A military copter mid-air, with its blade-slapping roar, welcomes me into the expansive War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Towering in the background is a grand grey building.
Along the way stands the Korean War Veterans Monument, which displays a list of countries, laurel wreaths, unit insignias and battles of the infamous Korean War of 1950.
National flags of 21 countries that helped during the war, soar high above the wreaths. I realised I’d be here for at least half-a-day on a tour that would walk me through the history of the Korean War.
- When the Korean War broke out, India dispatched a medical unit, the 60 Para Field Ambulance, comprising 346 men, including four combat surgeons, two anaesthesiologists and a dentist, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel AG Rangaraj.
- One of the follow-up actions to the Armistice Agreement was the establishment of a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) which was to decide the fate of over 20,000 prisoners of war from both sides. India was chosen as the Chair of the NNRC, with Poland and Czechoslovakia representing the Communist bloc and Sweden and Switzerland representing the Western world.
- Nehru selected Lieutenant General KS Thimayya as the Chairman of the NNRC and Major General SSP Thorat as the Commander of the Custodian Force India.
- At the end of its work, the NNRC was left with over 80 prisoners of war, who resisted being handed over and expressed a desire to go to neutral countries. On humanitarian considerations, Nehru decided to bring them to India pending a final decision by the UN on where they would go. Most left immediately for other countries in Central and South America. But a few stayed back and got loans to start poultry businesses.
The copter’s roar is still ringing in my ears as I enter a huge hall with a domed roof, symbolically depicting the Hwarang spirit (the spirit of the warrior). “It is the will to protect our country,” explains an elderly gentleman, who offers to be our guide.
Minutes later, I stray away into a starlit corridor that leads into another hall, where the sun shines on what looks like a large bowl filled with water. The beautiful corridor (the walls of which were adorned with small light points, making it seem like a night sky), commemorates the number of soldiers who were killed during the war.
‘The sunlight representing Korea, shines on the water in the bowl to symbolise creation’, I read from a plaque. This architectural concept is called Creation.
Digging into the past
The War History Room is next. There are two exhibit rooms that document the Korean resistance from foreign aggression since prehistoric times through pyroglyphics, military weapons from that era and a mobile rocket launcher developed in 1451 — Shin Gi Jeon Gi Hwa Cha.
A life-size model of a turtle-shaped battleship designed by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, which played a pivotal role in defeating the Japanese, stands proudly. I chance upon a black wall with ‘1950.06.25’ emblazoned on it; it is the day on which the Korean War officially began.
An exhibit from the battlefield
It also marks the entrance to The Korean War Room, a dimly lit enclosure, with black walls and a floor that recreates a war recovery site. Protected by glass panels, the site invokes emotion — strewn on the sand are a soldier’s water canteen, a skeleton and an open wallet from which pictures of the soldier’s family spill out.
Written descriptions, representational images and video simulators, installations and machinery speak hauntingly of the war. Viewers can experience the Korean evacuation from Heungnam or the Incheon landing operation through 4D simulations.
A representation of life in Seoul during the war
The Armistice Agreement too, is realistically presented along with the table on which the parties signed the document.
Three storeys and several hours later, I am still not done. As I sprint across the premises to get back to the bus, a group of youngsters joins me. I ask one of them “Would you support the reunification if it happens?” The response is quick and curt. “No, we are very well aware of our past.”
The writer was in Korea at the invitation of Korea Foundation