The Korean War Remembered: Seoul vs Pyongyang | Wilson Center

The Korean War Remembered: Seoul vs Pyongyang

The Statue of Brothers, Seoul War Memorial. Source: Wiki Commons.

Conflicting interpretations of the Korean War are offered in museums in Seoul and Pyongyang, exposing and contributing to tensions between North and South Korea

Contested histories and conflicting public memories of the Korean War of 1950-1953 contribute to the current instability on the divided Korean Peninsula and throughout East Asia. Each North Korean nuclear test or missile launch reminds the nations of the world that an unresolved Korean conflict presents a volatile and dangerous situation more than six decades after an unpopular armistice halted major military operations.

Memory of the Korean War is often clouded by myth, misinformation, and out-of-date images and memories of the Cold War era. In recent decades, efforts by nations to remember the war in monuments and museums have only heightened vastly differing understandings of a war that has not yet ended. Conflicting interpretations of the ongoing war are exceptionally apparent in the capitals of the two Koreas, Seoul and Pyongyang, via the contrasting historical narratives offered at their respective national war museums. The differing histories expose and contribute to existing tensions between the two regimes, as these grand structures tell their story to foreign visitors as much as they serve to educate their own populations.

Although the conflict of 1950-1953 is at the center of the indoor and outdoor interpretive spaces, the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul displays artifacts related to the thousands of years Korea has struggled to fight off foreign forces from China, Mongolia, and Japan. The conflict of 1950-1953 is depicted as the nation’s most recent effort to survive a hostile invasion by the communist North Korean regime under the control of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Planned and initiated during the late 1990s—a time when peaceful re-unification of the two Koreas seemed suddenly possible because of the collapse of the Soviet Union—and continued during the “Sunshine Policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who sought dialog and cooperation with the North, the exhibits at the War Memorial of Korea ignore or downplay the horrors and atrocities of the Korean conflict. Within and outside the walls of the museum, impressive military hardware is displayed and events of the war are presented in a dispassionate chronological order. Peaceful reconciliation is a theme throughout. Scholar Sheila Miyoshi Jager has noted that “for a war that was remembered for its viciousness, the memorial seems to be promoting a tacit kind of forgetfulness.”

The flags of participant countries in the United Nations Forces displayed at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul. Source: Wiki Commons.

The flags of participant countries in the United Nations Forces displayed at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul. Source: Wiki Commons.

An additional point of emphasis is the prominent recognition of the crucial participation of forces under the US-led United Nations Command, which assisted the young Republic of Korea during this time of great crisis. The United Nations banner and the flags of the countries providing military and humanitarian aid fill the plaza in front of the main exhibit hall, and the names of UNC soldiers killed in the war are etched on huge granite columns. Clearly, by demonstrating its United Nations recognition and support, the Republic of Korea is making its case for legitimacy as the true government of the Korean people.

By contrast, the DPRK’s Victorious War Museum or Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang presents a people independent and largely alone in an effort to unite their homeland, united under a bold, visionary leader who defeats powerful foreign imperialists and the southern “puppet clique.”

A guide to Pyongyang's Korean War museum. Source: Wiki Commons.

A guide to Pyongyang's Korean War museum. Source: Wiki Commons.

Leading his people almost single handed, Kim Il Sung’s heroic image appears everywhere. A widely distributed English language guidebook, Outstanding Leadership and Brilliant Victory (Pyongyang, 1993), claims Kim “led the Korean people to victory in the anti-Japanese revolutionary war by employing Protean tactics of guerrilla warfare, and liberated the country on August 15, 1945.” Eight years later, he led the Korean People’s Army, in “shattering the myth of the U.S. imperialists’ ‘might.’” Readers are informed that “the historic victory of the Korean people in the war was only possible thanks to the outstanding guidance of President Kim Il Sung, the great military strategist and even victorious iron-willed brilliant commander.”

It is also noted that Kim’s victory was “a shining result of his Juche military thoughts and distinguished military art.” Juche, meaning self-reliance and non-dependence on foreign assistance, was a philosophy that was never put into practice, and certainly not during the Korean War. Direct Soviet military assistance allowed Kim to instigate the June 25, 1950, attack on South Korea and more than a quarter of a million Chinese “volunteers” rescued the North Korean regime from complete annihilation by UNC and South Korean forces in the autumn of 1950. In an easily overlooked reference to outside assistance, the text states “units of the (North Korean) People’s Army, together with the Chinese People’s Volunteers, carried out strong counteractions to check the enemy’s attack at the end of October.”

Like the war museum in Seoul, the North Korean institution displays numerous images, artifacts and weapons, including some from after 1953. The USS Pueblo, seized by the North Koreans, in 1968 is a major attraction, and exemplifies the ongoing nature of the Korean conflict.

The Pyongyang museum offers no message of reconciliation or peace. Throughout, there is a fierce anti-American message; however, visitors from the U.S. report friendly treatment as North Korean uniformed guides emphasize hostility is directed at the government of the United States, not the people. Emphasis centers on “US imperial aggressors,” the “most brutal slaughter of people ever known is history,” and the “barbarous atrocities of using chemical and germ weapons.”

Given the intensely conflicting memories put forth in the war museums of Pyongyang and Seoul, it is difficult to image anything close to a shared history of the Korean War emerging.

The author is indebted to Kathryn Weathersby for a copy of Outstanding Leadership, Brilliant Victory.

Michael Devine, former Director of the Harry S. Truman Library (2001-2014), is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center during summer 2017.
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