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.
The most popular sports at Union Christian College were soccer, basketball, and tennis. The origins of these games in Korea were in the Christian schools founded by Americans, with the first soccer club established at the Presbyterian-run Paejae School in Seoul in 1902. Union Christian College’s main rival school was Seoul’s Chosun Christian College, which now is Yonsei University, then and now arguably the leading institution of higher education in Seoul and the south.
The college’s outdoor basketball court was next to the Soongsil boys school building. The young Kim Il Sung, as a boy in the Soongsil elementary school named Kim Song Ju, would have walked past it on a regular basis while attending the school. Kim Jong Un becoming interested in American basketball and hanging out with Dennis Rodman echoes this scene that his grandfather would have seen as an obscure child.
The college also had an indoor basketball court in the combined gymnasium and auditorium (see the third to last photograph in the preceding post) that was the college’s largest building.
Soccer was by far the most popular sport. The team played on a field at the northern side of the campus that was physically, and perhaps also figuratively, at the center of the mission in Pyongyang. Its games were among the largest events of the college and of the entire mission.
The size and organization of this rally for the soccer team in 1933 evokes the huge spectacles orchestrated later by the North Korean regime, and the similarity is appropriate since the location later became the site of many of these spectacles, Kim Il Sung Stadium. This field below Moranbong Hill (after which the North Korean girl band recently in the news is named), which is visible in the background with a pagoda-roof pavilion on it, held a stadium built in 1926 that the North Korean regime replaced with Kim Il Sung Stadium in 1969. In the 1930s, teams from Pyongyang and Seoul regularly played on this field, in the annual Seoul-Pyongyang match between the cities’ leading club teams and in games between Union Christian College and Chosun Christian College.
1946 map and current image of the site of Kim Il Sung Stadium
In the 1933 photo, it appears that the entire student body of Union Christian College (left) and Soongsil Academy (right) have been equipped with megaphones to magnify their cheering. With rows of adults behind them and numerous children on the field, some of them Boy Scouts (bottom left), and more people beyond the edges of the photo, it appears that a considerable part of Pyongyang’s Christian community showed up to cheer the team before its departure for an away game in Seoul. Today the North Korean regime holds soccer games and mass rallies in the exact same place.
On the same field with Moranbong Hill visible in the background, the Union Christian College soccer team here poses happily with college president George McCune (right, in dark suit) after winning the 1935 All-Korea Championship. It is a fitting image with which to end this brief look at part of life in Pyongyang before its destruction and replacement with the North Korea of today.