Monday, April 18, 2011

Spring has Sprung

This past weekend, a group of friends and I went up to Seoul to attend the annual Cherry Blossom festival, a popular Spring event that attracts thousands of visitors. For many East Asian countries, the blooming of the Cherry Blossom tree officially marks the beginning of the new season, and numerous festivals take place all over the region:

A row of Cherry blossoms in full bloom. According to my host father, (who heard it on the news) 2 million people visited the  festival over the weekend.

In 1912, approximately 3,000 Cherry Blossom trees were given to the United States as a sign of friendship from Japan. They were planted in Washington DC, and have since become a popular tourist attraction.

In line with Korea's obsession with cutesy depictions of everything, (see previous post) a anthropomorphic Soju bottle isn't anything out of the ordinary. Just another day at the Cherry Blossom Festival!

 War and Peace

After visiting the Cherry Blossom Festival, we decided to visit the Korean War Memorial, a museum that chronicles the military history of the peninsula.
The War Memorial of Korea serves as a physical document to the military history of the nation, a memorial for those who served, and a glimpse into the future of the Korean armed forces. 

The complex itself is grandiose- in many ways, the museum seemed to function more as a promotion of military prowess and expansion than a somber memorial to the social costs of war. After watching a few boys gawking at the tanks and airplanes in the main showroom, I quickly realized the correlation between mandatory male conscription into the army and the glorification of war.

Since the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953, South Korea enacted a mandatory military conscription for all males. Fearing an imminent threat from the north, a large standing army has been mobilized ever since. In this context, the glorification of the Republic of Korea's armed forces makes a little more sense-if every male must enlist, The Korean War museum serves as much as a somber memorial as it does as a tool for enlistment.

Although the military hardware was pretty cool to look at, the most fascinating part of the museum by far was way in which certain information was presented.  Given its importance in peninsular history, The Korean War was presented in great detail. Fascinatingly enough, while I was walking through the exhibit, I was joined by a number of US Army servicemen who are stationed here in South Korea. Although the war has been over for almost 60 years, the mere presence of 29,000 US servicemen in the country speaks to the lasting effects of the war. Sadly, the armistice agreement of 1953  achieved nothing but a divided nation at the cost of 3 million lives.

The flags of all 22 nations that fought alongside South Korea during the Korean War. Interestingly, the United States sent more troops and suffered more casualties than any allied nation on the South Korean side of the conflict, with the exception of South Korea itself. The US sent 480,000 troops, and the second largest ally, England, sent 63,000 troops. To put things in perspective, South Korea provided 590,000 troops.

The museum moves chronologically through South Korea's armed conflicts during the 20th century. When walking through the Vietnam War Exhibit, one placard in particular caught my attention. Since South Korea was indebted to the United States following the Korean War, they have assisted in every US foreign policy action during the second half of the 20th century. Along with the 2.7 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War in some capacity, South Korea sent an additional 313,000 troops. Yet the museums portrayal of the conflict was quite fascinating:

"Through the dispatch of our armed forces to Vietnam, we gained confidence and experience in building a more self-reliant defense force. It also increased the momentum of our economic development, strengthened the U.S.  commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, and solidified South Korea's politico-military status vis-a-vis the United States. Furthermore, the impressive performance of the Korean forces in Vietnam enhanced our international reputation. 

From the United States' perspective the War in Vietnam did not foster the same "confidence and experience" that our South Korean allies had. Instead, the conflict polarized the nation.   From the South Korean perspective, the debacle in Vietnam proved an important stepping stone in increasing economic momentum and international reputation. Sadly, the war solidified the US military-industrial complex, further damaging our international reputation.

International politics aside,  my trip to Seoul proved to be quite educational, and gave me a new appreciation for the capital city. After a 4 hour trip back down to my little pear village of Naju, I started the daily grind again on Monday morning.  This weekend, I hope to attend my first Korean Baseball game. Be on the lookout for another post.
Until next time...

1 comment:

Nora said...

If you're in the DC area and really want to see cherry blossoms, skip the Tidal Basin and go to the residential neighborhood of Kenwood in Bethesda, Maryland! :)