LONDON -- “With gratitude for the sacrifices made by the British Armed Forces in defence of freedom and democracy in the Republic of Korea.”
With this simple inscription, a new military monument, just unveiled in London, recalls the shared British/Korean fortitude during the Cold War. Sixty-one years since an armistice halted – but never formally ended – the Korean War (1950-53), this ruinous conflict is being freshly remembered in stone and bronze in the British capital.
On Dec. 6, an impressive new war memorial was dedicated in Victoria Embankment Gardens, a prime location behind the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) building facing the River Thames. It is the first in London to commemorate the Korean War.
Costing £1 million (US$1.6 million), London’s new Korean War Memorial is funded entirely by the South Korean government, South Korean businesses, and Koreans living in Britain. Construction began in November 2013 after South Korean President Park Guen-hye and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge attended a ground-breaking ceremony at the site.
The 6 metre high obelisk, built in Portland Stone and Welsh slate, was designed by British sculptor Philip Jackson. Dedicated to over 81,000 British servicemen sent to defend the Korean peninsula (of whom over 1,000 were killed), it also features a bronze statue of a bareheaded British soldier carrying helmet and rifle. The stone obelisk behind is engraved with “The Korean War 1950-1953.” On its four faces are text inscriptions and depictions of the mountainous Korean countryside, British Union Flag, South Korean National flag (Taegukgi), and the symbol of the United Nations (UN), under whose mandate the war was fought.
Bronze plate inscriptions in English and Hangul read:
“The Korean War was the first UN action against aggression. The UN forces that fought the North Korean invasion were drawn from 21 countries. Although exhausted and impoverished after the Second World War, Britain responded immediately by providing strong naval, army, and air forces and became the second largest contributor after the United States. A distant obligation honorably discharged.”
“In this fierce and brutal conflict those who fought included many Second World War veterans reinforced by reservists and young national servicemen. The land battle was fought against numerically superior communist forces, the terrain was mountainous and the weather extreme.”
The new memorial’s simplicity is nonetheless a powerful reminder of the blood price of conflict. Like Washington DC’s equivalent Korean War Memorial (1995), it will now provide London with a new focal point of remembrance for all British servicemen who fought on the Peninsula during 1950-1953.
It’s a splendid gift from South Korea to London, marking a bruising period of bi-lateral military history and wartime suffering.
On Dec. 6, as rain fell, an invited audience of some 500 British and South Korean government and military representatives watched as the new Memorial was dedicated by the Duke of Gloucester. Also present were the Republic of Korea (ROK) Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP, and over 300 British veterans of the conflict, all now in their eighties.
The new memorial is the latest of several such monuments and statues unveiled in London in recent years. These include the RAF Bomber Command Memorial, Green Park (2012), New Zealand War Memorial, Hyde Park (2006), Battle of Britain London Memorial sculpture (2005), Women of World War Two Memorial (2005), and Australian War Memorial, Hyde Park (2003). This year, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918), a moving art installation was also created at the Tower of London, featuring a field of nearly 900,000 blood red ceramic poppies, in memory of the same number of military personnel who died in that conflict from Britain and her Commonwealth.
But up to now a permanent reminder of the Korean War in London has been a glaring omission.
British Korean War ex-servicemen, notably The British Korean Veterans Association (BKVA), have campaigned for decades for a permanent stone memorial in London. The number of living veterans has dwindled to around 3,000 today. Therefore the BKVA has argued that London, the only national capital out of the 16 UN troop contributor countries without a Korean War memorial, needed to close the gap and deliver one.
Until recently, physical reminders of the Korean War were confined to a small plaque in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, the annual Remembrance Sunday service at London’s Cenotaph memorial (1920), and overseas ceremonies at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery (1951), outside Busan, South Korea (where the majority of Britain’s fallen from the Korean War lie buried).
The reasons for this are many and varied. At the Memorial unveiling several veterans told reporters that the Korean conflict is still largely known in Britain as “The Forgotten War.” This, others agreed, was due to the conflict erupting so soon after the larger experience of the Second World War (1939-45), which touched Britain directly, and a lack of public knowledge of a distant East Asian peninsula.
Although Britain and Korea have a shared a diplomatic history stretching back over 130 years, some young British soldiers sent to Korea, many of whom were National Service conscripts, feel that for many years their service was never well understood in Britain. For them, Korea was a visceral fighting experience: of searing heat and bitter cold in an unfamiliar culture, a just war in defence of democracy against an implacable Communist enemy. Even so, some of the veterans present on Dec. 6 felt that when they arrived home from the war the British public were generally unaware of what they had gone through.
This was despite the huge scale of the Korean War.
In June 1950 strong North Korean forces, backed by the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, poured south over the 38th Parallel dividing North and South Korea since 1945. U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his western allies decided then and there to confront the threat of the communist takeover of the entire Korean peninsula and the threat to the wider regional Asian strategic balance. With the Soviet Union temporarily boycotting the United Nations, Truman mobilised an extraordinary coalition of 21 UN member nations to repel the North Korean invasion. Mandated by the UN Security Council, 16 nations eventually deployed military contingents to South Korea.
Over the next three years, in offensive and counter-offensive and the intervention of the People’s Republic of China (from November 1950), the scale of military and civilian sacrifice was appalling.
Conservative casualty figures for the Korean War suggest a death toll of at least 1.2 million South Koreans and one million North Koreans (1950-1953). Some estimates claim up to four million Koreans died. During the same period an estimated 600,000-900,000 Chinese military and 33,629 US servicemen were also killed in action. Many thousands more from both sides were seriously wounded. Of the 16 UN nations which sent troops, Britain’s contribution was the second highest after the United States. The British contingent embarked for Korea by troopship from the U.K. and Hong Kong along with forces from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. Excluding Commonwealth forces, the UK dispatched a total of 81,084 men. Of these, 1,106 were killed in action, several thousand were wounded, and 1,060 were taken prisoner and mistreated in brutal North Korean “re-education” camps.
This month’s gift from South Korea has further enhanced London’s rich field of historical monuments. And it finds broad approval from the remaining ex-servicemen of Britain’s Forgotten War. The BKVA – who will close their association this year – now say that the British sacrifice in Korea has been nobly addressed and honoured. They also praise the gesture of the Korean government, business and people in making it happen. A congratulatory message from H.M. Queen, read out at the Memorial’s unveiling, says it all: “The memorial is a fitting tribute to the veterans of that fierce conflict, and will ensure that they, and their fallen comrades, are never forgotten.”
Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent who has been covering Korea since 1995.