War Memorial Museum

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
1
4
50
Trip End Dec 02, 2012


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What I did
Korean War Memorial Seoul
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Korea Rep.  , Seoul,
Saturday, February 25, 2012

This weekend, I had signed-up for a group tour to visit the DMZ. Visiting to the area wasn't number one on my list of things to do, but my friends were going and I was a little bit curious. Our tour left early Sunday morning, so we elected to spend the night in Seoul on Saturday. I decided to go up early and make a day of it.

Because it was still relatively cold and dreary, I thought visiting a museum would be my best option. I chose the War Memorial of Korea (despite the name, it was more museum than memorial) to provide a theme for the weekend and to give me some background information for what I would be seeing the next day.

When I exited the subway station, I was not remotely prepared for the size of the museum. Although the actual contents of the museum were of appropriate number for a moderately large museum, the building and its grounds were built as a monument to the wars and conflicts Korea had been involved in and were therefore quite grandiose.

Strolling the grounds you could visit several large memorial sculptures, as well as numerous tanks, airplanes and other vehicles from modern wars, and even a wedding hall. I can't imagine visiting a museum and thinking, "Hey, you know what? We should have our wedding here." Okay, maybe a museum inside of some old mansion, but not a war museum slash memorial to fallen soldiers and other victims of war. Continuing the dichotomy inside, the museum/memorial hosted a couple of non-related temporary exhibitions, including one that was currently a dinosaur themed playground for kids.

Continuing on to the museum's own exhibits, the first few rooms were much more appropriately somber. A hallway lined with bronze busts of fallen soldiers with their stories led to a mid-sized circular room. In the center of the darkened room, a pool of water was lit from above by a colored beam of light.

Actually, I say those were the first few rooms, but before you got to them there was a sizable (by which I mean taking up a lot of space, rather than extensive in content) display concerning the torpedoing of the ROKS Cheonan by North Korea a couple of years ago. In other parts of the museum there were a few more exhibits exploring "Incidents of North Korean Aggression", but the one in the entrance hall even had the recovered torpedo displayed as evidence for visitors to see.

After the memorial room, the museum was arranged chronologically, so while the middle and upper floors had exhibits relating to the Korean War and beyond, the tour started on the first floor with weapons of Korean pre-history. The displays quickly advanced to the "classical" and "medieval" periods of Korean history. Two of the star exhibits were a turtle ship and the hwa cha. The turtle ship was a covered-deck ship that vaguely resembled a turtle, and the hwa cha was a mobile array of 100 gunpowder-propelled arrows that could be quickly fired in succession.

I had seen pictures or recreations of both the turtle ship and the hwa cha before, so what really caught my eye was the wide range of early gunpowder weapons the Koreans used. In 1377, inventor Choi Mu-seon began developing Korea's first gunpowder weapons. There were massive cannons and small, hand-held tubes. Most of the weapons fired arrow-shaped projectiles, but a few shot balls. There was no comparison to Chinese gunpowder weapons, and no dates on the individual items in the museum, so I'm not sure how many of the weapons were purely Korean and how many were copied from Chinese designs. (The museum did date pieces to the era of Korean history, but something labeled "Joseon Dynasty" could have been anywhere from around 1400 to 1900.) One non-explosive stand-out was crossbow that could fire 10 bolts in succession.

The other pre-modern weapons and armor were similar to those of Korea's neighbors, China and Japan. Chinese influence predominated, but there were several blades with the same curvature and fittings as Japanese katanas. Upon close observation, though, I could see that the blades did not have the tell-tale waves and gradations of a blade forged by folding in the Japanese manner. I wondered why the Korean blades had the same shape, but didn't use the same forging technique. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of English information anywhere on Korean weapons, and when the museum provided details they were usually in Korean only.

Upstairs, were the 20th century exhibits. While there was a little about the Japanese occupation and WWII (including a copy of the Japanese articles of surrender where Canada actually signed on the right line, unlike the copy in Tokyo's Edo Museum), the focus was really on the Korean War. Referred to as the 6-25 War in South Korea, the front line of the conflict swept back and forth across modern South Korea before settling in it's present location, which was basically where Korea had been partitioned between areas of Soviets and US influence after WWII.

One of the Korean War exhibits that made the biggest impression on me was on the tactics used by the Chinese during the war. The Chinese had almost no weapons and completely inadequate supply lines. To compensate for this, they used what was called "Human Wave Tactics". They would wait until night to sneak close to UN lines then attack. Only a small number of soldiers actually had guns. The rest were given grenades, flares, gongs, or other noise making equipment. Successive groups of soldiers would then charge toward the UN position shouting and using their gongs and flares to create as much fear and distraction as they could. It's pretty amazing to me that you could hand someone a gong and get them to charge a fortified position.

Another exhibit that I found memorable was a set of rooms decorated with scenes from the lives of refuges during the Korean War. It's been almost 60 years since the armistice, but with modern life expectancies, there are still many Koreans around who were alive during that period. Also, Korea didn't spontaneously burst into a modern state overnight following the end of the fighting. When I see older Koreans, I now find myself wondering what their childhoods were like and what they think about how different their country is now.

I didn't have enough time for all of the modern exhibits, but I did do a quick stroll through the memorial's ground before leaving to check out the sculptures and retired military equipment. Although I would have liked more English, and the museum's audio guides weren't available for whatever reason, I felt like I learned quite a lot. The museum wasn't terribly neutral, everyone was heroically doing things for the patriotic victory of their Korean homeland, but the veneration didn't get in the way of the history presentation. I would definitely recommend it for anyone interested in learning about the Korean War from a Korean point of view.

In the evening, I met up with my friends, and we went out to Hongdae. The nickname for the area around Honggik University, it was filled mainly with Korean college students and other young urbanites. (Spell check insists that's not a word...) Although it was freezing again, there were a lot people out having fun and pretty much no annoying drunks to deal with. (Although, what's that saying? Something like if you can't find the sucker in the room: it's you. Not that I drink, but I can't be sure I wasn't annoying.) The one negative for me about Hongdae would be that things were fairly expensive, but that's probably true of Seoul in general. I'm just used to the low price of dinner and a night out in the boonies.

My Review Of The Place I've Seen



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