Korean ‘turtle ship’ recalls naval victory in 1592 over Japan
The so-called Korean conflict is little remembered in the United States today. Its veterans struggle to raise simple monuments. In South Korea, however, they remember.
Where Seoul's army once had its headquarters, the War Memorial of Korea has risen to monumental proportions. Jingoistic and decidedly hard-sell, the bleached white building combines museum elements of the Smithsonian with an outward resemblance to Buckingham Palace and cultural overtones of Napoleon's Tomb.
From a bronze age dagger to sophisticated missile systems being manufactured by South Korea's economic juggernaut, this museum chronicles the a defiant little peninsula's fierce resistance to powerful invaders since the era of the Three Kingdoms—attacks by China, Japan and Mongolia. And in 1950, the invaders were from the peninsula itself.
You enter the exhibit spaces through a hall lined with busts of military figures wearing pot-style World War II American helmets. Upon closer inspection, however, these all prove to be South Korean generals. There is no MacArthur, Bradley, Walton Walker, Matthew Ridgway, Max Taylor or James Van Fleet. These are Seoul's heroes and, after all, that's what the exhibit is all about. No murals or dioramas depict Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy, The Hook, Arrowhead or Heartbreak Ridge. The exhibits instead show other ridgelines fought across by South Koreans.
Returning American veterans might consider their role underplayed, and even my guide was slightly sheepish as we entered the room devoted to the many nations that made up the United Nations contingent.
"These exhibits are in alphabetical order," he explained, which of course put the United States near the end. On the other hand, for American veterans this could well be the best recapitulation of the war they fought.
The 360-degree screen showing film clips of the Inchon landings sets a standard of realism matched by few museums, military or otherwise. (Seoul's international airport now resides on reclaimed land near Inchon, so this battle site is seen—at least from the air—by a large percentage of incoming visitors.
The dioramas and maps explain campaigns from the Naktong to the Han and the Imjin to the Yalu. Hardware is authentic and exhibited well. Many of the 13,600 artifacts show Korea's place in military history, such as multiple rocket launchers of the Choson Dynasty and the turtle battleships used by Admiral Yi Sun Shin in his victory over Japan's fleet in 1592.
Times vary with the season, but there are often military parades in the circular marble plaza before the main edifice. One high point is a traditional manual of arms with sabers performed by South Korean troops in period costume. The memorial is within easy walking distance of Itaewon, the favored shopping district for foreigners visiting Seoul. Seoul's excellent subway system serves both Itaewon and the War Memorial.