Friday, August 14, 2009

Weird sightseeing or a short introduction to the history of Korea

I have to admit that I did not know much about Korean history (I have to add to my defense that I never planned coming here either!) and was very much amazed about what I learnt here. First of all: Have you ever heard of the kingdom of Silla? I never had! So here is the story: The Korean peninsula was first unified in the 6th century under the kingdom of Silla, which lasted until the 9th century. A flourishing Buddhist high culture developped here, when Barbarians were fighting over Europe and America was almost a millenium away from being even discovered. Silla is contemporary Gyeongju, where John and me are currently staying.

Grave mounds in Sill
Surprisingly much has survived 1,400 years and we have seen marvellous gold crowns, fantastic temples and elaborate Buddha statues. The most conspicuous leftever, however, are Silla's burial mounds, a sort of Korean pyramid. Depending on the importance of the buried the mounds can be quite high: The biggest is 22 m high and has a circumference of 240 m, although I have to admit that after one afternoon and about 50 burial mounds the whole thing can get a bit boring...

Fast forward to the 16th century and the appearance of Korea's arch enemy, the Japanese. Koreans and Japanese still don't like each other and you will soon see why. Japanese pirates had been raiding the Korean waters for centuries (no big surprise: Where else would you have gone as a Japanese living on islands surrounded by water and nothing else close by except Korea?), but in 1592 they came in earnest and conquered the whole Korean peninsula.

For 7 years the war went back and forth and finally the Japanese retreated - because they had bigger troubles at home. They left the Koreans traumatized - even now more than 400 years later the Japanese invasion is a big issue. In the city of Jinju we saw a huge fortress that resisted the Japanese attack - including an incredibly tacky 3D animated movie about the brave Korean resistance against the atrocious Japanese.

War memorial in Busan
But the Japanese came back in the early 1900s and very late in history Korea became a Japanese colony (I had always thought that only European countries had colonies...). The Japanese brutally colonialized Korea, even forcing Koreans to speak Japanese and take on Japanes names. After the defeat of the Japanese in WW II Korea was divided along the 38th parallel into an American and Soviet zone (now does that ring a bell to Germans?). In 1950 North Korean Kim Il Sung launched a surprise attack at South Korea and started the Korean war. The US and a UN division supported the South and when these troops had almost conquered the whole North, all of a sudden the Chinese marched in and luck changed sides. By 1953 both Americans and Chinese were fed up with this war and declared a truce. Korea remained divided, despite protests from both South and North Korean sides, who wanted to fight until victory and did not like a truce.

The Korean war is of course a crucial topic in Korea and various sights are related to it. We got our first impression of the war in Busan, where there is the world's only UN cemetery. The Koreans always refer to their supporters as UN troops, but it was mainly an American war: 35,000 of a total of 37,000 UN soldiers killed in the Korean war were Americans. Strangely enough the only other relevant UN nationality in this war were the British (did not surprise me) and the Turkish (did surprise me a lot and the guides at the UN cemetary only gave one explanation for that: Koreans and Turkish are "brothers", they share the same Ural-Altaic language roots?!). Whatever, the UN cemetary boasts a very impressive and brand new war memorial and interestingly enough, some 8 months earlier I had seen the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.

We stumbled upon a very crude war memorial by pure coincidence; getting off a ferry on the island of Geojedo we saw signposts to a prisoner of war camp memorial. We expected a totally deserted bone dry memorial and could not have been more wrong. The whole complex was heaving with hundreds of Koreans and should rather be called theme park than war memorial. You enter the complex on an escalator through a tank with all the good guys like Truman and MacArthur on the right and the bad guys like Mao and Stalin on the left - as cardboard figures, of course.

The complex then takes you through a history course with dioramas, videos and statues - all very educational. You can see the former prisoner of war barracks and relive daily camp life. They have even set up photo opportunities for "experiencing the latrines" - I am not joking here, see the attached photo. As Germans take history very seriously I was a little bit shocked about this light-hearted approach to war atrocities, but I nevertheless had my picture taken. This post will probably be continued once we arrive in Seoul...

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