Turn Back the Clock Thursday
Comes on Tuesday: A Remnant
of Pyongyang's Soongsil University

The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang unveils a commemorative monument to a 1935 commemorative stone from the former university

Today we break out usual habit of posting on Thursdays to bring you some interesting news from Pyongyang on a Tuesday.

The stone

Another brick in the wall. -Pink Floyd

Yesterday the Russian Embassy in the DPRK made a post on their Facebook page about the unveiling of a new historic monument on the embassy grounds. The monument commemorates a brick, yes, a stone. This historic stone was discovered during construction work in the embassy garden in 2007 and is a rare remnant from the former grounds of Soongsil University, a school originally founded by American Presbyterian missionaries. This week the Russians have turned back the clock 82 years to March of 1935.

This story, ten years in the making, is fascinating. After all, it is not every day that one encounters such tangible remains of pre-1945 Pyongyang. Some pre-1945 structures exist in the city, namely the beautiful art deco Pyongyang Puppet Theatre, Widow Baek’s Community Centre built strong as the woman herself, and Taedong River bridge pylons. Scattered about are also the original foundations of the city’s pre-modern walls, gates, temples, pavilions, a partially preserved wooden bridge, and a number of very ancient tombs. The street pattern and layout of central Pyongyang and the city on the east bank of the Taedong also somewhat follow the pre-1945 pattern – for instance, a post-1945 stadium is on the old location of colonial-era stadium, a post-1945 roundabout on the location of a colonial-era roundabout, and so on. Most of the pre-1945 city was destroyed or severely damaged during the aerial bombing of the Korean War. Post-war rehabilitation and the demands of modernization swept away anything else that had somehow survived the war. This rock lost until 2007.

The brick

On the small grey stone is inscribed the following Chinese characters:




— -

This reads in English: Soongsil Agriculture Sciences Department, Commemorative Tree of the Second Class of Graduates, March 1935.

As the monument exists on the Russian Embassy it is officially on territory of the Russian Federation. The Russian Embassy’s Facebook post is worth reproducing here in full:

In 2007 during construction work in Embassy’s garden we discovered a stone with a hardly readable sign in characters. Having deciphered the writing, we realized it was a genuine historic artefact. The sign said as following: “This tree was planted in memory of the second graduates of Soongsil college Agriculture department. March 1935”. For 10 years the stone has been stored carefully and with due respect in Ambassadors’ residence. To be honest, it seemed to us if we exhibited it in public our Korean friends would request to give it back: Kim Hyong Jik – the father of DPRK founder Kim Il Sung – attended Soongsil college in 1911-1913. We know too well that everything related to the name of the latter has immense, sacred value for them. In the meantime, just putting a hand on this cold surface, touching an old character, imagining young students who back in 1935 planted the tree and set this stone having not the faintest idea of what would happen to it – all this is deeply significant for a Korean studies expert. We would regret giving it away.

The embassy post continues:

However, we did take a risk – officially informed DPRK Foreign Ministry about our intention to set the stone in our Embassy next to the Friendship Pavilion “Chinsonjon”. It was great. Our friends from DPRK Foreign Ministry headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Shin Hong Chul attended the ceremony of unveiling the stone and a memorial plaque timed to coincide with the 123rd anniversary of Kim Hyong Jik. He told us that a college building was located at the site of our Embassy, hence they decided to authorize the stone fixing here considering the interest of Russian diplomats to Korean history. We are very grateful to our Korean friends and counterparts for it. Now this stone and everything linked with it will remain in the Russian Embassy. History appears to be extremely close to us – one needs to stretch his/her arm to touch it.

Below is a photo of the unveiling ceremony and a poster board on the history of Soongsil school.

The unveiling

Soongsil School (숭실전문학교) was founded on October 10, 1897 on the plots of 120 acres purchased by Samuel Moffett of the Northern Presbyterian Mission. The university was founded by American William M. Baird of Indiana and employed a work-study program teaching vocational skills. By 1908 the school graduated it's first students from a university course, becoming Soongsil University (숭실대학교) also known as Union Christian College (Clark in Kim et al., 2010; Yi, 2008).

The school claims the title of being the first western-style university in Korea. (The Songgyungwan Confucian Academy (성균관) in Kaesong was Korea’s is said to be one of the world’s longest operating institution of higher learning – two descendent colleges exist today: one in Kaesong and one in Seoul). Kim Hyong Jik was attending Soongsil Middle School when his son Kim Sung Ju, the future President Kim Il Sung, was born on April 15, 1912. Here is a photo of the community around Soongsil that year.

President Kim Il Sung’s 1992 autobiography With the Century (세기와 더불어) Volume 1 makes numerous mentions to the school with an alternative Romanization:

Sungsil recruited students from all parts of Korea. Youth thirsting for new forms of education flocked to Sungsil. Modern subjects such as world history, geometry, physics, health science, biology, athletics and music were taught at the school.

My father attended Sungsil because of the modern subjects taught there. He was not sold on the classical form of education learning the Chinese classics and ethics. Even though Sungsil’s primary misson was evangelical, it graduated a number of prominent leaders of anti-Japan movements….Because so many patriots had graduated from it, the Japanese police called it the den of anti-Japanese rebels…

Many of the school’s alumni would go on to take part in the March 1st Movement in 1919, open armed revolt against Japanese rule, and prominent positions in both north and south after 1945. With the Century continues:

The most valuable thing my father gained at Sungsil was the comradeship of his friends, many of whom became long-term close personal friends and comrades-in-arms in his fight against the Japanese. They were bright, eager, even magnanimous; the cream of a new generation of Korea.

The autobiography states that Kim Hyong Jik quit the school to become a teacher and conduct revolutionary activities. Despite continued suspicion from the Japanese authorities, the school continued to operate as the larger missionary complex in Pyongyang. William H. Baird died in Pyongyang in 1931 of Typhoid Fever, two years before the stone mentioned above was laid. In 1938 the school was shut down for refusal to take part in mandatory State Shintoism proclaimed by the Japanese Empire (SSU, 2017)

Pyongyang 1946

A 1946 map of Pyongyang shows the locations of Sungsil Middle School, Girl’s School, and College on the location of today’s the Russian Embassy. These structures were presumably destroyed during the Korean War. Soongsil University was reestablished in 1954 in Seoul where it is still in operation today.

We applaud the work of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the DPRK and for their work in preserving this fascinating part of Pyongyang history, its continued efforts to maintain Russian Military Memorials across the DPRK, and active role in supporting the foreign communities of Pyongyang and Chongjin.

You can also follow the Russian Embassy on Facebook and Twitter.

'Turn Back the Clock Thursday' brings you views of Korea from more than two decades of Koryo Tours' trips to the DPRK and images in the public domain. The photos above are reposted from the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in the DPRK. The 1946 Map of Pyongyang is available from the University of Texas Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin.

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