By Michael Judd
History matters series.
The War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul, is one of the most impressive and moving museums in the country.
I have visited the museum a total of 4 times and as I have a master’s degree in East Asian history, where my focus is on historical memory, I wanted to introduce my experiences and some of what you can learn about from your visit.
The War Memorial is more than a museum for the Korean War; it is a museum for the Korean national identity.-Michael Judd.
Or at least feels as such. There are other museums in Seoul, some of which will appear in later posts but it is here where recent history feels like a real lived experience. I have met some veterans of the Korean War, and it felt like I was able to see some of the experiences that they had shared with me.
Before entering the War Memorial of Korea
One of the first things that will catch your attention is the Statue of Brothers.
It shows two brothers on opposing sides embracing each other. It was the reality of the war and symbolizes both fratricide and reconciliation. The dome on which the statue stands is based on the ancient Korean tombs, which are in cities such as Gyeongju in the South and Kaesong in the North. It is a reminder of their shared past and a hope for peaceful reunification.
The Korean War Monument also stands out, and not only because it is 20 meters tall. Next to this monument, I got into one of the strangest episodes of my life in Korea which I will talk about at the end of the article. The monument is half dagger, half tree of life, and surrounded by 30 statues of soldiers, students, and other Koreans defending their towns. (As an ex-teacher in Korea I find the tales of student heroism especially emotional, and I recommend watching 71: Into the Fire).
You will then come to the reflecting pool and peace plaza which you will need to walk through to enter the main building. The hallways outside the entrance host the rolls of honor. The walls have the names of every service member who died and which country they came from, many of whose graves I have visited in Busan at the only UN cemetery in the world.
Before going inside, or after, you should also go to the right of the museum to the outdoor exhibition. It hosts tanks, planes, missiles, and even a replica of the PKM Chamsuri 357 that you can walk on and explore. This is the South Korean boat that fought in the battle of Yeonpyeong, in June 2002. The fact that this happened during the World Cup in Korea and Japan is a serious reminder that the Korea War has yet to technically end.
Inside the museum
Once you enter the building, you will start in the Memorial Hall, and then move onto the War History Room.
It goes from the beginning of known Korean history, even showing Paleolithic writings from Ulsan, through to the three kingdoms era (I recommend watching Queen Seondeok from 2009), right up to the Japanese Colonial Era. Korean history has always been a product of international history, and they have often been invaded by neighbors. For centuries it was China, and then Japan who attempted to stamp down, but Korean history is also full of heroes and brilliant stories of defiance against aggressors.
A lot of this part of the expedition focuses on the invasions of Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the late 16th century and the museum includes a replica of a turtle ship recently made famous by the movie Myeongryang or The Admiral. It also focuses on resistance to Japanese rule 300 years later. The whole of the Japanese Colonial Era is treated as a long war. As I specialize in Korean and Japanese relations I always feel right at home in this section.
You will then move onto the Korean War Rooms, starting with a moving video which transitions to revealing a skeleton through a glass floor.
A Korean soldier found years after he had died. It is very powerful, and if you have seen the movie Taeguki, you will certainly be reminded of it. Actually, it is very common for soldiers to be found like this even now and only a few years ago American soldiers were found in the North and sent to the US. This part of the museum takes you through the war with the real materials, sources, and videos on hand to ensure you are able to understand and envision as well as possible. Of course, you may think they go overboard sometimes with propaganda aspects, but it never makes any claims that are not backed up with evidence or facts.
As most of the veterans of the war that I have been privileged enough to meet are British, it was good to also see their story told in this part of the museum, and also in the separate UN exhibition room. There is a Memory section too which hosts written and video recorded memoirs of participants of the war. After the Korea War Rooms, you can then visit exhibitions dedicated to the wars that have taken place since, including Vietnam.
South Korea had the second-largest number of foreign troops in Vietnam and their experiences there are highlighted.
Experiences that are not well known, even amongst the Korean population. The atrocities committed by Korean troops in Vietnam are completely ignored by the museum (and Korea in general), and I won’t go into them here but it is worth mentioning the omission. It also goes into the modern wars of our life such as Iraq, and Korea’s involvement in peace-keeping missions, which is the main purpose of the museum. To highlight the sacrifices of the people and call for worldwide peace.
Other, smaller exhibitions such as the ROK Armed Forces Room has huge displays of weapons and there is even a helicopter hanging from the ceiling nearby. You may encounter a movie room that plays a short movie every 20 to 30 minutes. When I first went to the museum, they played a 3D movie called ‘Daydreaming.’ It blew my mind. It was about a man living in Seoul daydreaming about an invasion from North Korea.
It shows what an invasion from the North might look like now. In truth, Korea is in real danger every day. It’s something everyone forgets about but it is the reality.
Daydreaming ended with the message ‘please don’t forget we are still at war’ and ‘if you don’t stand up for your own freedom, no one else will.’ It was a little intense especially for the family audience, but it was very compelling. It was the first time while I had been in the country that North Korea was actually mentioned in this way. It wasn’t part of history or a joke and I found myself contemplating everything. I have actually attempted to find this movie on several occasions, including by contacting the museum, but I am yet to find it again.
I hope I have given you enough information and reason to visit the War Memorial of Korea. It truly is one of the most interesting, emotionally moving, and inspiring sites in Korea. I have benefited from my visits by learning so much about Korean history and identity. After going here, I understood a lot more about the Korean psyche. When I next go to Seoul I know for certain that I will return there for the 5th time!
The episode that occurred at the Korean War Monument:
I was stopped by some people wanting to find a foreign tourist to interview. I explained that I was a resident and with my Korean girlfriend but it only made them even keener to interview me. I accepted and expected to be asked some practical questions such as “how accessible have you found the museum?” or even “was the museum well translated?” Unfortunately, the first question they hit me with was “what do you think about War?”. As a historian and one that focuses on memory, I thought I would be well placed to answer this, but in reality, I was so thrown that I looked blank for a while, and eventually, I think I said something ridiculous like “War is bad, but sometimes it is good.” I got better after that and found myself uploaded on youtube. Which I can no longer find. (I’ve been on TV a few times in both Korea and Japan but never have any footage myself). They did send me a really well-airbrushed image of me though, which acted as my profile picture for several years.
Perhaps you can try to find the Youtube video by searching for “stupid foreign guy doesn’t know what he thinks about War at War Memorial Museum. (Actually don’t, I already tried this).
Michael is an avid writer and historian. Since leaving South Korea, he has furthered his studies and completed a Master’s degree in East Asian history with a focus on Korean and Japanese historical relations.
” Korean Cultural popularity is at an all-time high and continues to increase. As a historian and writer, I hope to bring more attention to Korean history.”- Michael Judd 2020