Vivid and Rare Colour Images of Prewar Seoul

The following series of photos show post-division prewar Seoul in the months leading up to the devastating Korean War that flattened most of the country and took the lives of millions of people.

Taken in 1949, they reveal quite a different country, a world away from the Seoul we all know today with many people still wearing traditional dress and not a high-rise or Starbucks for miles. The tranquility and relative calm in these shots is nearly the polar opposite of the chaos and carnage that ensued during the war.

From Daum:

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

In front of the modest UN Commission in Seoul

More of money-exchange shop

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

A series of vivid and detailed full colour photos of Seoul before the Korean War

Comments from Daum:

보험보다소중한샤이니:

These pictures make me teary..

아기태일♥:

There’s nowhere as nice as South Korea, but the education system is too hard on us…

수미수미수미칩존나맛있어수미칩:

Right, African countries were receiving humanitarian assistance just like us, but only we have succeeded so much, so proud

씅리인데접차:

By the way, how unlucky it must have been to have born at that time, not knowing the imminent war. Those who died in war, I wish you peace.

틆인데촹앓이함:

But having grown so fast, there are a few bad apples…. here and there

태극이:

Only in a few decades we have come this far… No wonder others call it the miracle of the Han river… Love South Korea

이소라6집[눈썹달]:

The civic consciousness that lags behind economic prosperity is the trap…

연세대학교경영학과:

Wow… Somehow very strange

주름이가튼내얼굴:

Advanced country for sure!! ke ke ke

@햇똥우유:

Looking at the pictures, it’s so tranquil? Ah what is this feeling.. I like it, so fuzzy

경기대표교미:

South Korea is not an advanced nation, but somewhere between that and developing nation

죠리퐁듀이:

When I went back to South Korea for the first time in ten years, I saw old folks collecting used papers, and I still see poor people on TV, we are not the developed first-rate country. I wish the welfare improved.

않다니엘:

It’s not a bad place to live, but still not enough we are. The textbook says so but we are not.

규현은혁:

Mmm, looking at these peaceful photos and then suddenly a war, so maybe it’s still like that.. that worries me…

비빔국수:

But if it is 6.25 [25th June - referring to the Korean War], shouldn’t it have been summer…? They wear winter clothing still? Even the trees look desolate..

우리집에나무심음:

I miss those streets..

ㅋㅋㅋ부잉부잉:

Right-o, South Korea is really decent-living. We have it good ke ke. No other countries are as good as us. We can use all the water we want ke ke ke ke ke ke Anyhow, South Korea is good.

여성지지능만세:

Our citizens are not as developed, so that’s why we cannot be as developed….

누가바요:

Maybe we had gotten poorer after we had become free of the Japanese…? At that time… Those buildings… Japan must have built them when they ruled us… Before then there were only straw-thatched roof old houses.

안지랑:

Have you not studied the modern history of Korea? What makes you think it was a good time during the Japanese rule ke

39살아저씨:

South Korea is still at the bottom of the world. Not GDP or any of those indices but the quality of life. You think Spain and Greece are a laughing-stock? If you are unemployed in Spain they pay you unemployment insurance for 3 years, and they get to go home at 3 PM, and you get to have a month-long vacation. They have it hard compare to before, but South Korea is nowhere near Spain or Greece

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  • Kim Jong-un

    I am wondering how many of South Koreans actually understand the signboards of the shops and hotels displayed in the pictures.

    • James

      Hi Kim Jong Un!

      • Kim Jong-un

        Hi, James Bond!

        • James

          ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

    • chairman

      What is there to understand? They are just names of hotels and shops, nothing special.

  • Genxi

    It’s amazing how almost all the signs change from Chinese to Korean hangul in such a short period of time. It’d be cool if they have an documentary about this the process of this transition.

  • dim mak

    Damned modern Koreans, what’s the matter?
    You too good for Chinese characters now?

    • Danny

      No. We just don’t need them. I don’t want them either, don’t want to learn those 1000s of symbols when there’s an alphabet.

  • Mich’insaeki

    Awesome collection! Thanks for sharing! I recognized a lot of the locations. Seems like the city grows and swells, buildings come and go… but the sidewalk tiles never change! ROFL.

    Color photos especially poignant.

  • Beth

    Amazing photographs, Justin. I particularly like the call for unification on one of the pillars…
    But as for the use of Chinese characters, well, these were just standard Japanese signs at the time. Because of the occupation we really don’t know whether Korean would have developed with or without hanja as it moved towards modernity (in both Japan and Korea there had been discussions to abandon Chinese characters since the late 19th century). While the 1919 “Declaration of Independence,” for example, was written with both Chinese characters and hangul, most of the compounds used in there were completely new, and imported from Japanese modernization discourses. From the mid-1920s and increasingly through the years leading up to the Japanese surrender, Koreans were being educated in Japanese as part of the GGK assimilation programs. Prior to that there was not widespread access to education in Korea, and although the literati would naturally have used Chinese, most people would have been unable to read, despite Sejong’s wonderful gift of Hangul in 1446.
    So when the Japanese left, and as immediate influence of their rule was gradually erased, hanja started to fall from grace. North Korea has not officially used hanja (Chinese characters) since 1949, though some are still taught, apparently. In the south, they fell out of usage in the vernacular press, most likely as part of nationalist efforts to reclaim and preserve what they saw as being their own, and to make Korean look very distinct from Japanese. But South Koreans still have to study them in high school, and they are still used in academic texts and some newspapers, particularly if there is any discrepancy.

    • Justin_C

      actually, it’s by James…. I gave up trying to figure out what is where (they all look like Jongro to me or Namdaemoon) and grainy 한자 meanings around 3am…. i started at 髮理 for a while and realised 발리 meant 이발…. ㅋㅋ

      anyways, this is our editor-in-dictator James san’s job :p

      • James

        You’re my favourite dissident Justin.

        Edit: Forgot I actually am dressed up like a dictator in my profile picture. Oops.

        • Justin_C

          yeah where do i get that awesome next halloween costume???

          • James

            Bought it in a North Korean market. Good luck trying to go THERE. Will get you one next time I go. You can be my mini-me.

    • anonymous

      I think getting rid of those hanja (embed in the Korean language for centuries and still hidden behind most of the Korean vocabulary) is just a sign of a plain inferiority complex that paradoxically makes them Koreans lose or reduce part of their culture…

      It’s just a pity.

      • Vince

        That, or it’s a natural process of linguistic development which has occurred in many other places in the world without any need for imputing a psychological condition on an entire people.

      • Chucky3176

        “Damned modern Koreans, what’s the matter?
        You too good for Chinese characters now?”

        dim_mak, Koreans started to replace the Chinese characters after the Chinese got mad and started accusing Koreans of stealing the Chinese character and Chinese culture. So the Koreans decided to return it back to the Chinese in kind.

  • Umm

    So.. What’s up with the Korean flag?

  • korea21

    long live south korea

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  • mouse

    I wouldn’t exactly call it tranquil. Considering they were under occupation at this time. Sad.

  • Stories of butts

    Interesting, I would love to know where those pictures where taken to show the development from then to now.

  • Anonton

    Wow some of those old European style buildings are quite beautiful!

    • acorn

      yeah too bad not a lot of the buildings survived the war – i believe more than 90% of the buildings in Seoul were destroyed during the war, leaving very little architectural heritage (not that South Koreans were particularly keen on preserving them in the first place, but it would have been an interesting urban experiment :p)

  • Michael M.

    Details from two of these photos help to pinpoint a very narrow time frame of when the pictures were taken.

    Photo #22 has a sign in the background saying “Headquarters 32nd Inf.” This is the US Army’s 32nd Infantry Regiment. The 32nd Regiment’s emblem/logo was a blue shield with a white “X” which can be seen on the sign in the photo. The 32nd Regiment arrived in Korea to accept surrender of Japanese combat units in 1945 and departed South Korea in December 1948.

    Photo #8 with the sign saying “Headquarters 5th Inf.” is the US Army’s 5th Infantry Regiment. The 5th Regiment arrived in South Korea 1 January 1949 (effectively replacing the departing 32nd Regiment) and departed South Korea 31 June 1949.

    Based on these two units being in this same group of photos, I would confidently say that these photos were taken during the 1948-49 Winter season.

    • Justin_C

      wow amazing, thanks for the tip! I will relay this message back to the korean netizen community. I look forward to your future contributions :D

  • Brett Sanbon

    Very coincidental. On Tuesday my mother sent me two pics that her friend’s father took during the war. The friend is sending me more slide scans this or next week. Justin, if you are interested in seeing them I can email you some of the scans.

    • Laura Martin

      Hi Brett – my mom and I are looking for Korean War (actually 1935-1960) photos to illustrate her memoirs. Can we discuss if we can use your friend’s photos?

  • Michael F. O’Brien

    I arrived in August of ’63 and things were not much different than these photo, possibly worse. I remained until June of ’97. For most of those years Korea was the fastest growing economy in the world.

  • leoflop

    Amazing photos. Amazing country. In so feel years…The country is good developed, but people spend more time to develop.

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  • Danny

    I’m Korean, and can’t read a single Chinese character, and so the Chinese characters in the photos bewilder me. How time have changed… for the better in my opinion (no need to learn ambiguous Chinese characters).

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  • Laura Martin

    Justin, can you help me with copyright regarding these photos? I followed your link to Daum but I don’t read or speak Korean… I’m helping my mother with her memoirs of growing up in these times.

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