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Rebirth of a nation: the Korean War and reconstruction

It's easy to forget in the modernity of urban Seoul just how far this country has come in such a short period of time. Today we have skyscrapers and an abundance of food, but just one lifetime ago Korea was one of the poorest nations on Earth, having faced almost total devastation in the Korean War.


This month has been designated by the Korean government as Merit Reward Month. Two significant holidays fall in June: Memorial Day on June 6 and the anniversary of the start of the Korean War on June 25. The first part of the month is designated a Period of Remembrance, the middle a Period of Thanks, and the end of the month a Period of Unity and Harmony.


For people who want to take a look back to the days of war-torn Korea, there are two historic photo exhibits available to the public, one dedicated to the tumultuous period between 1945 and 1960, and another looking at the period of growth between 1963 and 1966.


At the Seoul Museum of History, "Seoul in Turbulence: As seen by the AP" offers a selection of photos taken by Associated Press (AP) journalists between Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945 and the April 19 Revolution of 1960. It shows images of Seoul's devastation during the war, the long rebuilding process, and also an interesting glimpse at what it looked like before the war. This exhibit was prepared by the Seoul Museum of History in collaboration with the AP and Imagechip, and will run until June 3.

The 40th Anniversary Monument of Gojong's Enthronement, during the Korean War (left; by James Martenhoff) and today (right) (photo courtesy of the Seoul Museum of History)The 40th Anniversary Monument of Gojong's Enthronement, during the Korean War (left; by James Martenhoff) and today (right) (photo courtesy of the Seoul Museum of History)


The AP is the world's largest newsgathering organization, providing news for around 8,500 media outlets in 121 countries. AP reporters were in Korea following liberation to report on the activities of the U.S. troops stationed in there, and it was the most reliable source of news about what was happening in the country.


Max Desfor, one of the reporters, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for his photograph of hordes of refugees crossing a bombed-out bridge. Photographer Frank Noel was captured by Chinese forces in 1950 and spent the rest of the war in POW camps, where he was allowed to continue taking photographs for the AP.


The images are arranged around the gallery room chronologically, starting with the period right after Korea's liberation. Pictures from this era show a very different Seoul from what we know today, with many imperial-era buildings before their destruction in the Korean War. Some of the highlights include the Capitol building, formerly known as the Japanese General Government Building, which continued to function as the seat of government after Japan's withdrawal. It sat where modern-day Gwanghwamun, the gate of the palace of Gyeongbokgung, sits today, and remained there until the mid-1990s.


But there are some familiar sights: City Hall (now under renovation) and Seoul Station (recently reopened as Culture Station 284) are two key landmarks that visitors might recognize, as is the original Cheonggyecheon, the stream that was buried in the 1960s and unearthed again in 2005. Seoul Station is shown in the calm before the war and again during the war when it was heavily damaged but still used for rail transportation. Cheonggyecheon was much different than its modern incarnation, the site of a shantytown with lots of merchant activity.


Following liberation, American and Soviet troops arrived in Korea and the peninsula was divided along ideological lines. One picture from the 1940s shows American, Soviet, and South Korean flags flying together in front of Seokjojeon, a building in the palace grounds of Deoksugung.


There are also images showing Korean protests against the establishment of the U.S. Army Military Government, which ruled the south half of the peninsula until August 15, 1948, when Rhee Syngman was elected president of the First Republic of South Korea.


One image shows an eerily peaceful view of downtown Seoul on June 25, 1950, just hours before North Korean artillery would change the city forever. It took three days for the capital to fall to advancing North Korean troops. At this point, the AP sent war correspondents to Korea, who risked their lives capturing the horrors of war.

Urban warfare in Seoul (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History, taken by Max Desfor)Urban warfare in Seoul (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History, taken by Max Desfor)


Before the war, Seoul had a population of 1.446 million, and in the first invasion 400,000 fled Seoul, becoming refugees, while one million remained, living under North Korean rule in Seoul for months until the capital was retaken by allied forces on September 28, 1950. Only months later on January 4, 1951, control of Seoul was once again wrested out of the South's hands, and this time 800,000 people fled, leaving a population of 133,000 living mostly among the ruins. AP photographers were there to capture the devastated scenery, as well as images of warfare, including allied forces battling in front of a building bearing the portraits of Josef Stalin and Kim Il-sung.

The city passed back into allied hands for the last time on March 14, and refugees began returning to their bombed-out city, in many cases finding their homes destroyed. There was tension with the Seoulites who had remained and lived under communist control, with images depicting a variety of conflicts in the streets. Dramatic images show the lowering of the North Korean flag from the Korean Capitol building by UN soldiers, and the raising of the UN flag. Slowly life returned to normal, and the AP reporters captured images of newly established open-air markets, of women washing clothes in the gutters, of people trying to return to the lives they remembered amongst the ruins.

Tensions among Seoul citizens after the first retaking of Seoul (left, by Max Desfor); Jongno District was reduced to ruins (right, by James Martenhoff) (photos courtesy of Seoul Museum of History).Tensions among Seoul citizens after the first retaking of Seoul (left, by Max Desfor); Jongno District was reduced to ruins (right, by James Martenhoff) (photos courtesy of Seoul Museum of History).


The signing of the armistice brought unrest, as South Korean citizens insisted not just on the end of hostilities, but on the end of division. "Truce talks without unification will surely bring another June the 25th", says one protest placard in an AP image of a massive rally. Much earlier in the war, the South Korean government refused to enter into armistice talks for the same reason.


After the armistice, the long and laborious rebuilding process began, and the AP photographers were on hand to photograph this as well, as Seoulites cleared out the damage, gathering bricks of demolished buildings for new construction. By the end of the decade, the city looked almost as good as new. One picture shows a store offering a sale on hula hoops, a '50s fad that hit Seoul too.


Throughout the late '50s, the AP continued to play an important role in informing the outside world about what was happening in South Korea. While the local media and the public were stifled by restrictions on free speech, the AP was not under such strict control, and was able to provide vital historical records of this era.


The time span of the photo exhibition ends on a high note, with the beginning of the Second Republic of Korea under the democratic presidency of Yun Bo-seon.


Over at the Cheonggyecheon Museum, "Seoul, Rising Ever Higher" picks up a few years after where the other left off, with pictures from the Public Communications Bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. By 1963 Seoul was continuing to rebuild at a fast pace under the rule of the general-turned-president Park Jung-hee. The population of Seoul rose quickly during the term of Mayor Yoon Chi-yong, around which this exhibition is themed.


The city grappled with growing pains in this period, and as the population grew it strained the infrastructure, resulting in food and housing shortages. Many of the photos of this collection focus on roads, bridges, and homes. New shantytowns were erected wherever land was free, creating communities called "moon villages" up on the slopes of Seoul's mountains. As well, housing was built on flood plains, and residents were at the mercy of water levels.


Still, the city had much growing to do. One picture shows farmland in present-day Dongdaemun District, now part of northeastern Seoul. Another image shows unpaved markets in Yongsan District, which at the time was one of the southernmost districts of Seoul. Now it is considered central Seoul.


A house is consumed by flood waters (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History).A house is consumed by flood waters (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History).


The exhibition also has a few pictures of Cheonggyecheon, which was at that time in the gradual process of being covered up. The process began in 1958, and ended in 1976 with the opening of an elevated highway. Cheonggyecheon remained an underground stream until its 2005 restoration. In the era depicted in the photo exhibition, many people still lived in stilted houses along the stream.

Workers bury Cheonggyecheon under pavement (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History). Workers bury Cheonggyecheon under pavement (photo courtesy of Seoul Museum of History).


Although the people of Seoul struggled during this decade, life was starting to improve. One photo depicts an increasingly common scene: a 60th birthday party. Previously, turning 60 was regarded as a very rare milestone, and was celebrated in a big party. These parties became more and more common as the average lifespan grew, and they are still considered a big deal to this day despite the fact the average lifespan is considerably longer than 60 years.


Admission to both exhibits is free. The Seoul Museum of History runs many exhibits of historic photos of Seoul. Next door is "Seoul in Rossetti's Eyes", which shows Seoul in 1902 and 1903 through the eyes of Italian Consul Carlo Rossetti and runs until July 1. Later this year, Cheonggyecheon Museum will introduce another exhibit spotlighting 1966 and 1967. 

Visit the website of the Seoul Museum of History (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese). 

To learn more about Korean history following liberation, please follow these links:
History of Korea

Relationship Between South Korea and North Korea

By Jon Dunbar
Korea.net Editor

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