The Korean War of 1950-1953 is probably more obscure for most non-Koreans — especially younger ones — than the older but far crazier, bigger, badder war of 1939-1945, and definitely than the more recent and oft-Hollywoodised Vietnam conflict. And what many westerners do “know” about Korea, they probably gleaned from eternal repeats of the M.A.S.H. sitcom.
I never liked M.A.S.H. and anyway, it always seemed to me to be more about the Vietnam War than the Korean — I would even guess that many viewers thought they were watching yet another Vietnam show.
The only time during my stint in Korea (as a teacher, not a soldier, although there were similarities) I was reminded of the sitcom war was one hot afternoon midway through my 13-day “Goat Killer Trail” death march up the roads of the Korean east coast.
Passing this beautiful little ridge beyond some paddies as the sun-baked road hooked mercifully back towards the sea…
..I was reminded of those scrubby, arid hills stretching away beneath the dusty bubbles of those M.A.S.H. helicopters.
In other words, it looked like a southern California hill! I spent weeks walking through that kind of country on the Pacific Crest Trail, and I gazed at this Korean version with affection for long-lost adventures…
I didn’t know much about the war either, and had to do some research before my tour of English-teaching duty in 2012-2013. I’d taught Korean youngsters in Australia by the thousand, but all I got out of them, war-wise, was lots of complaining about the compulsory military service and plenty of comedic contempt for their northern neighbours.
Overall, I was surprised how few physical reminders of the war I came upon in my wanderings — at least, large-scale ones in the form of monuments or memorials. In the south-eastern corner, where I lived, and on my trips to Seoul, there seemed to be more monuments to the Japanese invasions and occupation than to the Korean War.
One exception was Jungang Park, in downtown Busan, with its tacky but undeniably imposing statue on a hilltop with commanding harbour views…
..but I found far more abundant, prosaic evidence of the conflict near hiking trails in the mountains and forests.
Everywhere I hiked, there were these foxholes — I suppose that’s the word for them — next to the path:
I assumed most of them were leftovers from the war, though they often seemed to have been maintained either for defence or perhaps for manoeuvres or training. The hills overlooking urban centres were presumably thick with last-ditch defenders during the war.
Busan, the second-biggest city, gave its name to the Busan Perimeter, a 140-mile line which the retreating U.N. forces were determined to hold in one of the war’s earliest and most ferocious engagements.
In fact, most of the carnage occurred along the north-western edge of the line — around Daegu (Taegu)…
..an area I only visited once in my stay.
(I’ll get around to posting a short recap of that trip one day.)
The starkest reminders of the conflict to be found in Busan itself are perhaps the shabby warrens of modest houses and meandering lanes and alleys clinging to the hillsides that overlook the port city:
Busan was inundated with refugees (almost 375,000) during the war, many of whom elected to stay afterwards, their camp settlements morphing with a minimum of adornment into low-rent suburbs with high-value harbour views.
Further evidence of a violent and not-so-distant past can still be found in the surrounding hills. As well as the countless foxholes, there are objective hazards that make the bears, hypothermia and alpine snowfields of some of my more challenging hikes seem positively quaint:
As is often pointed out, an official ceasefire to the war was never announced.
As I hiked north on my Goat Killer Trail journey (limped might be a better word, particularly on the last couple of days), the coastline, while beautiful, was degraded in increasingly lengthy sections by rusty fences, barbed wire and pillboxes and observation posts by the hundreds:
The effect was eerie but fascinating. Sometimes all access to the beaches was blocked, rusted gates padlocked closed; at other times I would jump over a collapsed span and grab a quick ocean dip behind some rocks, unsure if I was breaking any laws but feeling decidedly uneasy.
Back in the neighbourhood of Busan, it was a rare weekend day I stayed close to home. When I was all hiked out, I’d either risk a bus to a more distant city or delve deeper into what Busan had to offer.
One weekend in April of 2012 I read about the U.N. Korean War Cemetery — the only one in the world — and made the public-transport trek to Daeyeon, a suburb of Busan.
I liked the place a lot, and looking at the photos in this post, I see that I visited five times in total. I remember once or twice trekking all the way from Haeundae to Gwangalli (another famous Busan beach strip)…
..and then on to the cemetery, before slumping onto the subway for the long, long journey home.
UNMCK (United Nations Military Cemetery, Korea) dates from 1951. Participants from 21 U.N. member countries helped defend the Republic of Korea against the North; U.N. troops totalled 1,754,400 of whom 40,896 were killed.
The great majority of identified remains were repatriated to their respective homelands, but 2,300 graves remain, including those of 11 non-combatants.
The United States, for example, contributed 1.7 million personnel (!) to the war, of whom 33,739 died, their remains sent home. The 36 Americans interred at UNMCK are U.N. personnel stationed in Korea after the war who died and were buried there.
There are also the graves of four unknown soldiers and 36 Koreans who died as part of the U.N. force.
Here’s an alphabetical breakdown of the U.N. forces in the war. You might be surprised, as I was, at some of the member countries, particularly if your knowledge of the war came mostly from the highly U.S.-centric M.A.S.H.!
The first number is their total dead, the second the number of those buried at UNMCK:
- Australia: 346 / 281
- Belgium: 106 / 0
- Canada: 515 / 378
- Colombia: 213 / 0
- Denmark: 0 / 0
- Ethiopia: 122 / 0
- France: 270 / 44
- Greece: 186 / 0
- India: 0 / 0
- Italy: 0 / 0
- Luxembourg: 2 / 0
- Netherlands: 124 / 117
- New Zealand: 41 / 34
- Norway: 3 / 1
- Philippines: 120 / 0
- South Africa: 37 / 11
- Sweden: 0 / 0
- Thailand: 136 / 0
- Turkey: 1,005 / 462
- United Kingdom: 1,177 / 885
- USA: 36,492 / 36
The first time I visited, I was asked by one of the young guards at the entrance where I was from. I answered “Australia” and on leaving, they saluted me. I really did not deserve that, though the respect for member nations which helped defend their country was tangible.
I got to know the cemetery pretty well. Visiting was sobering but never morbid, and it was probably the most peaceful place I experienced in Korea (including some of the mountain tops!).
The grounds were immaculately maintained, the water features tastefully designed, the roses beautiful in Summer — and it was blissfully QUIET.
I sometimes saw westerners visiting, paying particular attention to certain graves, perhaps those of relatives.
I also enjoyed watching Korean families visit. They were usually respectful but relaxed: kids ran around and played, people took pictures, but I often saw parents reading the Korean inscriptions and explaining to their children.
There was an obvious feeling of “Life was terrible back then, but look where we are now.”
My final visit was in late July, 2013, when I was accompanied by a few Korean teachers and the cream of the English-class students.
It was an excursion at the end of my final “English camp”, the weeklong vacation activities I was
forced required to prepare and run each Summer and Winter.
They were good kids, but man, what a mistake. My Korean colleagues had funding for an excursion, but no ideas. Zero.
My initial suggestion, a walk to the waterfalls nearby, was ultimately rejected for safety reasons (no, not drowning — sunstroke!).
Like an idiot, I suggested, since a bus would be provided, a trip to the museum and the nearby war cemetery.
But they would need an activity to render the visit educational, so I went all the way into Busan the weekend before, slogging through the museum and cemetery, preparing worksheets, the most work I did to prepare anything in my two years there.
On the day, my colleagues wasted so much time that the museum visit was dropped, and the UNMCK activity shrunk to about 10 minutes so we would not miss our lunch (Koreans and their food…) — schoolkids running around war graves in teams was not what I’d had in mind.
The activity was abandoned, we lunched long and hard in some dismal concrete wasteland somewhere, and we made it back on the bus in time for the real purpose of the whole outing, an action movie about giant undersea monsters in a cinema equipped with eardrum-hammering volume, shaking seats and spray-nozzles squirting water in audience faces at appropriate points in the narrative.
No amount of history and reverence was ever going to compete with that…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote