War Memorial & Museum of Korea, Part 2

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It is impossible to present any kind of history without bias, thus it is inevitable that the War Memorial & Museum of Korea’s account of the June 25th War (a.k.a. the Korean War) is also biased.

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First of all, it focuses on the mechanics of the war – the movements of the army divisions – rather than the impact of the war on civilians. It doesn’t ignore the suffering of civilians – there is an exhibit dedicated to the Hungnam evacuation, including an audio account (with subtitles) of one of the civilians – but, given that it’s estimated that about 3 million Koreans died in the war, the museum seems to touch awfully lightly on the civilian experience. Instead, there is a large display of military equipment outside, like a big playground.

I don’t know why that is. It may be that the curators are concerned about brining back traumatic memories, or curators themselves still personally experience the trauma of the war and don’t want to go there. I can think of other possible explanations, but they are all speculation.

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The museum does present South Korea in the first part of the war as an innocent victim of premeditated aggression by North Korea with the knowing cooperation of China and the Soviet Union, and I find this case pretty convincing.

I’ve Howard Zinn’s description of the Korean War, and though he does mention the obvious fact that North Korea started the war, he manages to strongly imply that the United States was the main aggressor and responsible for most of the horrors of the June 25th War – “Perhaps 2 million Koreans, North and South, were killed in the Korean war, all in the name of opposing [Zinn is quoting Truman] ‘the rule of force’.” Yeah, the war was all in the name of opposing ‘the rule of force’, not, you know, about North Korea trying to conquer South Korea, or South Korea later trying to conquer North Korea.

That said, US forces did bomb all North Korea cities until they were completely destroyed, and it is estimated that 2/3 of the civilians who died are North Koreans – and I don’t remember the museum mentioning this (I read about it in other sources).

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I appreciate that Howard Zinn put the plight of Korean civilians at the center of his description, but the War Memorial and Museum of Korea disagrees about who was pushing for aggression. Beyond the obvious fact that North Korea started the war, the museum presents the United States, aside from a few people such as General MacArthur, as being reluctant to go north of the 38th parallel, and that it was the South Korean government which pushed for trying to unify Korea under the South Korean government by force. I suspect that the truth is that opinion amongst powerful people in the United States government was divided, and thus to say ‘the United States wanted to go north of the 38th parallel’ or ‘the United States did not want to go north of the 38th parallel’ are oversimplifications.

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In fact, the armistice which established the ceasefire was signed by the United Nations forces, North Korea, and China … but not South Korea. South Korea refused to sign any agreement which did not, at a minimum, require democratic elections in North Korea, and preferably eliminated the North Korean regime and united Korea under the South Korean government. The United Nations had actually been trying to end the war for years, and it was South Korea which refused a peace which was not on its own terms.

Considering that, as long as the North Korean regime existed, it might very well try to attack South Korea again, these demands might have been motivated by self-preservation rather than a desire to dominate.

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As I said above, the museum depicts North Korea’s invasion of South Korea as an unprovoked invasion – but depicts the part the war when South Korea turned the tables, crossed the 38th parallel, and invaded North Korea as a ‘liberation’. For example, there is a large painting in the museum depicting the ‘Liberation of Pyongyang’ with citizens waving little South Korean flags. The museum also describes the South Korean soldiers’ joy when they reached the border with China, thinking that unification was practically guaranteed.

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Though I have never been to North Korea (aside from this), I know the North Korea refers to this war as the ‘Fatherland Liberation War’, and almost certainly depicts it’s invasion of South Korea as a ‘liberation’, but the South Korean / UN invasion of North Korea as a conquest.

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So, when the ROK/UN forces went north of the 38th parallel, was it invasion, or liberation?

Many North Koreans had fled and gone to South Korea before the war, and more did so during the war, believing that conditions in the south were better than the north. There is lots of evidence that North Korea tortured and killed many innocent people. To this day, North Korea officially accepts guilt by association – merely being the relative of a criminal makes you a criminal under North Korean law. The museum states that many communists in Seoul initially welcomed the North Koreans, but after seeing how badly the North Korean forces treated the people of Seoul they became anti-communists.

Then again, the South Korean government committed its own crimes against the people.

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Based on what I have read, it is clear that some North Koreans did consider the ROK / UN forces to be liberators, and it’s possible that a majority of North Koerans felt this way. However, the North Korean government has closed off the country so well that it is nearly impossible to know how most North Koreans regarded the ROK / UN forces. The North Koreans who did flee to the south are the ones who were in greater danger of being tortured/killed, or otherwise more inclined to hate the North Korean regime, so they may not be representative of North Koreans as a whole.

What is really clear is that most South Koreans did not consider the North Korean forces to be their ‘liberators’.

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There is one thing in the museum which made me really question its narrative of the Korean War.

It depicts Kim Il-sung, Mao Zedong, and Josef Stalin and the North Korean generals as villains and criminals. I agree they have committed crimes against humanity.

It also depicts the heroes, who represent freedom and democracy, people such as General Macarthur, President Harry Truman, the South Korean generals, and … Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea.

The museum says that Syngman Rhee is a hero of freedom and democracy.

The museum says that Syngman Rhee is a hero of freedom and democracy.

The museum says that Syngman Rhee is a hero of freedom and democracy.

As soon as Syngman Rhee, the ‘hero of freedom and democracy’, entered office, he outlawed dissent, and his agents arrested and tortured dissenters. When opposing politicians didn’t want to pass an amendment which would help Syngman Rhee win the 1952 election in spite of his unpopularity, he had the opposing politicians arrested so they couldn’t be present at the vote. After police shot at protesters in 1960, South Korean students led the April Revolution, which forced Syngman Rhee out of office. Yeah, he’s a real ‘hero of freedom and democracy’.

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That, more than anything else, reveals that this museum is curated by South Korean right-wingers, not South Korean left-wingers. The South Korean political right honors Syngman Rhee’s legacy, yet the South Korean political left hates him (though some South Korean leftists have a tendency to claim that Kim Il-sung is okay, or at least not that bad, even though he has overseen the torture and murder of far more people than Syngman Rhee). It’s something which visitors to the museum should keep in mind.

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About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Modern History, Museum, North Korea, Seoul and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to War Memorial & Museum of Korea, Part 2

  1. Pingback: SK in SK: Chronological Order | S.K. in S.K.

  2. Pingback: SK in SK: A History of South Korea | S.K. in S.K.

  3. Pingback: SK in SK: South Korea & Other Countries | S.K. in S.K.

  4. Pingback: SK in SK: The Landscape of Feelings | S.K. in S.K.

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