The United Nations Cemetery– a look back at the Korean war

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“Please, visit the chapel”. The caretaker ushers us into a small building near the entrance of the United Nations Cemetery in Busan. With a large gabled roof and some window panels and wooden pews inside, it looks like are chapel, but instead of an altar or a cross we face a large video screen. The chapel in the United Nations Cemetery doubles as a visitor centre.

More than 40000 United Nations soldier died

The 20 minute video introduces the cemetery: Why it was built, how many United Nations soldiers are buried here, how many there were involved in the Korean war in total. Well over 40,000 United Nations soldiers died during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 (in addition to half a million South Korean civilians and soldiers). About 2300 soldiers from a dozen countries are buried at the United Nations Cemetery in Busan. The cemetery was established in 1955, after the war, as the central burial ground for all the foreign United Nations personnel who died in Korea. Previously these had been interred in several different military cemeteries in the Southern part of Korea. In addition to these war dead, surviving Korean War veterans also have the option of being buried here after their death.

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Watching the movie, we wonder why anyone would wish to be buried in Korea decades after participating in a war that must have been ghastly. Conveniently, the movie brings up a veteran: he has been coming back for a number of years now, tending the graves of his comrades.

“I promised them,” he says, “to come and visit them as often as I can in case I survive.”

The war, though horrible, was perhaps the most meaningful part of his life. His friends, after all, died for it. That’s why he feels his grave should also be here.

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From the chapel we walk over to a small museum displaying memorabilia of the troops from different nations including such diverse countries as New Zealand, Ethiopia, and Columbia. Behind it stretches the cemetery proper, consisting of the symbolic area with flags for all the participating nations, a large expanse of graves, several more memorials, and green lawns and ponds where geese waddle into the water.

The Memorial Wall

The names of all foreign United Nations soldiers who died in the Korean War are engraved in the Memorial Wall. An enormous list of presumably young people from Europe, Turkey, and thousands from the US. What made them risk their lives here? Of course on a military cemetery every soldier is a hero, which makes us rather uncomfortable. Quite likely, we muse, heroic sacrifice was not the main motive for many of them to go abroad with the military in the first place. But it also was a different time: when Communist North Korea overran the South in 1950, people felt that this was the end of the free world, and that their sacrifice would protect the future not only of South Korea but of the whole Western world and thus their own countries. In fact, we also consider now that they may have been right. What would have happened then, more than 60 years ago, without the United Nations forces intervening in the Korean War?

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A week later in Seoul, we are again reminded of the United Nations cemetery of Busan.

Gas masks at the metro station

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There are cabinets in every metro station and every public building containing gas masks and emergency supplies. Video screens in public spaces not only show advertisements and news but also instructions for all kinds of emergencies, from first aid to fire and gas attacks. Seoul is only 40 km from the border with North Korea, and more than half of the population of South Korea live in the Metropolitan Region of Seoul – about 25 million. Without a peace treaty, both countries are technically still at war.

Safely back in Europe, the recent news about alarming developments in North Korea and war threats on all sides still send shivers down our spine. Kim’s missile tests and nuclear bombs may threaten other countries to some extent – but they can be intercepted or forestalled. But the people in Seoul are the ones that suffer most from any hostilities that may arise.

Note: We were not sponsored in any way at this trip to Korea, all expenses were paid by ourselves.

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