A Visit to the Independence Hall of Korea on Independence Day
By Alek Sigley
On a recent trip through the southwest of the Korean peninsula, I happened to end up at the “Independence Hall of Korea” (독립기념관; 獨立記念館) near the city of Cheonan in South Chungcheong Province. My travelling companion described it rather aptly as something that felt like the Disneyland of (South) Korean nationalism. Completely by chance (we did little pre-planning), the day we visited turned out to be the busiest of the year, it was none other than the 15th of August—“Liberation Day”, the only public holiday shared by both North and South Korea. Known by slightly different names in Korean between the North and South (광복절; 光復節 in the South and 조국해방의 날/조국해방기념일 in the North), it commemorates the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule at the end of the Pacific War on the 15th of August, 1945. Given that the Independence Hall of Korea is dedicated to the Korean independence movement, which ostensibly achieved its mission on this day, and that Koreans can be a very patriotic bunch, you can imagine the throngs of people we had to contend with while perusing the Hall’s exhibits.
Calling it a “hall” is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. It’s a sprawling complex that includes a boulevard leading up to the entrance with several monumental statues and sculptures, a massive entrance hall topped with a traditional-style roof, and a main complex featuring seven exhibition halls dealing with Korean history and the history of the independence movement, a 4D cinema and other facilities. The exhibits give a perspective on Korean history from a markedly Korean nationalist historiographical position (some might call it “bias”), told through state-of-the-art multimedia and interactive exhibitions. For anyone with an interest in Korean history or politics, this place is fascinating and well deserving of a visit. There’s certainly plenty of food for thought here to get visitors reflecting on weighty issues such as nationalist ideology and the cultural representation of history, the similarities and differences between North and South Korean political identities, the relationship between ethnicity and citizenship in South Korea and more.
But in this post I’d like to share something perhaps a little more light-hearted. After visiting all the exhibitions in succession we ended up at a gallery that was a temporary exhibition space. In it we found a delightful display of patriotic “propaganda posters” (for want of a better word). Some were painted by schoolchildren, and others seemed to have been commissioned by the Hall from professional graphic designers and artists. They dealt with various themes such as famous Korean independence movement figures, national symbols such as the national flower hibiscus syriacus (무궁화; 無窮花—North Korea’s national flower is however the magnolia sieboldii 목란; 木蘭 ), taegukgi (태극기: 太極旗), the South Korean flag, South Korean patriotism in general, and a great many focused on Dokdo, a disputed islet between Korea and Japan that has become a symbol of Korea’s sovereignty vis-à-vis Japan.
There were ten among these that were about Korean unification, and it’s those that I’d like to show you in this post. Korean unification still features in the official ideologies of both North and South Korea. Despite international law recognising North and South Korea as two separate states (they are both UN members), the constitutions of both North and South each claim jurisdiction over the territory of the entire peninsula, and both enshrine a desire for peaceful reunification of the peninsula. While the question of how much each government actually cares about unification is certainly up to debate, and recent surveys of South Korean youth have found dwindling support for the idea, it’s still fair to say that it plays an important role at least in the official rhetoric of both governments. And since the Independence Hall of Korea is run by the Republic of Korea Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (국가보훈처; 國家報勳處), looking at these posters will be a good opportunity to see how the unification issue is for the most part presented from an official perspective in the South. There are ten in total, the first five drawn by schoolchildren and the last five commissioned from professionals by the Hall (and feature its logo in the corner).
1. A Perfectly-Fitting Key
“A perfectly-fitting key” (꼭 맞는 열쇠). The poster features what appears to be a keyhole with the outline of the Korean peninsula, and a pair of shaking hands inside of it. It expresses a desire for further dialogue between the North and South.
Two women wearing traditional clothing (“hanbok” in the South and “chosonot” in the North) representing the respective sides, meet and hold hands across the barbed wire of the DMZ. The flags of the two Koreas feature above them. In the middle it reads “unification” (tongil).
3. The World’s Only Divided Country, it’s About time to End this Suffering
“The world’s only divided country, it’s about time to end this suffering”. This poster deals with the suffering of the divided families (이산가족; 離散家族), families split by the division of the peninsula. An outline of the peninsula with a barrier dividing the middle. An old lady and an old man—they could be husband and wife, or brother and sister, it doesn’t specify– crying, wondering “will we be able to meet again?”.
The newspaper in the top left deals with the meetings of the separated families. Over the years a small number of reunions have been held. But only a small percentage of those on the waiting list have been able to meet their loved ones on the other side who they haven’t seen in over 60 years, and as they grow old, many have tragically passed away without ever being afforded the chance to see their family on the other side. The ones belonging to the small minority lucky enough to do so are usually only given one chance consisting of a few hours to be together. The newspaper in the bottom right discusses military and Red Cross summits between North and South Korea, and reminds readers of the unfortunate fact that the divided families are at the mercy of inter-Korean politics.
Koreans often say that Korea is the world’s last remaining divided country. But depending on perspective some might argue that China–Taiwan and Ireland are still divided. You might be able to think of other examples too.
4. War Brings Pain, Unification Brings Happiness
“War brings pain, unification brings happiness”. Expresses a desire for unification by peaceful means.
5. If Reunification is Achieved, we’ll be able to go on World Holiday, The Republic of Korea as One
“If reunification is achieved, we’ll be able to go on world holiday, The Republic of Korea as one”. This refers to the fact that South Korea has been in effect made into an “island” because it is bordered by the sea on the south, west and east and North Korea in the north, thus cutting it off from the rest of the Eurasian continent. In the 2000s two rail links were re-established between North and South along the old colonial period Gyeongui/Kyongui Line from Busan—Seoul—Pyongyang–Sinuiju (“Gyeongui” 경의; 京義 itself means Seoul to Sinuiju, “gyeong” being the Chinese character for capital, and “ui” being the “ui” from Sinuiju, on the China–Korea border) and the East Sea (“donghae”) Line running down the East Coast. However, the Kyongui Line between North and South Korea was used mostly to service the now-closed Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the East Sea Line, which was used for cross-border trade, is also rarely used these days. Even when these lines were regularly in use, they were used for trade, and it wasn’t possible for ordinary South Koreans to use them to access North Korea let alone mainland Asia for tourism purposes. Thus the yearning to go by train to tour continental Asia as a result of the division of Korea expressed in this poster.
North Korea itself has rail links to China and Russia (and you can use these to enter or exit North Korea on our tours). South Koreans have been able to get official permission from both governments to visit North Korea by other means too such as chartered flight or boat from South Korea, plane or train from China, or by crossing the DMZ by car or bus to the Kaesong Industrial Complex or the Mount Kumgang Tourist Area (both closed to South Koreans at time of writing), where there are purpose-built border crossings. Note that this poster uses the official name of South Korea, “The Republic of Korea”, and features the red and blue yin-yang symbol used on South Korea’s flag, symbols neither of which North Korea shares.
6. We are One
“We are one” (우리는 하나). A butterfly with the flags of North and South Korea on its wings. “We are One” became a slogan during the years of the Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) years of North-South engagement. There’s a very well-known and popular North Korean song with the title.
7. We’re Still Drawn to Each Other like Magnets
“We’re still drawn to each other like magnets”. Features an outline of Korea as two magnets, labelled with “NK” and “SK” and coloured in with their respective flags. Likens desire for unification to magnetic attraction. Interestingly, the two magnets use the colours used to symbolise the two sides during the Cold War, red for the North and blue for the South.
8. Unification 99% Charged! The 1% Depends on Us
“Unification 99% charged! The 1% depends on us”. Perhaps a little optimistic about progress towards unification. An outline of the Korean peninsula is featured on the screen of the phone, which looks like an iPhone but for the circular button which resembles the yin and yang symbol on the South Korean flag. To the sides are red and blue stripes, which might also refer to the South Korean flag. On the screen in white under the Korean Peninsula map is the “charging” symbol, with an arrow to a little image of two clasping hands.
9. Until When Will we be Trapped in this Maze?
“Until when will we be trapped in this maze?”. A maze in the shape of the Korean Peninsula. The path that leads in and out is coloured in red and blue, with red at the top and blue at the bottom, which suggests the yin and yang symbol on the South Korean flag. It spells out the word “tongil”, meaning “unification”.
10. Unification, the Last Puzzle we Must Solve
“Unification, the last puzzle we must solve”. A puzzle in the shape of the Peninsula. Yet to be placed in the middle to finish the puzzle are pieces with the flags of North and South Korea.
The Independence Hall grounds also feature a monument dedicated to unification at the “Hill of Unification Yearning” (통일 염원의 동산) with the “Bell of Unification” (통일의 종), and “Wall of Unification Yearning” (통일 염원의 벽), where visitors can order bricks to add to the wall with their name or the name of their organisation painted on it.