Stunning pictures of North Korea before Kim Il-Sung seized power

Korea before the Kims came along: Stunning pictures show the hermit state before Kim Jong-un’s grandfather seized power in the North in 1948

  • Fascinating images show the Korean peninsula before it was divided into North and South after WWII
  • They show Christianity was widespread and railroads which spanned the length of the entire country
  • Pyongyang’s buildings used to be a mix of traditional and western but is today a model of Soviet brutalism

When the Kim dynasty seized power following the collapse of Imperial Japan, they rebuilt North Korea in the communist image.

The small view outsiders have of the hermit state show a hard concrete face, dedicated to its series of dictators without much of a hint of any previous history. 

But now, a cache of fascinating photos has revealed the face of a land untouched by their regime.

The set of images were taken before Kim Il-sung – the current ruler’s grandfather – took power in 1948, and show a country almost unrecognisable today.

Having been ruled by hundreds of monarchs up to 1910. These images show the first years of Imperial Japan’s grip on the relatively undeveloped country, which still held much of its heritage.

A train passes in the distance across the peaceful stillness of a lake in Korea – the train tracks once ran the entire length og the peninsula which has not been possible since the Kim dynasty seized full power during the Korean War following the collapse of Japanese control at the end of World War II

A colourised photo taken sometime between 1908 and 1922 shows women with their trouser legs rolled up toiling in rice paddy fields beside a rural Korean village watched over by a group of young boys. The Korean peninsula was less developed than Imperial Japan, who seized the country to compete for control in Asia against the large European powers

Doctors – including one who appears western – and nurses treating patients at Haeju hospital – Haeju is located in North Korea today, a city of some 200,000 which has experienced huge food shortages. It is an important junction today for freight vehicles for the chemical and cement industries

Pyongyang City Hall in the 1920s. Most of the North Korean capital, including the hall, was heavily shelled during the Korean War which raged from  1950-53. The casualties were heavy and it involved the United States as well as the United Kingdom. The guerilla-style fighting the British encountered in the jungles was a factor in deterring them from joining the subsequent war in Vietnam

Dr A.H. Norton operating at Haeju hospital – many missionaries arrived in Korea throughout the country’s history, but particularly in the early half of the 20th century the Japanese made efforts to kerb the spread of the Bible. They saw the religion as a way in which the ideology of the west could take hold of their territory

They show Christianity was widespread, with large groups of believers gathering in public to study the bible and worship – today there is no freedom of religion in the North.

They also show that railroads ran from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other – a journey that is now impossible.

While Pyongyang today is a model of Soviet-style brutalism, the photo reveal how it used to be a mix of traditional Korean homes and western-style buildings.

There are even a few things caught on camera that did survive to today, namely the Chilsong Gate and Kija’s Tomb in Pyongyang.

Nurses at the Haeju Hospital in Haeju, a city around around 80 miles from the capital Pyongyang. It has been inhabited for thousands of years and is an attraction for Korean historians, particularly its Puyong Hall, a gable-roofed pavilion which stands in a lotus pond which was built in 1500

Kija’s Tomb – which still exists on Pyongyang’s Moran Hill – it is said to be the tomb of Kija, believed to have founded capital city Pyongyang. Constructed in 1102, Kija’s legend says he arrived from China bringing with him agricultural and weaving skills. It was later heavily promoted when the country was under Japanese rule, fuelled by their desire to temper nationalism and give the message that Korea flourished under a foreigner

A Bible study takes place in Korea in the 1920s – the country’s founder Kim Il-Sung was himself the son of a Presbyterian mother and in his memoir he wrote: ‘I do not think the spirit of Christianity that preaches universal peace and harmony contradicts my idea advocating an independent life for man’. Christianity was allowed under Imperial Japan but would later be banned in the Kim dynasty

An exhibition train which was used by the British American Tobacco Company to establish their foothold in Korea during the early 20th century. Many Koreans in both North and South still smoke today, perhaps most famously of all Kim Jong-un who is often seen with a cigarette as he goes about his duties

Children play with Western-style doll houses at a Kindergarten in Korea. Before Pyongyang became  a model of Soviet-style brutalism, it was comprised of a mix of traditional Korean homes and western-style buildings

Livestock employed in heavy hauling, as they still are in North Korea today. The men wear large conical hats seen throughout Asia, but known in Korean as satgat, they provide excellent protection for those labouring in the sun and torrential downpours

A congregation wearing Sunday robes stand outside a Church built in the traditional style. Today Christians in North Korea are represented officially by the Korean Christian Federation, a state-controlled organisation. In Pyongyang there are five church buildings – one Catholic, three Protestant and a Russian Orthodox Church

A rural dirt road in Korea winds around a calm lake surrounded by mountains and trees. Labourers can be seen in the distance walking down the road and others with cargo on horseback.

The Pyongyang ‘anchor stones’ which, according to tradition, anchored the city to the spot. Korean folklore describes Pyongyang as a vessel floating in the waters of the surrounding rivers. Another interpretation describes them as masts for the boat, rather than an anchor

The Pyongyang cityscape in the 1920s. While Pyongyang, today a model of Soviet-style brutalism, is shown to have comprised a mix of traditional Korean homes and western-style buildings.

The Yongmyongsa Temple in the 1930s. It was tragically destroyed in the Korean War, before which the Buddhist temple had stood since around 700AD. It underwent extensive restorations during Japanese rule in the 1920s, only to be wiped out by American carpet bombing in the war

A family sit on a tree trunk outside a spirit house – they are intended house spirits who would otherwise cause trouble if not given shelter. As well as Korea, similar structures can be found throughout Asia which are intended for a similar purpose

Korean studies lecturer Dr Owen Miller said the city was transformed after being reduced to rubble in the war that followed the North’s invasion of the South.

‘The city was pretty much flattened by the US Air Force during the Korean War,’ he said.

‘That’s not to say it wouldn’t have changed anyway, but war is a great accelerator of change.’

Instead of rebuilding what was lost or allowing the city to take shape naturally, the Kim regime set about realising their vision of a socialist paradise.

‘I think the North Korean state and Kim Il-sung saw themselves as having a mission to create a modern, prosperous society and everything that went with modernity,’ said Dr Miller.

‘That meant good living conditions in modern apartments, big boulevards, cultural facilities and concert halls, and all those kind of things.’

A tram runs along Yamatomachi Street in the Sosong District of Pyongyang in the 1920s, having been built in 1923 during Imperial Japanese rule. It is believed that North Koreans were taught to feel negatively about this period, because it was part of Japan’s 35-year-long occupation of the country

A street scene in the rural landscape outside of capital Pyongyang. Tourists who visit North Korea are generally kept well with the confines of the capital city, and may only see this side of the country from their train window. The Kim dynasty has tried to portray an image of wealth and success that does not reflect its rural heritage

A villager sits against a stone wall and works on a contraption. To this day a large proportion of North Korea’s population still rely on farming as their only or main form of income

He continued: ‘Old-fashioned traditional or colonial buildings were not what they saw themselves as being about.

‘This was the 1950s and it wasn’t just limited to North Korea or the socialist bloc, it was kind of universal.

‘This was the age of looking forward to the future; an age for optimism and the creation a new model world.

‘They were also kind of modelling themselves on the Soviet Union and the Soviet way of living.’

Other photos, however, reveal how little things have progressed in the decades since.

One image shows how livestock, then as now, was used to move goods in North Korea due to a lack of mechanised transport.

And agriculture in the North, like in the pictures, is still very reliant on manual labour.

Hall Memorial Hospital in Pyongyang. It was supported jointly by Methodists and Presbyterians, each providing a missionary doctor. The doctors were supported by two Korean physicians as well as graduate nurses. In one recent year, 20,000 dispensary patients were treated and 600 operations were performed. In Pyongyang, there is also the Women’s Hospital and Dispensary operated by The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society

Japanese flags fly outside of a train station in Pyongyang in another fascinating image taken before the Kim dynasty in Korea

A group of three Korean men playing a board game on the side of the street. The images were captured before the Kim dynasty came along 

This images shows the construction of a new high school in Pyongyang. All photos were taken at some point between 1908 and 1922

Dr Miller, of SOAS University of London, said it was a period that North Koreans were taught to feel negatively about, because it was part of Japan’s 35-year-long occupation of the country.

One photo actually shows Japanese flags outside a railway station.

He said: ‘The period before 1945 is seen very negatively – as a period of misery, a combination of feudal and colonial rule, with very cruel Japanese occupiers.

‘It’s seen extremely negatively in every possible way, apart from the resistance to it by partisans and nationalists.’

Japan held sway over the Korean peninsula until it was defeated in the Second World War, leaving Soviet forces occupying the North and US forces occupying the South.

Two separate governments were then established – one in the North and one in the South, backed by the Soviets and the US respectively, each claiming to be the legitimate government of the whole peninsula.

Korea remains divided to this day.

Another image shows the Chilsong Gate in Pyongyang, which still stands today in what has become the North Korean capital

Photo shows labourers using a shovel, designed to be usable by up to 10 people at once

A group of 14 schoolboys are pictured crowded into one dormitory room at Pyongyang High School in what is now the capital of North Korea

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