While visiting the Athens War Museum a couple of weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between a father and his 10-year-old daughter.
Girl: “What is this display about?”
Father: “It is about Greece’s participation in the Korean War.”
Girl: “Korea? Where is Korea?”
Father: “Very far away…”
Girl: “Really? [surprised] Why was Greece there?
Father: “Because of the Allies…”
This conversation is indicative of how Greece's participation in the Korean War might be surprising, and how different generations might have different collective memories of this historical event.
July 2023 marked 70 years since the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953, an armistice which ended direct hostilities between North Korea and South Korea. This anniversary invites us to reflect on how the Korean War, known as the “Forgotten War” due to being overshadowed by the Second World War and Cold War events, has been remembered.
As far as my home country, Greece, is concerned, its participation in the Korean War is not widely acknowledged. In Greek literature and film, there are only a few examples of works referring to the Korean War, however, the war is a small part of the plot. The memory of the war in text relies on only a few veterans' autobiographies, and limited publications. In terms of collective memory, Greece’s contribution is not vividly remembered by young people in Greece. According to an online survey I conducted with 30 young Greeks of my generation (age 20-27), 63.3% (19/30) were not aware of Greece’s contribution, while only 6.7% (2/30) were aware of the existence of memorials dedicated to it.
It wasn’t until I started researching for this blog that I became aware of this participation myself. To gather information on this topic, I conducted online research and used George A. Kazamias’ comprehensive book Greece and the Korean War [in Greek] (2022). I also interviewed Greek historian Leonidas Embirikos, and visited the Athens War Museum and two Korean War memorials during a visit to Athens.
The Greek Expeditionary Force
After the Second World War, Korea, previously ruled by Japan, was divided in two along an internal border (the 38th parallel); the North was supported by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States. With Cold War tensions growing, the Korean War started on 25 June 1950 with the invasion of South Korea by North Korea.
Greece was the eighth country to respond to the UN’s call to assist South Korea and the fifth largest contribution among the coalition forces. The Greek Expeditionary Force (GEF) - in Greek known as ΕΚΣΕ- comprised of the Hellenic Army infantry battalion, called the Sparta Battalion, and the Royal Hellenic Air Force’s 13th Flight which possessed several transport C-47 planes. The Korean War involved 4,992 Greek men, and a further 5,589 troops were sent after the signing of the Armistice, finally departing in 1955.
The average Greek person did not know much about Korea prior to the war. However, according to Embirikos, Greece was “perhaps the most relevant” out of all countries involved because a parallel can be drawn between the Korean War and Greece’s own civil conflict that took place between 1946-1949. The Greek Civil War emerged from the power vacuum that came with the end of Greece’s Second World War occupation, and it was one of the first Cold War proxy wars. A Communist uprising challenged the established government, but with the help of the Western powers, government forces prevailed. On an ideological level, the Korean War was viewed as another case of Communist aggression that needed to be stopped. According to Kazamias, the decision to participate in the Korean War can be interpreted as a move that would establish the definitive positioning of Greece in the Western Bloc. Importantly, Greece wished to become a member of the newly founded NATO (1949), as this would guarantee a strong defence if its borders - especially those in the North - were threatened, and also financial support. To an extent, it could also be viewed as gratitude to the US for helping during the Greek Civil War.
The Greek forces were attached to American divisions and were provided supplies and equipment by the Americans. They were distinguished for their bravery and persistent defence and were known as skilled with US weaponry. It is also worth noting that the American film The Glory Brigade, released in 1953 and directed by Robert D. Webb, follows the joint mission of the Greeks and the Americans. Wayne Danzik notes that esprit de corps was developed in the UN units, and there were efforts to incorporate cultural traditions, for instance when sheep were flown in for Greeks to celebrate Easter. The relationships between Greek and Korean soldiers were positive, and many Greek soldiers left Korea feeling empathy towards those left in poverty in Korea, which resembled that of Greece after years of war.
The Greek presence in Korea also had a profound impact on the re-establishment of the Orthodox Church. First appearing in the early 20th century under the Russian Orthodox Church’s sphere of influence, at the start of the Korean War the Orthodox Church was challenged as the last priest disappeared and the Orthodox community was dispersed. It was Greek chaplains who accompanied the Greek army to boost morale that revived the Church, starting with Archimandrite Chariton Simeonides who organised approximately 50 Orthodox families in Seoul. The Metropolis of Korea eventually came under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Commemoration in South Korea
The war resulted in the deaths of approximately 3 million people and the United Nations (UN) Command lists 196 Greek combatants killed and 610 wounded. To honour Greece’s sacrifices in the Korean War, in 1974 the government of South Korea raised a memorial in Yeoju. It consists of a marble stele in between columns with a marble cenotaph in front of it. There is a circular relief of an Ancient Greek warrior’s helmet on the stele, and the following phrase by Thucydides is inscribed in Greek: “The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous/ heroic men”. On one side there is a wall of remembrance, and on the other is a plaque about the Greek participation. The memorial was relocated to Yeongwol Park and inaugurated in September 2022.
In Busan’s United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea, one can find a marble cenotaph installed in 1961 by the Greek government, with the inscription “From Greece For Her Fallen Sons in Gratitude” and also the phrase by Thucydides. Moreover, the names of all fallen of the UN Forces are listed on the Wall of Remembrance (dedicated 2006), next to a pond that symbolises the universe. No Greek soldiers have been buried at the cemetery, as they were all repatriated.
Further memorials can be found in the capital city of Seoul, at the War Memorial of Korea, the main institution that “collects and preserves materials of war”. In the section “Monuments for the Participating Nations of the Korean War”, lies a memorial which was installed in 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the UN. A commemorative granite stele for each country bears the names of the fallen and details of participation. At another part of the memorial grounds, inside the Statue of Brothers, a map plaque on the floor honours Greece’s participation.
Commemoration in Greece
In the capital city of Athens, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (unveiled 1932) is located in front of the Parliament building -originally Royal Palace- next to Syntagma Square. There lies a marble cenotaph dedicated to all Greek soldiers that have died in war. On the wall just behind, there is an image of a fallen soldier alongside inscribed text (including Thucydides’ phrase) and amongst other battle locations, the word “Korea”. I wonder how many passersby have noticed the reference to Korea, as I have passed by the memorial countless times and never had before. The monument is guarded by the Evzones, members of the Presidential Guard.
A memorial dedicated exclusively to the Greek contribution in the Korean War can be found in the quiet residential Papagos area, erected by the Republic of Korea in 2003. I first became aware of this memorial during this research, which might have to do with its secluded location. Similarly to the Yeoju memorial, its structure consists of a rectangular plaque under columns in the middle, and walls of remembrance on each side. Interestingly, the central plaque bears the same imagery of a soldier’s helmet, and the same phrase by Thucydides as in Yeoju. Official commemorative ceremonies take place there, such as the Korean Embassy’s memorial events for the Korean War’s anniversary, which among other activities include speeches, national hymns, and laying wreaths.
In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city, another memorial honours the fallen. One can find a marble dedication plaque, erected in 1993 by Greece’s Honorary Consul General in Korea, and a monument, erected in 1994 by the Korean War Veterans Association of Macedonia and Thrace. The monument consists of a marble pagoda-like sculpture with decorations -including distinctive representations such as lions and dragons- surrounded by four marble steles with inscribed names. This is the only public sculpture of Korean aesthetics in Greece that I am aware of.
The main commemorative institution exploring Greece's history in the Korean War is the Athens War Museum, located in the centre of the city. It opened in 1975 in Athens, and was followed by other branches around the country. Another smaller war museum, the History War Museum in Zakynthos, displays dioramas that depict battle and shelter scenes of the Greek Expeditionary Force.
The Athens War Museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Korean war in the Mezzanine floor, alongside displays of other events of the 40s-50s. The Korean War section presents objects (uniform, maps, documents, equipment), photographs and a comprehensive video on the outer wall, and weapons and models of military vehicles and the Yeoju memorial by the inner wall. Emphasis is placed on the official acknowledgment of the Greek effort by the government of the Republic of Korea: a Taeguk medal and presidential citation. In terms of the film, what I found interesting was that it links the Greek struggle in Korea to the Greek fight for democracy against an aggressive enemy back in antiquity, in a spirit of nationalistic continuity.
The Korea section is relatively small; however, it is complemented by a diorama partially sponsored by the Republic of Korea which depicts the GEF in the Korean War. Visitors face it when they enter, to their left, and it is mirrored by a diorama of the Exodus of Messolonghi (major event of the Greek Revolution), on the right. I was surprised that visitors were confronted with the Korean War as soon as they walked in, given its less predominant position in the permanent exhibitions and in Greek collective memory. Near it, one can find a text panel with information on the war, and a memorial placed in May 2021. The memorial, made of copper alloys, depicts holding hands on the Korean map and the Greek and Korean flag next to each other. There is also military equipment, while soil and rocks from Greece and battlefields in Korea decorate the work.
Wider Culture and Legacy
Memory of the Korean war is embedded in the Greek language. “It was/ it will be like in Korea”, is a phrase used to indicate an immense level of chaos, upheaval and destruction, alluding to the actual damage Greek forces experienced in the war but also the fear of the conflict escalating to a global conflict. The expression was used after the return of Greek soldiers after the armistice, and in the 1950s became widespread. Although this phrase is not used much by the public at the present, traces of it can be found in news coverage of Greek online newspapers. Recent examples are the Russo-Ukrainian War and its dimensions in Europe, and intense football matches, sometimes involving South Korea.