Tessa Morris-Suzuki: Museums and the Contested Memory of the Korean War

[Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History, Convenor of the Division of Pacific and Asian History in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and a Japan Focus associate. Her most recent book is Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan's Cold War. She wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal. ]

On 27 May 2009, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) provoked worldwide alarm and protest by announcing that it no longer considered itself bound by the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. Amongst the mass of western media reports deploring this announcement, however, only a few noted the fact that the armistice has never been signed by the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), because its then President Yi Seungman [Syngman Rhee] did not accept that the war was over, and wanted to go on fighting. The armistice was therefore signed only by some of the belligerents, and, since negotiations on the Korean Peninsula in the UN framework proved abortive and the US and North Korea have not pursued bilateral peace negotiations, there has never been a peace treaty. [1] More than half a century after the ceasefire, Korea remains uneasily divided along the 38th Parallel, one of the world’s most dangerous military flashpoints. Of all the conflicts over history and memory which trouble the Northeast Asian region, this is surely the one most directly linked to contemporary politics: for rival understandings of the unfinished war lie at the heart of continuing political tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

As Sheila Miyoshi Jager asks, “how does one commemorate a war that technically is still not over?” [2] In English language writings, the Korean War is referred to, with almost monotonous regularity, as “the Forgotten War”. This description, however, begs an important question: forgotten by whom? Certainly not by the people of North Korea, where education, propaganda, TV dramas and repeated air-raid drills ensure that the conflict is experienced as an ongoing reality. Nor, I would suggest, have many South Koreans (particularly those of older generations) forgotten the Korean War. The term “Forgotten War”, then, refers largely to an American amnesia, although this amnesia is probably also shared by some of America’s major allies, including Australia, Britain and Japan. (The latter, of course, though not a combatant in the war, was deeply involved in providing bases and material support for the UN forces engaged in the conflict). Or perhaps, as Bruce Cumings has suggested (quoting French literary theorist Pierre Macherey), we should see the silence less as amnesia than as “structured absence”. [3]

The Return of the Past

Even in America, however, frequent recent references to “the Forgotten War” suggest that flashes of irrepressible presence are starting to break through the structured absence. You have to remember something in order to be able to describe it as “forgotten”, and indeed Philip West and Suh Ji-Moon’s collection of essays Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’ is just one of a growing number of works which, over the course of the past decade or so, have examined the production of US amnesia about the Korean conflict. [4] Recent English-language studies have looked at the war in Korean literature, in photography and in Seoul’s War Memorial of Korea, its presence in Korean movies and its general absence from Hollywood box-office hits. [5] Ha Jin’s award-winning novel War Trash has also offered a vivid if contentious evocation of the events of the war, directed at a US audience but written from a Chinese perspective. [6]

In US popular culture itself, there have also signs of the emergence of an uneasy contest of war memories. 2008 saw the release of a movie which I believe to be the first Hollywood blockbuster to acknowledge the dark side of the actions of US troops in the Korean War: Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Eastwood’s central character, Walt Kowalski (played by the director himself), is a Korean War veteran haunted by the cruelties of the war, and particularly by the face of a young enemy soldier whom he killed as the soldier attempted to surrender. The resurfacing of Kowalski’s repressed memories comes a decade after revelations by a team of US journalists about the massacre of Korean civilians at Nogun-Ri, and follows the circulation and debate on the Internet of the BBC’s haunting 2002 documentary “Kill ‘em All: The American Military in Korea”. [7]

On the other hand, and perhaps partly in reaction to these troubling ghosts from the past, 2009 marked the opening (“thanks to a generous gift from Turtle Wax Inc.”) of the initial stage of the first, only and still incomplete national Korean War museum in the United States. Created by a group of war veterans and their supporters, the Korean War National Museum in Springfield, Illinois, sets out to present an unabashedly triumphal vision of the war – “the forgotten victory” – as “the first time that the advance of communism was halted”. [8] The theme of victory is highlighted by the museum’s logo, defiantly focused on a bright red letter V surrounded by a laurel wreath. Images of the planned museum posted on its website show a flowing design of exhibition spaces featuring large photographic panels and life-size reconstructions of villages and dugouts. (See this link)

The museum’s prospectus and its archive of photographs focuses firmly on the US experience of the war, in which, we are told “54,246 soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice” (a figure which leaves a strange haze of silence around the estimated 3-4 million Korean soldiers and civilians, several hundred thousand Chinese “volunteers”, more than 3,000 soldiers from other countries of the United Nations Command and 120 Soviet pilots who were also killed in the war). The images which illustrate the museum website, however, do include one striking picture of Korean civilian suffering – a picture also featured in China’s Memorial of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (discussed in more detail later in this paper). This is a photograph, taken during the Incheon Landing, of a lone small girl sitting weeping outside what appears to be a bombed factory. On the US museum’s website the photograph is accompanied by the words, “during the war, the American armed forces saved thousands of Korean lives.” [9] In the book I purchased at the Chinese memorial, the same photograph is captioned. “American ruffians of aggression brought extremely serious catastrophe. An unfortunate girl in flames of war crying loudly on the street”. [10] I wonder what became of the little girl, and, if she is still alive, how her memories of war would relate to these divided pronouncements on the meaning of her grief.

In this essay I want to approach the question of contested memories of the Korean War by considering how the conflict is represented in the museums of several key participant nations on the western side of the Pacific: in the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul; the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang; the Memorial of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea in Dandong, China; and the section of the Australian War Memorial devoted to the Korean War. The names of the museums themselves speak volumes about the contrasting ways in which the war is remembered.

Museum displays can be examined from many perspectives: which historical facts are presented and which are omitted? What narrative of the past does the museum tell? How do its design, layout and use of media engage the attention and emotions of visitors? How do visitors experience past events as they walk through the museum’s halls? What policies and controversies surround the museum’s creation and the evolution of its displays? In order to understand the role that the museum plays in creating contending memories of war, we need also to know something about the place of each museum in public memory. Who visits the museum? Does it present an unquestioned national narrative of the past, or are its displays open to multiple interpretations or challenged by alternative discourses? [11]

Here I have chosen to take a snapshot in time. Although I make some comments about the history of the museums themselves, I focus mainly on examining the images of the Korean War displayed at the time of writing (2009). I am particularly interested in understanding how each museum’s representation of the war influences perceptions of the contemporary crisis on the Korean Peninsula. For this reason, I shall consider how each addresses certain key questions about the origins and consequences of the conflict. What was the background to the outbreak of the Korean War? How did the war start? Who were its heroes, villains and victims? How did the war end? What was its aftermath and what are its implications for the present? To answer these questions involves looking at the factual narratives presented through written information, photos, artifacts, video displays etc. But it is also important to consider the media through which the story is told. How do Korean War museums use design and technology to evoke the experience of the war, particularly for those who have no direct memory of its events?

In the final section of the paper, I shall bring together some reflections on the museums to assess the links between their representations of the past and contested understandings of the present. Here I want to draw again on Cumings’ notion of “structured absence”. An exploration of these museums offers glimpses of the way in which remembering and forgetting are intertwined. Each memorial presents a narrative of the war carefully constructed in response to the complex political, social and cultural context in which the memorial operates. Each narrative, by shining a bright light on certain faces of the war, intensifies the darkness that shrouds other faces. The task, I shall argue, is complicated by these monuments’ ambiguous status as both “memorials” and “museums”. By comparing them, and (metaphorically) laying their conflicting displays side-by-side, can we fill the absences with presence, and discover some pointers to paths which might take us beyond conflict?...

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