In the 1950s, the Korean Peninsula was ravaged by warfare, splitting the country into North and South. The War Memorial of Korea in Seoul tells the story – so, what happened?
The Japanese Invasion
So before we get to the War Memorial of Korea itself, we have to cover what happened during the actual Korean War! For many centuries, the Korean Peninsula was one country, ruled as a kingdom. There were various territories and dynasties over the years, who would unite parts of the country or overthrow each other. We won’t go through all the details of this right now though! Of them, the most notable period was the Joseon dynasty, lasting over 500 years. Their rule came to an end in 1897, with the establishment of the Korean Empire, a period of great social reform for the country.
It was short lived though, as the Japanese soon arrived. For years, Japan had been trying to control Korea using intimidation, through war and politics. Doesn’t sound like much fun! In 1904, Russia and Japan fought for control of Korea. They even considered splitting the territory between them at one point, much like what ended up happening with the Soviets and USA forty years later – we’re getting to that part! But in the end, Japan won. In 1905, Japan forced Korea to sign a treaty to make it a protectorate, and then another in 1910, which officially annexed it. Korea was now part of Imperial Japan.
World War Two
During World War Two in the 1940s, Japan got greedy, and extended its empire further. They invaded and occupied most of East and South East Asia, seizing control by force. In each country, they tried to suppress local language, culture, and traditions. Obviously, they had already been doing this in Korea for 30 years by now, even treating the people as slaves – men for labour, women for sex. Until, in 1945, the Allies won the war, and ordered Japan to relinquish control of all its territories taken by force. This reduced it to the land we know today.
But, after 35 years of imperial rule, it was unclear what Korea would do next. It fell to the USA and Soviet Union to attempt to organise the country. Two American aides suggested dividing the territory along the 38th parallel, to prevent the Soviets occupying all of it. The north would be under Soviet military control, the south under the States. They intended to eventually establish a government to reunite the country – like what was also happening in Germany. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but then it all went wrong. With the onset of the Cold War, the clash of American democracy against Soviet communism, relations between the two quickly crumbled.
In 1948, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was formally established in the south, a capitalist society, supported by the USA. Soon after, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established in the north, a communist country, supported by the Soviet Union. Korea was officially two separate countries, no longer ruled by foreign militaries – yet, each still wanted to reunify the peninsula. Each country claimed it was the rightful government of the entire territory, neither wishing to follow the other’s politics.
The Korean War
On 25th June 1950, North Korea, led by Kim Il Sung, sent 75,000 troops to invade and reclaim the South. This action started the Korean War. Things is, this was bigger than just the Korean peninsula. The United Nations worried that this could escalate, and even kick off a global takeover of communism! So, in July, they deployed troops to South Korea, to help drive the invaders back into the North. The USA still supported South Korea, so 90% of the UN troops were Americans, while the Soviet Union still aided the North.
The war went badly for the South to begin with, as the Northern troops were well trained and disciplined. The North advanced swiftly, taking Seoul and huge regions of South Korea, driving them into a small region in the very south. South Korea had to change tactics. No longer would they view it as a defensive war – now they would go on the offensive, seeking to reclaim the North! The Battle of Inchon, in September 1950, was a key turning point, a counter attack that cut off North Korean troops, and allowed South Korea to retake Seoul. The UN troops then advanced into North Korea.
Unfortunately, China decided to get involved at this point. China is also communist, and was now becoming concerned about its own borders. In October, they sent troops to aid North Korea, which caused the USA to retreat back to the South. China’s involvement meant there was now the risk of the war escalating to a much larger scale. It was possible it could spread into the Soviet Union, and eventually Europe, turning into a World War Three!
Declaring the Ceasefire
With the arrival of China, a stalemate began. Each side remained in their own territory, with only small skirmishes happening around the border. The UN and President Truman were adamant that the war would not spread beyond Korea. But, General MacArthur, the American commander in Korea, disagreed. He wanted ‘total victory’ over China and communism, even if it escalated the war globally. Unsurprisingly, his extreme stance led to Truman firing him in April 1951. Peace talks began in July 1951, and the stalemate continued for two years, until the sides reached an agreement.
The biggest delay was the repatriation of prisoners of war, which China wanted to be compulsory, and the UN, voluntary. The UN’s stance won out eventually, with many North Koreans choosing to stay in the South. Representatives from the UN, North Korea, and China signed the Armistice Agreement on 27th July 1953. South Korea never actually signed it, as President Syngman Rhee refused to accept the continued division of Korea. It’s important to note the armistice is only a ceasefire, not a final peace treaty. The war continues. As such, they established the Korean DMZ (demilitarised zone), a buffer zone around the border. Thousand of troops, including Americans, guard either side, and it is still the most heavily fortified place in the world.
In 1991, the UN accepted both North and South Korea as members. Today, North Korea remains a militarised dictatorship, and is one of the most secretive, controlled countries in the world. It lost much of its economy with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now relies heavily on Chinese aid instead. Meanwhile, South Korea transformed entirely, replacing military control with a liberal democracy, and developing a booming economy – an incredible transformation in a short time!
The Memorial and Longing for Reunification
Warfare is bloody. The Korean War was short, but brutal. Over 5 million people were killed, half of which were civilians. And of those who survived, the war left them hurt, in poverty, and traumatised. Even before the war, the division of Korea ripped families apart. While governments wanted reunification for political power, most civilians wanted it simply to see their loved ones again.
The War Memorial of Korea in Seoul was created to remember the casualties of the war. It is meant to educate future generations, in the hopes of avoiding future conflict, and one day, reuniting the country. The War Memorial is on the site of an old Army headquarters, and opened on 10th June 1994. It is the largest landmark of its kind in the world. It is part museum, housing thousands of military items, and part memorial, with exhibitions specially created to honour those who fought.
In 2018, North and South Korea agreed to work together on a final peace settlement, to formally end the war. The current leaders, Kim Jong-un (DPRK) and Moon Jae-in (ROK), have met for historic talks to denuclearise the peninsula. They removed some guard posts from each side of the DMZ, though many more still remain. In December 2018, troops from each side crossed it to meet for the first time. However, the USA insists that it won’t agree to a peace treaty until North Korea removes its nuclear weapons. There is still a long way to go, but perhaps peace is in sight – though reunification still looks unlikely.
Around the War Memorial
The War Memorial of Korea covers a large area in Seoul, and there’s a lot to see outside before you enter the main building. There’s actually plenty of outdoor space just to relax in, including a large water feature. There are several memorial statues around the area. Perhaps the most striking, is the Statue of Brothers. It shows two soldiers embracing, but with the ground cracked beneath them; the younger fights on the North side, the older on the South. It represents the families torn apart by the division, and forced to fight each other in the war. The Korean War started with big, political arguments, but we must remember the effect on people’s everyday lives. The statue is a sobering look at the brutality of warfare.
Other memorial statues added over the years include the Bronze Clock Tower of Peace, and the Korean War Monument. In the Peace Plaza, fly the flags of all the UN countries who aided South Korea during the war. Also around the memorial, are dozens of large military vehicles and pieces of equipment. These include tanks, aeroplanes, helicopters, and artillery and missiles. You can actually sit inside some of these or climb up on them. It’s informative, but also a reminder of the technology humans have created for the purpose of warfare.
Inside the Museum
The War Memorial of Korea is made up of several exhibition rooms, containing hundreds of artefacts. The exhibitions also include multimedia displays, with plenty of photos and video footage. Models are used to recreate scenes, including the signing of the Armistice Agreement. There are also memorial pieces throughout as well. The museum is designed not just to inform, but to remember the fallen, and show the country’s desire for reunification.
The first floor has the War History exhibition, covering from the earliest history of the Korean peninsula, up to the Japanese colonial era. The Korean War rooms take up most of the second floor. These focus on the events of the war, how it unfolded, and the impact on people’s lives. There is also a room featuring more military equipment. The upper floor has various rooms on different topics. The UN exhibit shows their involvement in the Korean War. The Expeditionary Forces exhibit looks at Korea’s role in the Vietnam War, and the ROK Armed Forces exhibit shows where they are today.
The Memorial Hall is in the centre of the second floor, as you come in through the main entrance. This is a more abstract memorial, featuring artworks that represent gratitude to fallen soldiers, and Korea’s hopes for peace and harmony in the future. It is dedicated to all soldiers, of all nationalities, who fought for Korea over the years, in thanks for their service.
Opening hours: Tue-Sun 9.30-18.00, closed Mondays
How to get there:
The War Memorial is on Itaewon-ro, in the Yongsan region of Seoul. The closest subway station is Samgakji, a short walk away. The memorial is also on several bus routes, including the Seoul City Tour bus. There is paid parking available on site for cars and coaches as well.
The museum also has a shop and café inside. Free guided tours of the Korean War exhibition run every day, or you can reserve private guided tours for larger groups. These are available in Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese.
Have you visited the War Memorial of Korea before? Leave a comment about your experience!