So who did start the Korean War?
History, they say, is told by the victors. But what if there are no victors? What if the war never technically ended? Then, perhaps, each side feels free to tell its own version of history, a version in which they were triumphant.
At the entrance to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang presents a fascinating insight into the North Korean psyche as shaped by their history – or perhaps more accurately by their interpretation of that history. The ideology of the DPRK requires that the people believe in the invincibility of the Leaders and the nation. Therefore, of course, the North won the Korean War, or as it is known here, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. For the duration of your visit you too must accept this as fact, at least outwardly. Doing so will not only please your hosts but also help you to put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean visitor to the museum and see things through their eyes.
A brief history of the war
Everywhere apart from in the DPRK, it is generally understood that the war started when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950, following a series of clashes along the border. Neither of the two countries had readily accepted, understandably, the division of Korea by the US and Soviet Union after World War Two. Both governments felt themselves to be the legitimate leaders of what should be a united Korea. Furthermore, the North Koreans resented (and felt threatened by) the on-going presence of US troops on South Korean soil, which they viewed as an occupation.
To start with the North had some considerable successes, pushing south and capturing Seoul. Then the tide turned; UN forces (mainly consisting of US troops) forced the North Koreans to retreat. In October 1950 the southern armies entered the DPRK and moved quickly towards the border with China. Alerted by this the Chinese entered the war and pushed the southern forces back below the 38th parallel. At this point things on the ground largely stagnated, with only small movements in either direction over the next two years.
In the air things were very different and North Korea was subject to a massive U.S. bombing campaign. This continued until the armistice was signed two years later. It had a lasting impact on the country both in terms of how it looks today (almost all its major cities were destroyed) and how, collectively, it feels – especially about the US.
That anti-US sentiment has softened a fraction in the last year or two, but there is little sign of that yet in how the history of the war is told in this museum. If their version of history grates from time to time, it helps to recall that bombing campaign and reflect on how it has shaped their perceptions. I don’t mean by this that you should suddenly change your own understanding of the war – how it started and why – but simply to try to see why their understanding might be different from yours.
Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation
In the grounds I was in my element, photographically speaking! In front of the museum is the massive Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation. This is a series of statues depicting soldiers of the various branches of the Korean People’s Army in scenes from the Korean War, including ‘Defenders of Altitude 1211’, ‘Moving the Artillery Gun Up’, and ‘War of Liberation of Taejon’.
The centrepiece, in front of the museum, is the Victory Statue which depicts a soldier of the Korean People’s Army raising the flag of North Korea. The entire monument was completed in 1993 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Inside the museum
No photos are allowed inside; regrettable, as we were all itching to photograph the huge waxwork of a youthful Kim Il Sung which stands at the top of an impressive staircase, welcoming all.
The scale of the museum is as impressive as its entrance; we were told it would take three days to see everything and I believe it! Early on in our tour we were shown a short film entitled ‘Who started the Korean War?’ to which the answer was, naturally, the US. I found it intriguing to see how the selective choice of archive film footage was skilfully edited to back up that argument. If I were a North Korean visitor, I would certainly not question it!
In this version of history, the war started when the US invaded on 25 June 1950 (the same day on which the rest of the world understands that North Korea mounted its invasion), shattering the peace of a lovely summer’s day. The brave Korean People’s Army repelled the invasion, pushing south to Seoul and beyond, and would have been immediately successful had the US not brought in reinforcements from Japan and the west. Despite this the KPA won numerous battles and in the end was victorious. The fact that ‘the end’ looked much like the beginning, with the border between the two countries more or less where it was, is not mentioned, naturally.
Displays in various rooms showed the initial advances of the North Koreans south of the 38th parallel; their retreat when the US strengthen their forces; and the fight to hold a strategic high point, Altitude 1211. The focus was very much on the early days of the war when the North enjoyed considerable success.
We were also shown graphic photos of the damage and destruction caused by the US bombs, including dead bodies and weeping children. Of course, there was no mention of any destruction caused on the opposite side of the frontline. There was also almost no mention of any Soviet or Chinese involvement in the war. The tone set here is of a small but heroic nation successfully resisting the aggression of the ‘imperialist US army’.
For sure the most impressive exhibit is the one we finished with, in the old circular museum building. A 100 metre 3D 360 degrees panorama depicts the battle for Taejon, and special effects recreate the scene with smoke from the bombing, planes flying low overhead and the flash of gunfire. It’s impossible adequately to describe this ‘performance‘; it really needs to be seen, and of course no photos were allowed.
With the ban on taking photos indoors it is perhaps not surprising that when we stopped at the inevitable bookshop on the way out, several of us were persuaded to splash 18 euros on a glossy book about the museum. Maybe there is more than one reason behind these photography restrictions?! Having splurged on that I have relatively few compunctions about sharing just a few scans of its pages here:
If you are interested to see more I have unearthed an amazing collection of panorama shots online, including interiors: http://www.dprk360.com/360/victorious_fatherland_liberation_war_museum/. Scroll through to find the one of the Grand Lobby and of the Taejon panorama in particular – amazing, aren’t they?!
On reflection after our visit I started to realise that having a common enemy, the US, helps the leadership to glue the country together and promotes devotion to the Great Leaders. Hence it is useful to maintain the ‘alternative truth’ that the US started the war. But underlying it there does seem to be a real fear that the ‘imperialist’ west could strike again – the natural nervousness of a very small country, with limited resources, in a very strategic spot. The road-block structures we saw around the country and the well-publicised nuclear weapons tests are both products of this fear.
What I was less sure about was whether it is at the very top level a genuine fear of the US and other world powers, or simply a useful device to unite the people? My conclusion was that it is probably a bit of both, but which drives them more – fear of the US or fear of losing power – I couldn’t say.
I travelled to the DPRK in 2019
Before you’ve even mentioned it in your post, I was thinking that when a government gets to that point where they make its people strongly believe in something (in this case, who started the war), it’s probably very easy to have citizens unified against the “enemy” … I think they have succeeded in their goal with the museum.
For sure, and this rewriting of history is I think accepted as fact by just about all North Koreans. And of course it has suited the regime to maintain that narrative as it strengthens their own position and power in the eyes of the population.
But although they are incorrect to say that the South started the war, visiting the museum and reading around the subject makes it clear that they weren’t solely responsible for it. The arbitrary division of the country by the Soviet Union and US after WW2 created the situation for conflict. It’s also clear that the US/UN response to the North Korean incursion was out of proportion, with far too many NK civilians killed and almost all their cities totally destroyed. You can appreciate why they have a strong dislike and distrust of the US and that makes progress towards a better relationship very difficult.
I have see similar museums in Saigon and Khe Sanh in Vietnam. History is a very malleable subject. Orwell had a few things to say on the subject as I remember ;-/ Nice article.
We’ve not been to Khe Sanh but we did go to the history museum in Saigon when we were there earlier this year. I know what you mean, but it was at the Cu Chi Tunnels that I was more forcefully reminded of this visit to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – the video they showed there had the same air of triumphalism I thought
A beautifully written piece Sarah.
Thank you Albert – high praise from you 🙂
An excellent follow-up to your main blog on Travellerspoint Sarah, and your conclusion says it all
Thanks Malcolm. I know I’m duplicating a lot of the material on TP but I’m hoping to reach a new audience here 🙂 Meanwhile, I promise you I’m working on some new stuff too!