the UN soldiers who participated in the war effort. The words on the wall read, " With the US as main force, 21 countries dispatched combat froces and medical aid units for the freedom of the Republic of Korea.
The last part of the museum that I visited was its outdoor display of ships, plans, tanks, and rockets used in various modern war efforts. Again, I couldn't help but compare it to the display of military artifacts in Pyongyang's museum, which consists entirely of abandoned and captured enemy vehicles. American and British tanks, planes, and even the USS Pueblo. North Korea keeps all of these old hunks of iron as "war trophies" and uses the more-recently captured vehicles liberally in its propaganda. In Seoul, however, all the vehicles are replicas, just another exhibit.
A few tanks, including one that looks almost cute!
Ships and planes at the War Memorial of Korea. You can see Namsan Tower in the hills in the background.
Well, that's all for the War Memorial of Korea! I spent a good, long afternoon there and learned a lot. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about modern Korean history. It's especially important for people living in Korea to understand the Korean War and get the story as told by South Korea (while comparing it with other accounts for balance and perspective).

The museum is located in Yongsan, not far from Itaewon. To get there, you can take the subway (lines 4 or 6) to Samgakji Station (삼각지역). From Line 4, leave from exit 1 and turn right, then following the road for less than five minutes. From Line 6, leave from exit 12 and follow road until you reach the museum. It is open from 9am-6pm every day except Monday. More visitors' information can be found here.
War Memorial of Korea

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