Korean War Memorial Museum

I had really wanted to take a tour of the DMZ when I was in Korea, but there weren’t any tours on the days I could go.  This was around the time of renewed international tension when North Korea shut down communication with the South and reneged on the 1953 Armistice agreement, after the UN sanctions on its nuclear program. However, life in Korea seemed to carry on as normal, and I think if North Korea were to take direct military action, the DMZ isn’t necessarily the first place it would attack, considering it now has long-range missiles.

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I went to the Korean War Memorial Museum, and even before I arrived there, I got the feeling that I was living in a country that’s still technically in a state of war. I had exited the subway station on the far side of the museum and as I walked by an exit on the street level I saw three soldiers wearing gas masks, rifles at the ready, crouched and facing the street. I crossed the road and saw another exit that had even more gas-masked, armed soldiers and one in full body armour. The photo opportunity was tempting I thought it would be best to just keep walking. Needless to say that was pretty scary, but I never heard anything about it afterward.

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Outside the museum, dozens of vintage tanks, ships and aeroplanes are parked for people to look at and even enter. There is a noticeable military presence in Seoul and there were a few US marines visiting the museum. I spoke briefly to them and they said they had a day’s leave from their post at Camp Bonifas near the DMZ. I asked them what it was like up there and they said it was very quiet. One of them was a nineteen-year-old from Nebraska who looked far from home and far too young to have to serve in a potential war zone. But then I thought of all the other armed conflicts around the world that the US military has been engaged in with a much higher risk of death, so the DMZ probably is as safe as anywhere.

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The museum is part shrine to dead Korean soldiers, and part history of wars on the Korean peninsula. It’s a great museum, and while of course it has a political agenda, it is sobering to contemplate the ravages of war and the exhibits of artefacts are both informative and interesting. The picture below is of the main memorial space to the dead. It’s a very calm space, with a black dome that has a small opening to allow a ray of light to hit the top of the overflowing water basin.

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The War History exhibition has items from prehistoric wars to colonial times, such as these military uniforms and weapons from France, the USA, Japan and China. Of course there was a large exhibition on the Korean War that was very interactive and had set pieces for people to understand what it was like fighting in the cold of winter in North Korea. The other exhibits showed the Korean presence in the Vietnam war, present day ROK army activities around the world, and examples of contemporary defense weaponry that are quite terrifying. It’s a huge museum and would take a full day to look around, but it’s definitely worth it.

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chinese-uniformsBut of course this is the perfect place for Korea to publicize its claim to the Liancourt Rocks, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. Both countries claim sovereignty over this group of rocks that is situated in an area of rich fishing supplies and gas deposits. Historical records and maps are vague as to which country first claimed them, but when the US didn’t require Japan to renounce sovereignty over them in the 1954 Treaty of San Francisco, South Korea sent its coast guard to administer the island and there have been Korean residents on the island since then. At present there are two permanent residents and daily ferry tours from South Korea. Korea vigorously publicizes its claim over the rocks, but it has refused Japan’s offer to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice. I think it would have a better chance at claiming sovereignty over the rocks than it would at changing the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea, which it is also trying to do.

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Seoul

I recently booked a trip to Korea in October, to go back and visit my friend Christabel who lives in Seoul. So I thought I should write up about my first trip back in May. I was surprised at how different it felt, considering how superficially similar it is to Japan, but I think it was mainly due to the language. I kept almost speaking in Japanese, I didn’t understand anything and I was confused by the money, because there’s an extra zero added compared to the yen ($1 = ¥100 = ₩1000). Seoul was different to Tokyo too – the streets seemed wider but it wasn’t as clean.

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There are five palaces in Seoul and I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s mostly a reconstruction, but it was interesting to see what it would have looked like. I didn’t see any interiors but it reminded me more of a temple complex than a palace. The wooden soffits were strikingly painted, and while I’m not sure if they seemed so garish because they were painted relatively recently, I do think that traditionally Koreans like bright colours. Their traditional clothes and accessories tend to be shockingly colourful.

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Flaming azaleas were everywhere during my trip, adding to the colour scheme. Christabel told me of a famous Korean poem by the early-twentieth-century poet Kim So-Wol.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
I’ll send you off without a word, no fuss.

Yongbyon’s mount Yaksan’s
azaleas
by the armful I’ll scatter in your path.

With parting steps
on those strewn flowers
treading lightly, go on, leave.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
why, I’d rather die than weep one tear.

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A different architectural feature of the metropolis were the tall, thin towers topped with neon-lit crosses, advertising their churches below. They were everywhere, looking quite sinister. Christianity is a significant religious minority in Korea at about 30% of the population. Catholicism was introduced in the early 17th century and, despite persecution, has thrived. I think a great-aunt of mine was a nun in Korea. Protestantism surpassed Catholicism as the main Christian branch after 1945, and in recent decades evangelical churches have proliferated. It’s quite common to be approached by unassuming-looking people who inquire after your religion and then wonder if you would be interested in coming to one of their church’s meetings. It happened to me at the subway station.

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One of the nights we went out in Itaewon, which is like the Temple Bar of Seoul. But whereas Temple Bar is where tourists come to try and find Irish culture, Itaewon is where Seoulites go to find foreign cultures, as there are lots of international restaurants. And it’s the main hotspot for nights out in Seoul.

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