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Korean War mural in Washington D.C. explained in US designer's memoir

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Lee Joon-seok, center, chairman of the main opposition People Power Party, walks past a mural at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in this Sept. 23 file photo. Designed by Louis Nelson, the mural featuring the faces of 2,400 service members of the U.S. armed forces during the Korean War was dedicated July 27, 1995. Yonhap
Lee Joon-seok, center, chairman of the main opposition People Power Party, walks past a mural at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in this Sept. 23 file photo. Designed by Louis Nelson, the mural featuring the faces of 2,400 service members of the U.S. armed forces during the Korean War was dedicated July 27, 1995. Yonhap

Louis Nelson's memoir 'Mosaic: War Monument Mystery' will be released later this week

By Kang Hyun-kyung

The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. visually illustrates how the South Korea-U.S. alliance began.

The memorial features two iconic installments: the 164-feet black granite mural showcasing the faces of 2,400 service members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Korean War and, adjacent, Frank Gaylord's three-dimensional stainless-steel sculptures of 19 warriors to commemorate those who fought to defend freedom in South Korea.

Since its grandiose dedication on July 27, 1995 with the participations of the then South Korean and U.S. presidents, the Korean War memorial has become a must-visit place for South Korean tourists and also a starting point for high-profile politicians' itineraries when making official trips to the U.S.

Once arriving in Washington D.C., South Korean politicians would head to the memorial located near the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, observe a moment of silence and pay tribute to the American men and women who responded to the call seven decades ago to defend South Korea from the invasion by the North, a divided country they may have never heard of at that time.

Rep. Song Young-gil, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, started his U.S. trip at the memorial in September. His main opposition counterpart, Lee Joon-seok, chairman of the People Power Party, is the latest South Korean politician to pay tribute to those who fought during the war.

The Korean War memorial is also special to American industrial designer Louis Nelson.

US industrial designer Louis Nelson / Courtesy of Louis Nelson
US industrial designer Louis Nelson / Courtesy of Louis Nelson
Although 26 years have passed, Nelson, who designed the mural, has a vivid memory of the day when the Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated. "With tears in my eyes as I looked at the Korean mural with Frank's soldiers mirrored in its brilliant polished finish, I also saw the reflection of the Lincoln Memorial and McKevitt's words rang in my ears," he recalled in his forthcoming book, "Mosaic: War Monument Mystery."

The late Jim McKevitt was a member of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board who suggested Nelson look deeper into the history of the design of the Lincoln Memorial during a meeting in 1992.

In his memoir, "Mosaic: War Monument Mystery" which was officially released on Thursday, Nelson described in great detail how he and his staff created the mural after he was chosen in 1990 to design the wall. His upbringing, life as an industrial designer, and extensive research on the Korean War to sharpen his understanding of it are also thoroughly described in his book.

Asked why the book was published 26 years after the dedication of the mural, Nelson said he thought it was the right time for him to do it.

"There're stories to be told and things to be resolved," the New York-based designer told The Korea Times over the phone on Oct. 29. "It's not all me about the memorial. It's also about my professional work. There are other things that had to be discussed there."

He said South Korea's dramatic rise from a war-torn country 70 years ago to one of the world's most prospering countries also inspired him to work on a book about his experiences with the mural project.

"I think there're very few places that show that kind of prosperity…. So I think there's an important story to be told and there's an audience to hear the story," he said.

Louis Nelson's memoir
Louis Nelson's memoir "Mosaic: War Monument Mystery'
Comparing the Korean War Veterans Memorial with that of the Vietnam War, Nelson said the former is much more "human" than the latter in that the Vietnam War memorial simply lists the names of Americans who lost their lives in the drawn out conflict.

His memoir has a thorough account of what he meant by these remarks.

"I trust in what I have designed… Somehow, our team had brought into being a new form of memorial that is far from a man-on-a-horse or a statute on a pedestal or a portrait on a mantelpiece," it reads. "I see Korea and the other monuments designed and built by dedicated individuals brought together for a common purpose… In our time, each of us have stood for what we've believed in, for a struggle that in the end was worth every effort ― whether forgotten or remembered and for the promise of peace after a war."

The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated on July 27, 1995, to commemorate the sacrifices of 5.8 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during the war. Then South Korean President Kim Young-sam and U.S. President Bill Clinton attended the dedication ceremony held 42 years after the signing of the ceasefire that ended the war.

Since then, the memorial has become a symbol of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, attracting high-profile politicians and tourists to take a moment to pay tribute to the men and women who were sacrificed during the war.

Nelson said being chosen as a designer to work on the mural was an extraordinary opportunity which he still cherishes.

"The Korean War memorial is the most important work that I have ever worked on. It's the project that becomes never ending and always grows," he said. "It's just as valued today as it was when I was done."

The war memorial is the only existing place in the United States to officially commemorate the sacrifices of the U.S. servicemen and women who participated in the Korean War. With its designated goal, it serves as a place to remember the forgotten war.

"The rationale behind the establishment of the memorial is that we shouldn't forget the dedication and sacrifices of those who fought for South Korea during the war and this recognition should form the basis of the South Korea-U.S. alliance," a source familiar with the memorial said, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Korean War Memorial will undergo another major change with the incorporation of the Wall of Remembrance on July 27 next year. The wall will have the names of 36,000 American service members and 7,100 Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) who lost their lives during the war.

Another Korean War memorial is to be set up in Los Angeles, Thursday, according to a source familiar with the matter.

A flurry of Korean War memorial projects indicates that despite the Korean War breaking out over seven decades ago its legacy still lives on, thanks to the campaign to remember the forgotten war.

The mural at the Korean War Veterans Memorial designed by Louis Nelson / Courtesy of Louis Nelson
The mural at the Korean War Veterans Memorial designed by Louis Nelson / Courtesy of Louis Nelson
Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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