National Gallery: Korea

Exploring the history of the Korean peninsula beyond the north-south divide.

Our picture essay succeeds where diplomats and politicans have failed: it strikes a line through the 38th parallel north, reuniting the Korean peninsula. In reality, the existence of the northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the southern Republic of Korea (ROK) could be interpreted as proof that the Cold War never ended. Given the former’s military stance, it still might have a ‘big bang’ finale. Yet the DPRK is not the first Korean state to be called a ‘Hermit Nation’; nor is a united Korea a historical given.

Cold Welcome

North Korean leaflet mocking American and UN forces suffering the bitter Korean winter. © Bridgeman Images

Korea was indefinitely cleaved in two during the war that decimated its population and landscape. Divided between the Soviet Union and US after Japan’s Second World War collapse, the Soviet-backed North under Kim Il-sung invaded the South on 25 June 1950, capturing Seoul on 29 June. After the Inchon Landing on 15 September, UN troops pushed the northern army back, capturing Pyongyang. Chinese entry on the side of the North led to a stalemate, armistice and division on 27 July 1953.

Capital Concerns

Visit of the Governor of Pyongyang to a walled town, 19th century. © Bridgeman Images

History is a propaganda tool in Korea. The DPRK’s claim that Pyongyang is the true Korean centre is strong. Capital of the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom, its centrality to Korean civilisation was later acknowledged by the nation’s ‘Great Founder’, Taejo of Joseon. 

Paektu Mountain

Kim Il-sung (right with his son Kim Jong-il on top of Mount Paektu, 1980. © akg-images

Here, the founder of the present North Korean dynasty stands with his son and successor in front of Heaven Lake on top of Paektu Mountain. The location is significant: an active volcano straddling the border of China and North Korea, Paektu is the mythological birthplace of Dangun, ‘son of a bear’ and founder of the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon, possibly in 2333 BC. Paektu Mountain appears frequently in DPRK propaganda (and behind its veteran newsreader Ri Chun-hee as she announced the country’s latest successful nuclear test in September 2017). South Koreans visit Paektu from the Chinese side.

At the Centre of it All

Cheonhado, 17th century. © Bridgeman Images

This Korean map depicts China, the ‘Middle Kingdom’, at the centre of the world. Korea is visible as a red peninsula separated by mountains. Chinese control of the peninsula was halted after the fall of the Han Dynasty led to the fragmentation of China in AD 220. The Korean kingdom of Goguryeo grew to dominate the north and centre of the peninsula, defeating the resurgent Chinese Sui Dynasty at the Battle of Salsu in 612.

Three Kingdoms

Comprising Goguryeo, Baekje (which had close ties with Japan) and Silla, Korea’s ‘Three Kingdom’ period extended from AD 57 to 668, when Silla allied with Tang China to overthrow Goguryeo, unifying the peninsula. 

Buddhist Blessings

Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa Temple, South Gyeongsang Province. © Getty Images

From 918, the Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea for five centuries after the dissolution of the Unified Silla kingdom. The ‘Great Founder’ King Taejo’s ‘Ten Injunctions’ sought to define Korean nationality, stating: ‘The success of every great undertaking in our country depends upon the blessings and protection of Buddha.’ Buddhist scripture was carved onto 81,258 birch woodblocks in the 13th century after an earlier Tripitaka was burnt by invading Mongols.

Mod Cons

Myeong-dong, the busiest street in Seoul, 1920s. © akg-images

Western powers successfully opened trade with China in 1842 and Japan in 1854 but Korea was elusive. A disastrous attempt known as the General Sherman Affair occured in 1866, when an American ship fired on a crowd in Pyongyang with all on board killed in retaliation. After a Japanese invasion in 1876, Korea signed the Kanghwa Treaty, opening the country to trade. Modernity in the form of street cars, electric lights, railways and port cities soon followed.

Hermit Nation

Geumgangsan Mountain, Jeong Seon, 18th century. © Courtesy National Museum of Korea

In 1880, German businessman Ernst Oppert – who had led an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail the Joseon state into removing trade barriers in 1867 – wrote of Korea’s successful ‘isolating policy’ against both Europeans and its powerful neighbours. During the Kingdom of Joseon (1392-1897) Seoul became the capital city and the unified peninsula was subject to an invasion from Japan between 1592-98. Joseon Korea forbade foreign contact and travel, earning the soubriquet ‘Hermit Nation’ in an American book of 1882. The phrase is now often applied to North Korea.

Coming in from the Cold

Geumgangsan Mountain, Jeong Seon, 18th century. © Courtesy National Museum of Korea

In spite of its isolationist behaviour, Joseon sought recognition from Ming Dynasty China and, from the 1800s onwards, increasingly sent students and officals to Meiji Japan and Qing China to learn modern statecraft and technology.

Turning Japanese

Sohn Kee-chung wins gold at the 1936 Olympics. © Alamy

Korea was contested territory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, its railways used by the Japanese. After Japan’s victory, it established Korea as a protectorate in November 1905. In 1936, Sohn Kee-chung became the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, breaking the world record in the marathon. Sohn was forced to compete under the Japanese name Son Kitei, wearing a Japanese flag and accepting his medal to the Japanese anthem. At the medal ceremony he and his compatriot Nam Sung-yong (who won bronze) stared at their feet in ‘silent shame and outrage’.

Remembrance of Crimes Past

‘Comfort Woman’ statue on a Seoul bus, 14 August 2017. © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The exact number of ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism for the possibly hundreds of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in the years before and during the Second World War – is unknown. Young women in territories occupied by the Japanese (including Korea, China and the Philippines) were abducted from their homes and forced to work in military brothels, the vast majority perishing. Statues commemorating the ‘comfort women’ appear across Korea, notably outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and were temporarily installed on five public buses in Seoul in August 2017.

The City and the City

The Tower of Juche, Pyongyang, 1987, Hiroji Kubota. © Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos.

300 metres tall with 3,000 guest rooms, construction on the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang began in 1987. Unfinished, work was halted in 1992 with no official explanation: economic crisis and the fall of the Soviet Union are to be suspected. Meanwhile, in the southern capital, Seoul, 1987 saw pro-democracy demonstrations and the ‘June Declaration’ that would pave the way for democracy in the South.

Rhys Griffiths is assistant editor at History Today. @rhyswgriffiths