195 different coloured shapes across seven continents make up the world map today. The shapes and the shades of each have been contested over time, in part to the consequences of war. One of the most contestable, and most divisive lines is the one that divides North Korea and South Korea (hereafter, ‘DPRK’ and ‘ROK’ respectively), named the 38th parallel.
This division came about due to the conclusion of the surrender of Japan after the Second World War in 1945 and then was subsequently fought over by the Communists in the North and U.S/ UN troops in the South in the Korean War of 1950-53.
In today’s society, to understand the configurations of worlds maps and the public representation of history, the role of a war museum acts as a crucial component to inform the public of its past.
A visit to both war museums in Seoul and Pyongyang offers a unique insight into the parallel cultures and views on history that these two sides have. Here is a list of the differences each side as observed in the experience of visiting both museums:
- Korean War Outbreak. Who invaded who?
Both sides agreed the war started on 25 June 1950 and that the aggressor attacked unannounced as the other was caught unaware. Both though had an alternative view on who was the aggressor. In Pyongyang, we were asked to sit as we watched a video of ROK forces attacking unannounced as DPRK’s children picked flowers in a harmonious state on the other side of the mountain. In ROK, there were two floors of detailed analysis and footage of such things as the type of tanks that were used (the Russian T-34), the preparation and negotiations between Kim Il Sun-Mao- Stalin, the ‘Attackers at Dawn’, the locations that were hit and more.
Western thought is based around receiving data and from that deducing a logical theory. It strangely rankles with me that a state even as aloof and repressed as DPRK can give an alternative story to the public and tourists.
- The tour guide experience
In Pyongyang, we were taken around and lectured to by a nice enough, but rather stiff and stubborn lady in army attire. ROK, we had the option of a tour guide but we had the freedom to learn for ourself.
- A statue of consolidation.
In this touching statue in Seoul, where two brothers from opposite sides are embracing, ROK War Museum posed questions about consolidation, brotherhood, love, recovery, and ultimately unity in war. DPRK did not really address this softer element but rather focused on the brutality of war.
- Link to present day leader
One of the most bizarre exhibits in Pyeonyang was a Greek god style image of Kim Jong Un. Given that he was not involved in the war, it was a sort of self celebratory, John Terry-esqe triumphalism. In South Korea, there was a part of the museum dedicated to previous leader Park Geun Hye’s offering of repatriation to the fallen Chinese soldiers, but statues were left for the soldiers.
- Captured vehicles/ neutral-state vehicles
In both museums there were displays of army tanks and war vehicles from either side. In DPRK, the enemy vehicles were claimed to having been captured or shot down. In ROK, the enemy vehicles were on display alongside the other. There was no story of them being captured, so in a way they were in a neutral state.
- Acknowledgement of others
DPRK was chauvinistic in showcasing its achievements in pushing back the Allied Forces, giving little accreditation to the Chinese or Russians whose men and arms were essential. ROK on the other hand is grateful for the 67 other nations (a Guinness World Record) who supported them as part of UN Security Council army. That said there is a bit of a sore point that ROK were not able to sign the Armistice Agreement and push for the full unity of the country.
On a side note, how on earth did the 1950’ Chinese Peoples Liberation Army who allegedly carried flute and drums push back a 67-nation UN force? Mad props to the Chinese
- Korea is more than one war.
The DPRK museum focused purely on the Korean War. A lot of the museum in ROK was dedicated to the same war, but it also had exhibits detailing the wars throughout the Joseon dynasty and the Japanese occupation. ROK was therefore a more comprehensive take on war and the development of it in Korea.
As previously mentioned, DPRK sources of information came through the tour guide, a video and some antagonising displays. ROK had displays, pictures, videos, artefacts, costumes, troves of information with Korean, Chinese and English options allowing a freer flow of absorption and understanding.
North Korean war museum was very heavily anti-imperialist/American. The Korean War had the most lasting impact on both countries, ROK have acknowledged it and moved on, DPRK appear to bear this grudge.
In Korea, there is a culture of Han, allegedly a purely Korean characteristic that leaves recipients carrying a deep long-lasting sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution. Regarding the Korean War, this Han is more evident in the North.
- Long lasting dream
DPRK had a dream for curing its sick brother, ridding them of their imperialist occupiers and securing unity. ROK’s governmental message does switch between the ‘sunshine policy of consolidation to more conservative messages of retaliation action depending on who is in power. The ROK museum message hoped for ultimate unity and peace between the two.
So overall, there are more differences than similarities, for instance in the method of portraying information and in the overarching tone of the message. War museums aim to give us an idea of how the war had footprint in its citizens lives, DPRK use it as a way to antagonise its citizens that they are the victims, that they are courageous in battle and one must hate America, ROK uses the war museum as a source of information, as a way of telling its people how ROK fits into the global community and as a call for peace.
With heightened tensions following DPRK’s missile tests, what can we learn from the Korean War for today’s climate?
It is striking to note that Stalin gave his backing to the Korean War in 1950 after the Soviet Union became nuclear armed. Nuclear weapons give a country a large bargaining chip. The family in power in DPRK would clearly be happy to remain in the stale mate that is currently ensuing as long as they have nuclear weapons capability in their armoury. Will the U.N forces act before DPRK is fully nuclear armed?
There have been countless incidents concerning DPRK that have not led to a stronger retaliation yet, barring trade sanctions. How much of an effect will falling Trump approval ratings and the orange leaders’ irrational behaviour have in the U.S pursuit of intervention? Furthermore with U.S banning its citizens from entering the DPRK, how will the DPRK citizens ever be able to have any peer-to-peer dialogue, form of debate and internal idea changing surrounding American people?
China enjoys a strong trade relation with ROK. Will they learn to alienate their Northern brothers? Would they ever intervene? With the strength of the Chinese army, is there a need for the U.S troops to be stationed in ROK if this is indeed provoking China who would not like to share a border with the U.S forces and also ROK who are now an advanced nation and would like to seek self-determination?