With the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang imminent, and the inclusion of North Korean athletes in South Korea’s Olympics stealing attention worldwide, it is an appropriate time to remember that in sports as in other things, the North Korean regime built itself on top of a buried past that is waiting to be rediscovered. Massive sports spectacles in Pyongyang have for many years been part of the regime’s façade, but long before the arrival of Kim Il Sung in 1945, Korean athletes at Union Christian College competed in multiple sports, including in matches against athletes from Seoul. This 1933 photograph of a rally for the Union Christian College soccer team gives some idea of the scale and enthusiasm of the school’s sports programs.
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Since Union Christian College of Pyongyang has been completely forgotten in the 80 years since it closed, and images of it have been absent from any historical record of Korea, for generations almost no one has known what it looked like or even where it was. This brief tour of the campus as it looked in the 1930s, made possible by the preservation of a few books of photographs by Americans from Pyongyang, shows a world that few today know ever existed.
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The crowning institution and pride of the Presbyterian mission in Pyongyang was Union Christian College. Founded in 1905, it was the first four year college in Korea, preceding by a decade Seoul’s Yonsei University, the oldest surviving college in Korea. Open to Korean Christians of all denominations, it was a magnet for students throughout Korea, north and south, the sole source of higher education in Korea for a decade and one of Korea’s leading colleges for another 23 years. Its rise and eventual end was central to the history of the American and Christian presence in Pyongyang.
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American and Korean hockey teams meeting on the frozen Taedong River in 1933
A simple sheet of ice, ephemeral and certain to disappear when winter gives way to spring, is of special significance to anyone involved with hockey. Generation after generation of children in Canada and the northern United States have learned the game on frozen ponds that are the spiritual home of the sport, which the National Hockey League attempts to emulate each year in its annual outdoor Winter Classic game. Over 80 years ago, sheets of ice in the city of Pyongyang were where Korean and American teams competed in what was then the furthest outpost of the game from its North American roots, in a world that has disappeared as completely as the ice that they played on.
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The Pyongyang mission occupied a central location on the left bank of the Taedong River that runs through Pyongyang. Then and now, in two completely different worlds, the place has been the center of the city’s identity and culture.
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Harley-Davidson and Pyongyang are not names that go together naturally, to put it lightly. Nevertheless, Harley-Davidson has a long history there, pre-dating the current regime by several decades, proven by long-forgotten photographs unexpectedly found in the archives of the Methodist Church. They were there because the Americans who lived in Pyongyang brought with them a few of the motor vehicles that were becoming increasingly common back in the United States in the 1900s and 1910s. The Ford Model T, early Harley-Davidsons, and other American icons arrived in small numbers for use on occasions when people needed to move through the countryside around Pyongyang.
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1933 Pyengyang (old spelling) mission group photo in front of Pyongyang Foreign School
An American community lived and thrived in Pyongyang for 47 years, from 1895 to 1942, numbering in the hundreds at its peak and leading the largest Christian community on the mainland of Asia. Their mission occupied a prominent location in the center of Pyongyang, then and now, and was home to the first university in Korea, schools for all ages, the city’s leading church, its first hospital, and a school for foreigners that was a magnet for Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, and others from Korea, China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. “The Jerusalem of the East” was its nickname for being the Asia-wide center of the Presbyterian Church, then and now the largest in Korea. Yet it was quickly forgotten during the Second World War and disappeared into complete obscurity, as Pyongyang became known to Americans solely as the capital of the North Korean state.
Continue reading “The Foundation and End of American Pyongyang, 1895-1942”