Monday, September 8, 2014

Musings inspired by a visit to the War Memorial of Korea

The War Memorial of Korea is a huge complex that's 
a museum of war and peace as well as a memorial
 The 18 meter high statue of two brothers -- 
one of whom fought for the South, the other 
for the North -- embracing on the battlefield 
 Indoors, there are memorials to the dead
as well as more conventional museological displays

In another lifetime, I conducted sociocultural anthropological research on museums on Tanzania.  Over the course of doing so, I discovered that in Kiswahili, Tanzania's national language, the word makumbusho is used for both museums and memorials -- and, in fact, Tanzanians don't distinguish between these two different institutions because the first museums in Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the two territories that came together to become the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964, were established in memory of Britain's King George V and the end of World War I respectively.

In my experience, Tanzanians are very much the exception rather than the rule in terms of thinking that museums and memorials are synonymous.  However, on my visit to South Korea last week, I visited an institution known as the War Memorial of Korea that turned out to possess museological as well as memorializing components.
As I approached the large complex which is the largest of its kind in the world, its memorializing function appeared pre-eminent -- what with there being evocative statues and monuments in the section of its grounds which directly face South Korea's defence ministry.  And the institution's memorializing function could also be seen when I stepped indoors -- and beheld such as a huge tear-shaped sculpture made from hundreds, if not thousands, of identification tags of UN soldiers who fought in the Korean War, and a room with many screens situated on the ground and many mirrored walls that came off feeling like a vast military cemetery.

At the same time though, this institution also resembles a military history museum -- containing as it does exhibits that detail how the Korean Peninsula has been a battlefield for several centuries, with the oldest weapons on display within its walls dating all the way back to the Paleolithic age, and several dioramas depicting key historical battles fought against Chinese, Japanese and other aggressors and invaders.

While a significant portion of the museological displays are about other than the Korean War, there's no denying though that the most informative and also most evocative exhibits pertain to the "civil" war actively waged between June 25, 1950 and July 27, 1953 -- but which has not yet formally ended.  And I really did learn some new things about that conflict at the War Memorial of Korea -- including the fact that Seoul actually had been invaded twice during the conflict, and that the UN Forces actually had driven the North Korean forces very close to the Chinese border and had only been prevented from being in control of the entire Korean Peinsula by the Communist Chinese having entered the war (on the side of the North Koreans).

Perhaps most amazingly for me was to find out the scale of devastation to the country in terms of infrastructure destroyed along with people displaced and killed -- and how South Korea has managed to rise from the ashes, to such an extent that a country that had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana as recently as 1957 is now considered one of the world's wealthiest nations.

Granted that not all is perfect in contemporary South Korea -- including its military, which has come under much criticism in recent weeks, including for the death of a soldier from bullying.  And one can't come away from a visit to the War Memorial of Korea without disconcerting thoughts of it being a mega propaganda tool as well as informative museum and evocative memorial.
At the same time, I can't say that I was unimpressed by this ambitious institution -- and definitely got much out of the several hours that I ended up spending there on the first full day of my recent visit to the East Asian country whose people give the impression of being super tough and determined to make the best of what they've (now) got, be it financial, political and individual freedom, etc.


Bill said...

Hi Yvonne,

You manage to get quite a bit of information into this photo-essay. Travel seems to bring out the research historian in you...On the subject of war, and based on the high rating you gave it - I recently viewed The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh. This is a moving documentary about the horrors of war and should be required viewing...I guess it's a kind of War Memorial that could be shown at a museum.


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

I was inspired by my visit to the War Memorial of Korea to read up some more on the Korean War.

Re "The Missing Picture": it's an amazing work, isn't it? BTW, my review of Rithy Panh's excellent film -- which, frankly, I think is miles better than this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar winner -- is up on a certain website *cough, cough*! ;b