An Era Defined by Exile: Korean War Photos by Werner Bischof

When an armistice put a halt to the Korean War 60 years ago, on July 27, 1953 — after three years of fighting, millions of deaths (most of them civilians) and neither side claiming victory — people around the world held out hope that the end of the conflict signaled the beginning of stability, and perhaps even long-term peace, in Asia.

That hope, of course, was short-lived, as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other Southeast Asian countries were turned into battlefields, and killing fields, in the coming years. In Korea, meanwhile, the cataclysmic splitting in two of an ancient nation caused rifts — military, economic, familial, psychological — that are still immediate and, for countless older Koreans, still torturous today. Here, in a video from Magnum Photos featuring the extraordinary pictures of Swiss-born Werner Bischof (1916 – 1954) and the heartrending stories of Korean men and women, from both North and South, who survived the war and the destruction of their homelands, one sees and hears something of the true nature and immeasurable cost of massive, mechanized, ideological violence.

Bischof’s pictures are especially gripping precisely because, in the context of so much violence, they’re so quiet. Not peaceful. Not placid. But quiet — focusing, as they do, on the “collateral” horrors of battle: starvation; the sudden and permanent sundering of families; countless orphaned children; an era defined by exile.

Of all the voices in the video, however, perhaps the most moving is that of a man who fled the North in the early days of the war and who bluntly distills the experience of heading South to battle the communists, Chinese and Korean, who had destroyed his world: “I was young,” he says, “but I didn’t have any fear, because they took everything from me.”


Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.


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