Vacationing on the 38th Parallel

There are a lot of things to love about being on vacation, dear readers, but the thing I love most is the way it allows me to start acting like a tourist again.  I have a lot of stuff planned for this week, and today I kicked the whole thing off by visiting the Korean War Memorial in Samgakji. Unless you watch a lot of M.A.S.H. re-runs and/or Mad Men, chances are pretty good that you don’t really know very much about the Korean War. And you’re not alone. In fact, historians have long referred to the war in Korea as America’s “forgotten war.” There are several reasons for this, but I believe a lot of it comes down to a simple problem of marketing. The Korean War didn’t have the atmospheric trench warfare of World War I, the larger-than-life enemies of World War II, or the social upheaval of Vietnam. You might say it’s a b-side on the record of American warfare. 

And I’ll be totally honest with you. If you’d come to me this morning and asked me what I knew about the Korean War, I would have recited Sam Kinison’s scene from Back to School and then followed it up by saying “I didn’t blame anyone for the loss of my legs. Some Chinaman took them from me in Ko-rea. But I went out and achieved anyway!” And that would have been about it.

But all that changed just as soon as the ladies at the War Memorial information desk paired me up with an English-language tour guide named Mr. Chang:

Mr. Chang, I found out, is actually Lieutenant Colonel Chang. During Vietnam, he was Captain Chang. He now volunteers his time at the Memorial. (That word is key, by the way. Before the tour even started, Mr. Chang made sure I understood that this was not a museum, but a memorial.)

This is all very personal for him, you see. In 1950, when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, he and his family were forced to live under Communist rule for more than a year before the American/Allied forces eventually smuggled them safely into Seoul. I doubt even Joseph McCarthy despised Communists as much as Mr. Chang does.

The first exhibit he showed me was a torpedo in a glass case. This torpedo, he explained, was the one that North Korea fired at a South Korean ship in May 2010, killing 46 sailors. (North Korea has denied this, but Mr. Chang pointed out several reasons – markings, military manuals, etc. – why they’re obviously lying.)

From there, the tour took us into two separate exhibit rooms: one that outlined basic Korean history (the end of Japanese colonial rule, the division of Korea into two countries, the surprise attack of June 25, 1950, etc) and another one that fleshed out the details of the war itself. This second room even had its own 38th parallel line for guests to cross over.

The next room Mr. Chang took me to was the Memorial’s U.N. Room, which pays homage to all of the Allied forces that helped to liberate South Korea during the war (can you believe Ethiopia was involved?). The thing I found most touching about this room was an art exhibit called “The Teardrop,” made from the dog tags of fallen soldiers. I don’t usually care for modern art, but this really got to me.

But before things got too terribly depressing I got a good laugh from the tribute to General Douglas MacArthur on the opposite wall. The look on MacArthur’s face reminded me of my paternal grandfather, Emile “Paw Paw” Wiltz, who was a fighter, not a lover (as opposed to my other grandfather, Harold “Flash” Lamas, who was a lover, not a fighter). Something tells me “taking shit from Commies” wasn’t real high on ole Doug’s to-do list.

Mr. Chang laughed when he explained how General MacArthur had been discharged for being “too ambitious” and for having “too much fire, like Napoleon.” But in spite of that, he said, the Korean people still view him as a hero for having successfully led the invasion that turned the war around.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour came towards the very end. Just before you exit, you see a large model of the the demilitarized zone (“DMZ”) that divides North Korea from South Korea. As Mr. Chang explained, all negotiations between the two take place in a bunker situated near the very middle. Take a look at the picture above and you’ll notice something that looks like a pipe hanging from the end of the table. This actually extends the full length of the table and literally divides the North from the South (as in, one half of the table is in North Korea and the other half is in South Korea). The delegates are free to shake hands, but the reps from the South are not allowed to go to the north side of the table and the reps from the North are not allowed to go to the south side of the table. It’s like a high school cafeteria on a whole other level.

The rest of the tour continues in this fashion, highlighting significant events from the war while making sure to mention just how much North Korea sucks. Take a look at the English print on this sign, for example.

 It lets you know that “North Korea has a fully centralized, planned, and state-controlled economic system” and that it has “difficulties with the economy, food, and necessities.” (How funny would it be if it started with the words “Just so you know…”?)

As the day began winding down, Mr. Chang and I thanked each other for a nice afternoon and prepared to go our separate ways. All things considered, I think we made a pretty good pair: I had a lot of questions and he had a lot of information to pass on. It all worked out. And just before we said our final goodbyes, he said something that will stick with me forever.

“I want to say that I am grateful for your time. And because you are American, I want to say also that we [the Korean people] are grateful for your forefathers, for their sacrifice. All 33,000. We never forget them.”

It was a great day.

About J. Wiltz

"Well, you know, there really isn't very much to say about me." - Andy Warhol
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