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

Flags in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery

“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 a 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. And in addition to that, 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 UN established this cemetery 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 them, surviving Korean War veterans also may decide to have their grave here after their death.

Busan United Nations Memorial Cemetery

Watching the movie, we wonder why anyone of them would wish to be buried in Korea. And that is 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.

Busan United Nations Memorial Cemetery

From the chapel we walk over to a small museum. The exhibition is displaying memorabilia of the troops from different nations including, for instance, New Zealand, Ethiopia, and Columbia. Behind it stretches the cemetery proper. It consists of the symbolic area with flags for all the participating nations, a large expanse of graves, and several more memorial. In between there are green lawns and ponds where geese waddle into the water.

a goose in the UN cemetery in Busan

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. Many thought 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?

Memorial wall with names of UN soldiers

A week later we are in Seoul to visit some more UNESCO highlights there: the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace of the Korean kings, and the solemn Jongmyo Shrine. Exploring the city we are again reminded of the United Nations cemetery of Busan.

Gas masks at the metro station

gas masks in the Seoul Metro

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. No, they also broadcast 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. Furthermore, 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 is about alarming developments in North Korea and war threats on all sides. It still send shivers down our spine. Kim’s missile tests and nuclear bombs may threaten other countries to some extent. Before that, however, most countries could intercept or otherwise evade them. But the people in Seoul are the ones that suffer most from any hostilities that may arise.

Note: We had no sponsoring whatsoever for this trip to Korea. All expenses we paid ourselves.

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  1. This post is incredibly interesting, which is why I loved reading it. I want to see the 20-minute video so I can learn more about what happened. The location is really fascinating, and I would love to visit both the little museum housing the artifacts and the actual location. It’s really a splendid idea to commemorate the bravery and selfless dedication of the United Nations soldiers by putting their names on the Memorial Wall.

  2. It’s almost impossible for me to comprehend the number of combined deaths in the Korean war – or what being part of the war must have been like. Yet, I’m glad to see this lovely UN cemetery dedicated to those who lost their lives, such a peaceful but poignant place to visit – and so deserving of our attention. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Dear Jackie, although we have no personal connection to the Korean war, the visit at the War cemetery in Busan was a very emotional experience for us. I guess it is, because it is not mainly a place to learn, but a place to remember for those who have been involved in one way or another.

  3. I did not realize that there were so many soldiers from other countries buried at the United Nations Cemetery in Korea. How amazing that the memorial wall includes the names of all foreign UN soldiers who died in the Korean War. Such memorials always makes me stop and wonder. I can understand your point about people feeling they needed to fight to stop to spread Communism. I must admit we missed the cabinets with gas masks on our visit to Korea!

      1. What a lovely read it was. If would visit this place someday, I’m sure I would feel and connect here emotionally as this place depicts the stories of war , love for country and may be some unfulfilled dream.

  4. First of all, I am sorry for the losses. I would like to thank those who serve during wars and serve to maintain peace. It is a brave thing to do. That is a large number of losses. I cannot imagine how hard it is for their family. The cemetery looks amazing and peaceful.

    1. Dear Ossama, places of rememberance are always sad to visit. But I would argue it is a good thing to visit them, even if you are on a vacation and in exceptionally good spirits. It is important not to forget.

  5. What a fascinating experience. To learn of the 40,000 soldiers’ burials and from other countries too would certainly draw a lot of people to this site. Especially for those that have a family connection to visit the memorial wall would be very moving. Even the cabinets with gas masks would be interesting to see.

  6. I know about the connection between Korea and UK because of the Korean War, but I didn’t know about the one with the US. This was a very interesting article to read. To think that 40,000 foreign soldiers are buried there is pretty overwhelming, it shows the scale of the war. The Memorial Wall looks very thoughtful, I can imagine it’s quite emotional to walk through it and see so many names written on it.

  7. The United Nations cemetery in Busan looks like a historic place to visit besides exhibits from the Korean war displaying images of all soldiers who sacrificed their lives. And it’s surprising how 2300 soldiers from different nations are buried in the cemetery. It piques my interest under what circumstances North Korea invaded South Korea and how the two countries are completely different from each other given the dictatorship of Kim Jeong. It’s nice to know all public places in Seoul have gas masks and emergency supplies.

  8. The Korean war was so sad and I had no idea that so many soldiers died. The Memorial Wall is a fitting tribute to the dead and in a beautiful and peaceful place too. Let’s hope that the 2 countries continue to stay peaceful and at least remain civil with each other.

  9. I had no idea that there were so many UN soldiers who died during the Korean war. It is just right that they established this cemetery and the memorial wall to honor these heroes. I have also read about the alarming development in North Korea and I hope that they will both honor their peace treaties. Praying for peace.

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