All photographs courtesy of Waterfall Mansion & Gallery and The Han Youngsoo Foundation.
"The '50s was a period of recovery"
On April 11, 1961, before relinquishing his duties as the United States Ambassador in Seoul, Walter P McConaughy sent a telegram to Washington. It was the anniversary of the day 16-year-old student Kim Ju-yul was discovered in a bay tethered to stones, the formality of his school uniform corralling his bloated, decaying body.
He was killed by a tear gas grenade fired into his skull during a protest against electoral corruption that led to the resignation of the republic’s first president, Syngman Rhee. In this charged landscape, framed by the proscenium of the Cold War, McConaughy’s after-dinner telegram noted the Southerners’ “widespread feelings of hopelessness” and deduced its inspiration from the “stark, bleak facts of economic life.”
These facts McConaughy mentioned can be found in a study, cited by former Newsweek bureau chief Bradley Martin in his book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, that showed at the time of the armistice in 1953, the North and the South had a gross national product per capita of USD56 and USD55, respectively.
But by 1960, while the North’s figure surged nearly fourfold to USD208, the South had barely made a dent, capping at a dismal USD60. In a proselytising travelogue published in Pyongyang a year later, an East German visiting the South noticed “only helmets of the American soldiers were shining.” An academic journal from 1965 hailed the North as the “Korean Miracle.” The irony we see in retrospect today was nowhere in sight along the Han River.
“The war had taken away many things,” the late photographer Han Youngsoo wrote. Han, born to a well-off family in Gaesung, a border town traversing the 38th parallel in what is now the DPRK, fought on the frontline and witnessed, without going into details, “scenes that enraged” him. One year became two, then three; jujubes as good a paperweight as a Colt M1911 in autumn, bayonets as ice picks in winter. The ruins of the Seoul he returned to after the ceasefire mirrored his spirit in rubbles—the “traces of soot from the war” that he couldn’t quite shake off.
Between 1959 and 1962, 75,000 Koreans, sold on the vision of an egalitarian paradise, made the exodus from Japan to settle permanently in the DPRK. In Kim Il-sung’s official biography, the writer asks, as if fighting back righteous tears, “Can he not create vast farms on the unexplored plateaux of the north? Can he not reclaim the tidelands from the West Sea?”
Under melodramatic dogfights raging in the clouds, “his eyes saw the splendid, the magnificent streets extending one beyond the other… the beautiful parks where children frolicked and cultural institutions of marble and granite stood.” Marble and granite made their presence felt indeed, if only for the enjoyment of Pyongyang elites.
One such construction was the metro station where commuters are greeted by blood-red letters spelling out “LONG LIVE GENERAL KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY!” before descending an escalator soundtracked by beloved propaganda numbers that recall twinkly Disney carousel ditties and the operatic crescendos that whet Hannibal Lecter’s appetite. The trains move but time could have very well stopped in the ’50s.
Back in Seoul, Han Youngsoo had picked himself up. He traded the defensiveness of a soldier behind a gun for the patience of a man behind a camera. With a Leica, he documented the city with a painterly precision that echoes Henri Cartier-Bresson. He considered the antiquated hanok dwellings clinging to a hill, and the changing status of women who were then finding new post-war roles as entrepreneurs and consumers.
Seoul was a city in motion, unfazed by rain or snow—umbrellas are a constant motif in his photographs—striding into the future. As the South watched the rise of Samsung, cheesecake bingsu and two-toned lipstick, the North holes up in tinfoil, flouncing about executions, assassinations and annihilation.
Journalist Barbara Demick offers a revealing observation through the North Korean habit of squatting—knees bent to the chest, balancing on the balls of the feet: “People sit for hours on their haunches, along the sides of roads, in parks, in the market. They stare straight ahead as though they are waiting—for a tram, maybe, or a passing car, a friend or a relative. Maybe they are waiting for nothing in particular, just waiting for something to change.”
The exhibition Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956-63 runs until June 9, 2017 at the International Center of Photography in New Jersey. The exhibition is organised by ICP and the Waterfall Mansion & Gallery in New York, with the collaboration of the Han Youngsoo Foundation in Seoul. For more information, visit www.icp.org/exhibitions/han-youngsoo-photographs-of-seoul-1956-63.