In the photograph above is a statue depicting a South Korean and a North Korean soldier. The South Korean soldier and the North Korean soldier see each, find that the other is his own brother, and embrace. This sometimes literally happened in the June 25th war (a.k.a. the Korean War), as many families were split between the two sides, with brother fighting against brother. This work of art stands outside the War Memorial & Museum of Korea in Seoul.
The one major event in Korean history that just about any foreign tourist will know about is the ‘Korean War’, thus the War Memorial & Museum is a top tourist destination. One hostel owner told me that guests are always asking him for directions to the War Memorial & Museum.
Outside the building, there is an area full of real examples of military vehicles, many of which were formerly used by the ROK (South Korean) military, and some of which represent military hardware used by North Korea and other communist countries.
There are signs which state which model of plane/boat/tank/artiliery gun/missile it is, which countries manufactured/used it, what years it was used, and so forth.
Most of the exhibits are inside the building. The museum is dedicated to all wars fought in Korea, starting with the wars fought in the Three Kingdoms era among countries such as Silla and Baekje. That said, about two-thirds of the exhibits are dedicated solely to the June 25th War / Korean War (in fact, this is where I learned that South Koreans refer to the Korean War as the ‘June 25th War’).
The museum does have a fairly large exhibit dedicated to Admiral Yi Sunsin, and the ‘turtleboat’ which he designed. He is often credited to foiling Japan’s attempted invasion of Joseon in the late 16th century, and out of more than 25 navel battles, Admiral Yi Sunsin supposedly was never defeated.
The museum offers a very thorough account of the June 25th War. It starts with the prelude – the defeat of Japan in WWII, the division of Korean along the 38th parallel between the US forces and the Soviet forces, and the establishment of separate governments in North and South Korea.
The museum presents documents which were released by the Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union – messages sent between Kim Il-sung, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong. They clearly establish that Stalin sent plenty of military aid – such as military equipment – to North Korea for the purpose of letting Kim Ilsung invade South Korea. Josef Stalin had initially been opposed to the invasion, but after communists won the civil war in China, he looked upon an invasion of South Korea more favorably, though he said he would only assist if Mao Zedong also approved of the invasion. Mao Zedong had just won the civil war in China, with assistance from Kim Il-sung, so he was happy to return the favor. They all assumed that the invasion would be rapid and successful, and Mao Zedong reckoned that the United States and its allies wouldn’t bother going to war over an impoverished, third-world country like Korea.
The museum offers a comparison of the military strength of North Korean and South Korea prior to the war, clearly showing that North Korea had much more and much more advanced military hardware than South Korea. Furthermore, the museum presents that, just before the war, South Korea had reduced its military strength and readiness so more resources could be used to improve the economy (also, the soldiers needed a break). Thus, the museum makes a strong case that South Korea was an innocent victim which had no intention of military aggression, and that, at the beginning of the war, it was a war between unequal military powers, with North Korea acting like a bully.
Throughout the June 25th War exhibits are little computer kiosks detailing every major battle – when it happened, which army units, and the movement of the armies during the battle. It was overwhelming, even for a person like me who likes detailed descriptions in museums, so I ended up only glancing through it, and eventually stopped looking altogether.
Overall, it’s a very narrative-based depiction of the June 25th War, detailing every stage in chronological order.
It is very much a multimedia museum, with various kinds of videos (with subtitles in multiple languages), as well as ‘4D’ shows, such as a show about the misery of the UN-ROK troops during the winter in North Korea, when little snowflakes fell upon us, the audience.
In particular, I remember this 4D presentation of the Incheon Landings – it’s ‘4D’ because the chairs rock and move – which was filmed from a perspective of an airplane pilot. It was very exciting … and during the film, I felt that the excitement was off. It seems to be designed to entertain the audience, which it does, but is this the proper message to send about the Incheon landings? I suspect the soldiers who participated in the Incheon landings were incredibly scared, not having fun.
Whenever presenting history, some things have to be omitted, and the omissions can be as revealing as what is included. In the next part, I consider the biases of the museum.