The Korean War and Historical Memory

Waged between World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War occupies an odd place in American historical memory. On one hand, the event itself often folds into broader discussions about the Cold War; on the other, it seems ever-present. Though direct fighting ended with an armistice, political rhetoric in the United States seems almost pre-emptive, according to New York Magazine. Within different contestations of what the war means and to whom, I have always wondered how Korea represents the event. The War Memorial of Korea certainly does not betray America’s historical amnesia. Occupying more than half of a square mile, the museum narrates and mythologizes the South’s evolution in a way that I have never encountered in the US.

Before entering the memorial, I wandered around the bombers, tanks, howitzers, ships, and other wartime relics—weapons that look absolutely terrifying, but that also served as a playground for kids and a backdrop for selfies. I perceived the outdoor exhibit as an attempt to make the war accessible, physically and intellectually (I can’t remember having that much fun as a five-year-old at a museum).

The entrance leads to Memorial Hall, where visitors pay respects to those who protected their state, linking the importance of sovereignty and defense to national identity. The lower levels focus on early Korean history (in the words of Time, Korea “has been invaded about a gazillion times”), but the modern exhibits fascinated me the most. Constructed in 1994, the Korean War floors contained very little bit of the anti-communist rhetoric that I expected to find. In fact, the Charter of the United Nations opens the wing. While three-dimensional photographs of the UN Security Council members and politicians set an almost diplomatic tone, I couldn’t help but notice that the exhibit made clear that the US played a leading role in orchestrating the war—a strategy I see as trying to balance the (many) different interpretations of American involvement.  Absent from the diplomatic foreground was the international community’s traditional lack of interest in Korean independence.

The final room of the exhibit documents all the ways that South Korea has transformed from a “recipient nation to a donor nation” in the UN. What I found most interesting was this modern version of Korea as a country that “overcame the war.” Like all national monuments, this museum reflects a version of reality that politicians at the time wanted to portray. In that sense, I perceive the memorial defining victory not as winning the war per se, because technically an armistice only ceased the fighting. In this case, I see the government portraying victory as having attained the social status as an advanced country, perhaps exemplified best by the high-tech video displays installed by a wealthy chaebol. Moreover, by casting the war as a diplomatic endeavor, the memorial avoids anti-communist rhetoric—an absence that presents opportunity for unity with the North and suggests the Cold War mentality America uses is obsolete.   

As a person with a slight obsession with the Korean War, I couldn’t help but notice other conspicuous omissions of American involvement—the massacre of No Gun Ri, the Jeju Uprisings, and the occupational government. Of course, the U.S. military base is a five-minute walk away from the memorial, raising another complex question of what national defense should look like. However, meandering through the fancy touch-screens, rowdy children, and coffee vending machines, I couldn’t help but compare how the American and Korean governments—though not necessarily the citizens—orient the war. At home, I see Cold War rhetoric combined without much requisite history. The Memorial of Korea provided me with an alternative view, one that suggests the South has “overcome” the war, though unification awaits. While these might seem like abstract matters of national identity, I see them as critically important to understand how the two countries engage with North Korea.