Washington, D.C is best known for its historic monuments, memorials, and buildings. With the Capitol Building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, the National Mall is especially regarded as a must-see for any first time visitors. However, from my three years of living in D.C., my favorite site on the mall is neither the Capitol Building nor the Lincoln Memorial. The World War II Memorial is also beautiful, but I have my heart set on somewhere else – the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It is not an eye-catcher per se; people often find themselves stumbling upon the memorial on their way to see the famous Lincoln.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is relatively small compared to other sites on the mall. Upon entering the memorial, nineteen statues of soldiers—slightly larger than life size—are caught marching toward the flag of the United States, faces tensed up. Some are watchful with their heads turned back, and some instilled with fear, but all drained by the war. In front of the leading soldier, a message is carved into fine stone: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” In front of the inscription also stands a wreath from the Republic of Korea. Right below the flag, there is a pool of remembrance where the water runs without stop. And slightly behind the pool on a black granite wall, the slogan reads: “Freedom is not free.” Next to the soldiers, faint images of thousands of unknown faces that served during the war decorate another dark grey granite wall.
My grandfather is a veteran. Although the Korean War Veterans Memorial was not built specifically for Korean veterans, its purpose to commemorate their sacrifices reminds me of my grandfather. He never shared his stories about the war or his family back in the north. Growing up, his hesitance sometimes frustrated me, but it also instilled curiosity about not only the war itself, but its impact on the two Koreas. This is the main reason behind my application for the MOU program. As I have become more serious about inter-Korean relations and unification issues in my studies, the MOU program was a great opportunity for me to delve more deeply and directly into this issue.
Now that I am back to my routine life, it is strange to reflect on my summer in Korea. With another busy semester ahead, I never gave myself enough time to debrief on what I had seen, learned, and experienced through the MOU program. Out of many parts of the program, it’s hard to pinpoint a favorite. Each part exposed me to different aspects of the implications of a separated Korea and unification. However, I will always remember the moment I stepped on the North Korean-Chinese border. Having one foot in North Korea was my very first physical exposure to the forbidden part of the Korean peninsula, and I cannot forget how exciting yet melancholy it felt.
I have not been back to the memorial in almost half a year. But it is certain that my next visit will be a complete different experience. I have yet to figure out how to actively stay involved in unification issues in the midst of a crazy semester and in a community where unification is deemed unrealistic, but I do know that I will never forget this summer just as I will never forget the forgotten war.