Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

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Chon was a member of the design team who, in 1994, installed a permanent exhibition on Korean War refugees for the museum at the War Memorial of Korea. She spent months reading histories, periodicals and personal diaries in preparation for the project. “The hardest part was dealing with the exmilitary people who run the museum—they are very bureaucratic,” she tells me. But in the end, the administrators agreed on an installation that would draw attention to the everyday life and suffering of noncombatants, instead of emphasizing battlefield heroism.


Much of the museum space is devoted to weaponry, including tanks and aircraft, exhibitions that attract only a trickle of viewers. Equally empty is an auditorium that continuously screens wartime newsreels describing key battles against the North’s invading army.


Far more popular are the dioramas and life-size wax sculptures, installed by Chon and her team that depict the misery of civilians caught in the conflict 50 years ago. There are shelters made of broken bricks, straw, tin cans, carton boxes and other flotsam of a war-shattered country. There are refugees hovering together over a common pot of gruel . . . an exhausted porter collapsed over his A frame . . . a woman grieving at the news that her husband is dead, while her child looks up at her fearful but uncomprehending.


I follow a troop of wide-eyed 10-year-old Boy Scouts as they tour the exhibit. When I ask their scoutmaster why they seem so much more interested in this part of the museum than in the military displays, he tells me the kids find on-line computer and video games much more riveting than the old war footage. The realistic portrayal of poverty, however, is something they haven’t encountered or thought much about before. Just then, a boy approaches us with a question about an old woman shown scavenging for food. The scoutmaster translates for me: “He wants to know if it’s really possible that his grandmother lived like that.”


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