Pre-war Pyongyang,
circa 1949/50

Two 'rare-glimpse' images of pre-war Pyongyang

Rare glimpses of Pyongyang - before the war

The ‘rare glimpse’ of North Korea is something of a cliché on the Internet. (Try entering ‘rare glimpse North Korea’ on Google.) For better or for worse, Korea is — as French filmmaker Chris Marker once stated — ‘tolerant of its clichés’. And so it is always intriguing to come across an image or photograph that shows something different, surprising, or truly rarely glimpsed upon.

Images of Pyongyang between the liberation of Korea in 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 are difficult to come by. In comparison, images of Japanese colonial-era Pyongyang, devastated wartime Pyongyang, and post-war reconstruction Pyongyang are relatively common.

There are a number of reasons for this scarcity between 1945-50. When American and South Korean forces advanced upon and occupied Pyongyang in October 1950, they captured a large amount of documents (other documents were presumably destroyed to prevent capture). These captured documents now live in the US National Archives as part of the Record Group 242 (RG242) materials — Collections of Foreign Records Seized, specifically RG 242.23. Still more North Korean documents were no doubt destroyed in the heavy bombing the city endured throughout the rest of the war, and much of whatever survived has either has been lost to time or ideological updates, or perhaps sitting somewhere in some very off-limits North Korean archives.

Yet images do show up from time to time from disparate sources, mostly blurry photographs and old new reels, the latter of which seems to be the sources of the two images below. Both are taken short film clips in the North Korean documentary The US Imperialist Aggressors are the Provokers of the Korean War (date unknown) , which depicts an calm and idyllic Pyongyang going about is business as American imperialist plot war.

Pre-war Pyongyang, circa 1949/50

The first image is shot from Pyongyang’s central avenue — named ‘Stalin Street’* and later ‘Victory Street’ — with the Japanese colonial-era trams still running up and down the main drag. More specifically, this looks like the area of Pyongyang known as Yamatomachi (大和町) during the colonial era and near the site of the Taedonggang Hotel today looking north. The direction of the trams — the closer tram on the left is heading towards camera — indicates the footage is from post-1945 (Japanese-run trams would have ran the opposite direction).

Here is the area from a 1946 US Army Map.

The area above in 1946.
Pre-war Pyongyang fountain park, circa 1949/50.

The second image is of a fountain park somewhere in the city. It is unclear what the socialist-style statue inside the fountain depicts. Is it agricultural worker planting rice? Or does it represent something more abstract? The fountain was likely destroyed during the war. Equally intriguing are the numerology ‘9 9 9’ on the building in the background. September 9, 1948 marked the establishment of the North Korean state, so perhaps the ‘9 9 9’ is left over from the first anniversary of the DPRK in 1949. Today the holiday is abbreviated as 9.9 (구구절).

If any readers have any further insight or thoughts about the above images, we’d love to hear from you.

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