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A bridge that is one-sided

Chinese city's landmarks paint U.S. as a Korean War bad guy.

December 06, 2008|John M. Glionna | Glionna is a Times staff writer.

DANDONG, CHINA — Here at the Museum of the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea, it's as if the clock stopped 55 years ago.

"I feel like I am right there on the front lines," said Wang Binyan, a 23-year-old teacher. "I can feel what the Chinese soldiers felt. In this place, Americans are the enemy."

The museum in this provincial city on the North Korean border tells a personal version of the Korean War, one that casts U.S. foreign policy and military tactics in a decidedly negative light. Hundreds of historical photographs and exhibits present a pro-Beijing side of a conflict that saw Chinese forces rush to the aid of the North.

There are photos of glum-looking American prisoners of war, accusations of U.S. germ warfare as well as maps and pictures that purportedly show evidence of widespread civilian damage from American bombs.

The commentaries with each exhibit are often heated, using phrases such as "American imperialists," "wanton U.S. bombing" and "despise and hate" to describe China's view of America.

Even now, in an era of more cordial Sino-U.S. relations, many in this city of 2.4 million cannot forget the bitter conflict on the Korean peninsula that ended in 1953: Reminders are all around them.

A hillside cemetery contains rows of white markers memorializing local soldiers who died in the conflict. Each carries the red star of Communist China, with name, rank and hometown.

A solemn stone monument declares, "Long, long lives to those soldiers who died in the war to resist U.S. aggression."

Not far away, along the Yalu River, which separates Dandong from North Korea, sits what locals call the Broken Bridge, a span that abruptly ends in the middle of the waterway. The original bridge was nearly destroyed during U.S. bombing raids. The Chinese rebuilt their side of the structure and turned it into a living history museum.

At the end of the span, visitors run their hands along the iron girders that were left gnarled and twisted by the American attack in November 1950. Nearby are full-size replicas of the bombs that wreaked the damage. Even the smallest bullet holes and shrapnel dents are marked with red circles, lest they be overlooked.

As he snapped photographs, one Chinese tourist paused to address a Westerner. "See this damaged bridge?" he said. "Americans did this."

But the hilltop museum, built in 1958 at the site of a high-command bunker, is where the Americans take their biggest beating. Here, the war was won by countless brave Chinese volunteers.

"After fighting a bloody war for two years and nine months," one sign in Chinese and English reads, "the Korean and Chinese people's army defeated the aggressors with modern technical equipment [led] by the U.S. with inferior equipment. The U.S. was unable to achieve its goal of rapid occupation of the whole Korea."

Dandong riverboat pilot Zhou Naiying, 47, was born years after the war ended. But he has been among the thousands who visit the museum each year. And he is angered by what he saw.

"All humans with flesh and bones would feel angry that such a thing happened to their own countrymen," he said. "You can't forget the past. History is forever."

The war started when northern soldiers in a divided Korea entered the south on June 25, 1950. Under the aegis of the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies intervened in behalf of South Korea.

After South Korea made rapid advances in a counterattack, Chinese forces intervened in behalf of communist ally North Korea, shifting the balance of the war and leading to an armistice on July 27, 1953, which approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel.

Many Chinese academics now adopt a softer stance toward America's agenda during the bloody skirmish.

"Most scholars don't refer to the museum by its formal name," said Shen Zhihua, a professor at the Center for Cold War Studies at East China Normal University. "We now know North Korea stirred up the whole thing. We know who fired the first gun. The Americans entered the war authorized by the U.N. It was a legal war."

Museum officials say the tone of the displays is set by the central government, which prefers the harder-line rhetoric. Director Zhao Yejun said the museum in 2004 tried to soften the commentaries. The phrase "American imperialism," for example, is not used unless in a direct quote.

"We no longer use the phrases 'our side' and 'the enemy,' " he said. "Now, we just say the U.S. Army." The museum once featured a marble plaque that included the phrase "Defeat wolf-hearted America!" but Zhao said it no longer existed.

Still, the museum's name won't be changed, he added, because it is a quote from Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international politics at Beijing's Renmin University, said there are reasons the government doesn't temper the museum's rhetoric.

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