Club Soda and Salt

No more stains

48 Hours In Seoul, part II

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on November 5, 2004

When last we spoke, we talked about the DMZ and the rich part of Seoul.

So, on Sunday, I decided to get some history in. First stop, Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the main palace back in South Korea’s times of being a monarchy. Verdict: Nice, but not as good as the nearby Changdeokgung, which I’d visit weeks later. Anyway, that’s really all I’ve got to say about that.

Next up was the Korean War Memorial Museum, which is out ner the American base in Seoul. The museum details Korea’s long history of replusing and not repulsing invasions. In short: Korea’s had rough history, in case you didn’t know. One of the more striking displays takes a number of major powers, including the US, and details the history of Korean relations with each power. The displays include some military uniforms from the era, etc. Anyway, it turns out that a lot of the time, relations have been less than cordial. It’s pretty amazing that Korea exists, frankly. The Korean people could have easily ended up like the Kurds, or some other oppressed stateless group.

Of course, much of the museum is dedicated to discussing the Korean War. Displays include a discussion of how outmatched the South was, the “Illegal Involvement Of The Chinese”, and many, many life size dioramas. It’s all presented from the South Korean perspective (for example, you’d think that the South was a democracy after the war, when in fact the country was ruled by dictatorships until 1987), but it’s still quite compelling. I recommend dropping by if you’re ever in Seoul.

But here’s what I want to discuss about the war. The American death toll in Korea was in the tens of thousands. The number of dead soldiers is comparable to Vietnam. Yet, one war is remembered as a moderate success, while the other is generally viewed as having been a horrible mistake. The reason for this difference is obvious – the US lost in Vietnam, and was at least able to acheive a stalemate in Korea.

What I’ve been thinking about is this – without American intervention, South Korea would not exist today. The North had taken over all but a small bit of the mainland within a few weeks after the invasion began – their forces obliterated the South Korean defenses. Having been in this country for 5 weeks, I must say that it’s incredible how far things have come since 1953. Japan gets a lot of the attention, but South Korea is truly an economic miracle. And it’s a miracle that wouldn’t have been possible with American interventionism and the Truman Doctrine. It’s easy to see that people who are relatively affluent and mostly free today could easily be starving under the thumb of Kim Jong-Il.

Point is, looking at South Korea makes you realize why the US felt the need to go into Vietnam. I’m not defending all of what happened in the war. Agent Orange, massacres of villages, all that was obviously a mess. But who was to know what a nightmare the war would have been? It could have been like Korea, with the US managing to build a democratic prosperous counterpart to the communist half of the country. It wasn’t, but I can understand the desire to try. North Korea is a tragedy, and the tragedy would have been doubled if not for the willingness of the United States to get involved in foreign conflicts.

I just think it’s important to distinguish between thinking that the Vietnam War was a mistake, and thinking that those who got us involved were evil.

Perhaps I will write something later on how this all applies to the situation in Iraq. For now, though, it’s time to catch a plane back to NYC. See you later, Korea.

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