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PsyWar: an exhibition of Korean War propaganda leaflets

Since this year is the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, there are many exhibitions at museums and galleries around Korea, showing some memorabilia and photographs from that time. reported on some of these last week.

The Cheonggyecheon Museum in central Seoul is holding a unique exhibition of its own until the 22nd of August. Titled “The Unseen War: Flyers,” this show gives an insight into an aspect of the Korean War that is somewhat obscure – even in the context of a war that is often labeled “the forgotten war” outside Korea.

During the war (1950-53), each side employed psychological warfare (known in the military as “psywar”) strategies to try to convince the soldiers of the other side to lay down their arms, surrender to the enemy, or to spread confusion and decrease morale. Another aim of psywar was to discourage local civilians from aiding the army of the other side by providing food or billeting, or to discredit the enemy in the eyes of civilians.

This could be done through radio broadcasts, loudspeakers, or word of mouth, but the most common method was dropping leaflets or flyers on territory held by the enemy. The flyers could either be dropped from airplanes in specially modified bomb casings, or shot from heavy artillery on the ground.

According to a press release from Cheonggyecheon Museum, the Communist side dropped 300 million flyers, while the United Nations dispersed 2.5 billion. In Korean these flyers are called “ppira” (삐라), which is a borrowing, through Japanese, of the English word “bill” as in “handbill,” another word for a leaflet.

At this exhibition, 445 leaflets are on display. They have been generously provided by the Republic of Korea Military Academy and the Republic of Korea Army Museum, who have jointly organized this exhibition with the Cheonggyecheon Museum.

Some of the leaflets are in English. These are addressed to UN soldiers by the Chinese or North Koreans, and are used to deflate morale or turn the soldiers against the politicians back home who sent them to Korea. The leaflets in Chinese are designed to encourage Chinese soldiers to defect and spend the rest of the war in a POW camp, or to make them question why they are involved in a war in Korea. The bulk are in Korean, and address Korean soldiers and/or civilians.

Often the leaflets included simple cartoon like graphics to catch the eye of a passer-by so that they would pick them up and read the text. The Korean language leaflets are still written in the old style – namely from top to bottom, from right to left. If you are a recent learner of Korean, this can take some getting used to.

Even after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, both sides continued to litter the other with propaganda flyers, millions of them, printed on better quality paper and using photographs as well as caricatures. Instead of using bombers and howitzers, flyers were sent over the DMZ by balloons, in packages designed to scatter over different areas at different times, so as to maximize dispersal. In South Korea, school children were encouraged to collect these leaflets and turn them in to their teachers at school in exchange for a reward such as a notebook or pencils. This was because the leaflets were banned for being seditious literature. North and South Korea only stopped sending leaflets to each other in 2004, as a result of an agreement reached in the year 2000, fifty years after the Korean War began.

The display is divided into four parts:
   Part 1: flyers sent by the south side (including the United Nations) to North Korean and Chinese soldiers and civilians
   Part 2: flyers sent by North Korea targeting UN troops and civilians. 
   Part 3: flyers sent after the armistice (in particular those scattered by the South Korean government, targeting remaining Communist partisans on Mount Jirisan)
   Part 4: send your hope for unification: write a message for Korea’s unification on a blank flyer provided and stick it up; search for leaflets on display: use a touch screen kiosk to look up and examine one of the leaflets more closely.

This exhibition affords a rare opportunity to see up close genuine psywar flyers used in the war, and entry is free. The Cheonggyecheon Museum is located between Jegi Station on line 1 and Sangwangsimni and Yongdu Stations on line 2. A map can be found here (Korean language). The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and public holidays, and is open every day except Mondays.


Jacco Zwetsloot Staff Editor & Writer

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