Not Forgotten

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, May 05, 2010 was originally posted on May 09, 2010.

DAY 16:  American Korean War veterans often cite their war as “The Forgotten War,” for other wars have taken the spotlight in the the long history of American warfare.  Perhaps more media attention goes to World War II since America and the Allied Nations “won” that war.  Perhaps more attention goes to Vietnam and Iraq to point out America’s “blunders.”  (Both “won” and “blunders” are in quotes depending on your political sensitivity.)  Perhaps the Korean War takes a back page to others because it ended in a stalemate, the result being the fact that there are now two countries: a Socialist North Korea (officially the DPRK or “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) and a democratic South Korea (officially the ROK or “Republic Of Korea”).

To the mainstream consciousness (or perhaps just mine), the most attention the Korean War has gotten is the fact that it served as the backdrop for the film-inspired 1970-80s TV sitcom series M.A.S.H. — cleverly starting its television run as a commentary for the then current Vietnam War — where, to the memory of my too-young-to-really-remember-anything childhood knowledge, the Korean War was the one where Jamie Farr went around and dressed in drag all the time.  (Cue laugh track.)

But the Korean War is no laughing matter for it cost millions of civilian and military lives in its three year period between 1950-53.  This was all explained to me at Seoul’s Korean War Memorial, built on the grounds of a former US military post.  With a 7-Eleven gimbap in my stomach, I commuted on the Metro across town for a one-man field trip.  (Or was it?  See Fun Fact in the sidebar.*)

THE KOREAN WAR MEMORIAL, opened in 1994, is an impressive and respectful place for Koreans and war vets alike, and that’s just on the outside.  Upon approach, there is the soaring Tower of Korean War, combining two images: a bronze sword representing “the time-honored history and the warrior spirit”; and the tree of life symbolizing “the prosperity and peace of the Korean people.”  The tower is surrounded by larger-than-life statues of 38 people defending the Fatherland “from all walks of life who overcame the Korean War and depict the suffering and pain caused by the war while embodying the sublime spirit of sacrifice and dedication to the defence of the fatherland of past patriots.”  The expressions of the faces were moving, even for children — although most kids just loved playing around the former military vehicles in the outdoor exhibition: the trucks, tanks, planes, and missile launchers from both American and Soviet sides.

Inside the museum (free admission, even though you still need to get a ticket), I was not alone*, for there were several school kids on a field trip — some in uniform, some not — as well as some uniformed Korean soldiers on leave paying respects to a previous generation who fought bravely decades ago.

But the “Korean War Memorial” isn’t just about the 1950-53 “Korean War;” it educates of all the wars Korea has been in involved in for centuries.  The well-designed exhibition led me on a historical timeline, starting from the days of ancient dynasties where warriors rode horses and fought with crossbows and arrows.  Three kingdoms occupied the Korean peninsula in most of the 1st millenium (C.E.), but it was not always peaceful, just as life was back then in most parts of the world.  While the Crusades were going on in another part of the world, there were many battles and wars in the land that is now Korea (and it’s surrounding seas), between the kingdoms settled in the peninsula, and the Mongols and the different iterations of Chinese dynasties who came in attempts to conquer.  All the specifics I’ll spare you — this is a primarily travel blog, not a history one — since you can just Google everything these days anyway.  (My bad, Ariel.)

Despite all the bloodshed in Korea over millenia of history, Korean museum curators are most embarrassed about the bloodshed of the early 20th century, when the Japanese occupied their land (and most islands of the Pacific).  Prior to World War II (HBO’s The Pacific part, not the Band of Brothers part), the Japanese seized control of Korea, only to be defeated in WW II by the Allied nations with the intelligence and might of US superstar General Douglas MacArthur.  The Japanese surrendered in 1945, leaving Korea to be rebuilt — by order of the United Nations (and not the Korean people) — by the USSR in the north and the US in the south.  Due to a lack of a proper electoral process, the division of the Korean peninsula remained at the 38th parallel, and was only strengthened by the opposing ideologies of the respective parties. 

Do I smell a Cold War brewing? 

The Korean War started on the morning of June 25, 1950, when the Soviet-supported north crossed the line and invaded with a sneak attack, in attempts to take over the entire peninsula.  This one attack evolved into a three year era of blood, sweat and tears — not to mention gory land battles with heavy artillery, and bombs falling from the sky in air raids.  Lives were lost; humanity was at its worst.  And while there was a M*A*S*H* (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) , it was no laughing matter.

The specifics of the different battles I’ll spare you again — it’s a travel blog, remember? — but I will note that the north not only had support from the Soviets but from the Chinese.  The south was supported by the return of superstar US General MacArthur, now leading the UN Army, who came to the rescue on his arrival at the bay of Incheon (where Seoul’s International airport is today).  The UN Army was comprised of mostly forces from the United States, but also from other nations, who all had their own sense of fashion style: the Limeys, Dutch, Canucks, Frenchies (oh la la), Kiwis, Flips, Turks, Thais, Saffers, Greeks, Belgians, Luxemburgers, Ethiopians, Colombians, Swedes, Indians, Danish, Norweigians, and pre-Jersey Shore fist- pumpin’ Italians (dohnfuhgettaboudit). 

South Korean forces eventually took back Seoul, a city continually caught in the crossfire, but the war waged on.  And on and on.  In the end, there were no winners — only hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers — and it ended in a stalemate, resulting in the continued (but now official) division at the 38th parallel, establishing the North Korea and South Korea as two nations.  The result was an era of rebuilding and recovery, not to mention the era of refugees doing everything they could to survive.

Today, Korea still stands divided, but there is optimism and hopes for a reunified Korea.  (Hey, it happened to Germany.)  Outside, the 11-meter-high Statue of Brothers (picture above), perched on an cracked dome symbolizing a divided Korea, depicts a South Korean soldier embracing his younger North Korean brother with feelings of “reconciliation, love, and forgiveness.”

THE INFLUENCE OF AMERICA and all the other nations that helped South Korea in its time of need is still present in Seoul, in one neighborhood in particular, Itaewon.  Walking down the main drag of the most un-Korean neighborhood in the city, it feels like a stroll down Main Street, USA, with many establishments representing countries that helped keep the northern Koreans to the north (and then some):  Indian, French, German, Australian (ha), Italian, Turkish, and of course British and American.  Itaewon is also home of the Hard Rock Cafe and one of many locations of what I’ve been calling “The American Embassy” (McDonald’s), where one can get the locally-inspired Shrimp Burger, four-patty “Mega Mac” (wow), or the Korean-marinated Bulgogi Burger (they’re lovin’ it).  Not surprisingly, the neighborhood is right near an active U.S. Military Base, and is the center of Seoul’s ex-pat community.

MY SHORT JAUNT TO KOREA had come to an end, and it left me with an appetite for more — perhaps one day in the future, unified.  It was fun, educational, and definitely filling while it lasted, but for me, it was time to start backtracking…



*If you’ve been reading this blog since the big RTW trip that began in 2003, you may know that I met and flirted with an NPR reporter that I met in Laos, that eventually led to One Night In Bangkok.  She was on assignment and did not want me to reveal her name on this blog for particular professional journalistic reasons, so I simply referred to her at the time as ARIEL (American Reporter I Encountered in Laos).  But after the big original RTW blog was said and done, I did reveal her name in a later trip blog a year later, which at the time I thought was harmless — much to her chagrin.  (This is before the awesome power of Google and it’s ability to search everything.)

Four years went by, and I never heard from her.  In early spring 2010 I was toying with this trip to Asia for “Chinese leftovers, etc.” and — wouldn’t you know? — just a week before departure, she emailed me completely out of the blue after she’d just found my Israel blog and decided to drop me a line.  (The last time I’d heard from her, she was stationed in Cairo to cover Middle East news.)  A back-and-forth e-exchange ensued:

Ariel: I live in Asia silly.  In Seoul, South Korea now.

Me: I’ll be in Seoul May 4-6… Come out and play…

Ariel: I will play IF you do not blog about it.  Do you know how many times your blog has gotten me into a jam?

At her request, I erased her real name in every instance I had access to, even deleting all my old blogs hosted by Blogger.  (Please do not write or utter her name if you remember.) 

Ariel and I made tentative plans to meet in Seoul, but she never got back to me when I was in town — she was possibly out on assignment I assumed — but even if she did, would you even know?  Or would I just write about Korean War history instead?


Next entry: Going Backtracking

Previous entry: Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo

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Comments for “Not Forgotten”

  • Next up: “Going Backtracking”...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/09  at  06:56 AM

  • i’d rather read the entire history lesson here…because i’m not going to google anything more…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/09  at  05:26 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

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Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo


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