“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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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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