Where can we find the remnants of war in societies that have been subjugated by cultural phenomena such as Korean pop? Seoul is one of many places in South Korea where you can revisit the Korean War (1950-1953). Here are some of the iconic ones.
1-. Korean War Memorial
West of Itaewon, Seoul’s downtown district, is the Korean War Memorial, in whose plate rises around twenty black marble stelae in commemoration of the countries that sent troops to war. Among them, we can find fascinating elements such as the presence of Colombia and Ethiopia ─whose stellar appearance refers us to everything but a conflict in the tiny peninsula of the Koreas─ but we also see anticipated names, such as the United Kingdom or the United States. Visiting the War Memorial won’t take you longer than two hours. It consists of an outdoors exhibition of representative tanks and airplanes used during the war. But if you are visiting Seoul in winter, and it’s too cold to wander through the sculptures and statues then you should probably head straight inside, where you will find several museum-like exhibitions. One of them has most of the cars used by Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president. Even though the Memorial is a symbol of a national perspective of war, we could say that it is also a metaphor for the spatial plurality of it.
2-. DMZ or Demilitarized Zone
Established when the war ended, the DMZ holds the peace in Korea, as does the 1953 cease-fire agreement. This heavily fortified “demilitarized zone” is also the border demarcation from North Korea. Unfortunately, there is no way for solo travelers to get to the DMZ without booking a tour. On the bright side, there are plenty of them running every day, and almost every agency charges similar prices, depending on departure time. If you book a tour from Seoul, getting to the closest DMZ site won’t take longer than an hour or so on the tour’s bus. In winter, the first stop is Imjingak, a mall-like park which is more of a big service station. You will find a couple of cafés and restaurants, as well as an observation deck. Grabbing a cup of coffee is the best way to start an expedition into the past on below-zero mornings.
Ever dreamt of a forsaken railway station? Of hearing your footsteps in an empty hall? The Dorasan Station is the northernmost stop on South Korea’s railway line. It also a deserted and ghost-like station. Located 56 kilometers from Seoul, Dorasan looks on the inside as a common railway modern station, nonetheless, it has only been used on very specific occasions. South Koreans think of it a reliable proof of their ongoing attempts to reconcile with North Korea to such an extent that you will even find an aphorism stating so in one of the station’s walls: “Not the last station from the South but the first station toward the North”. This tour’s stop takes around twenty minutes to half an hour, meanwhile, you can take a look around the small gift shop or stamp your travel notebook with the Dorasan logo for free.
Third Infiltration Tunnel
Discovered in 1978, this one-mile long tunnel is one of four known tunnels under the border. Though still guarded, it is open for visitors. Next, to a dull gift shop, it’s entrance demands wearing a yellow helmet at all times. Walking down the inclined pathway might take around ten to fifteen minutes. As you go deeper, humidity becomes stronger, the ceiling starts leaking and height shortens. Divided into three concrete barricades, visitors can walk as far as the third one. At the end of the tunnel, you’ll be around 50 meters away from North Korea. Walking back up takes longer, but there are several benches along the way if you get tired or out of breath.
Brief Interview with a North Korean Defector
One of the very few jobs North Korean defectors can find once they reach South Korea is working at everyday DMZ tours. At the beginning of the trip, a ruled sheet of paper will be handed around the bus for you to write down any type of question you wish to ask the defector. On your way back to Seoul, and with a translator’s aid, he will answer most of the questions written down. Even though getting a chance to talk with a North Korean defector is not something you cand find in every DMZ tour, a lot of visitors find this part a little bit boring, maybe because they lack the historical context to find it interesting. Therefore, be prepared, and do some research on Korean history before going to the DMZ. There are lots of books as well written by North Korean defectors, for example, In Order to Live
by Park Yeon-mi.
Budae-jjigae or Army’s Stew
Revisiting the Korean War doesn’t necessarily mean going to historic places and trying to picture how war must have been like. Perhaps its memory floats in the spicy soup of post-war dishes, for example, the famous “Army Stew” or Korean Budae-jjigae, cooked in its time from American troops’ leftovers. Made with sausage, spam, ham, kimchi, baked beans, it was created during the post-war impoverishment. Nonetheless, it survived and continues to be part of the menu in many restaurants around South Korea. What else if not food can display the entanglement between Americans and South Koreans? Experiences of war are analogous to the general idea of it: polar. These locations constitute a regional perspective on war, as well as an insight into a bigger and global conflict, the Cold War. Visiting war sites helps reconcile historical realities, like the snow that covers every Winter the huge iconic statue of the Memorial of the Korean War, whose copper emulates the embrace of two brothers reunited in the battlefield, each fighting on opposite sides, two narratives, or two war experiences, reconciled in the same conjuncture.