Once Upon a Time in Pyongyang

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We tend to think of North Korea as a mysterious place -- sometimes quiet, other times hostile, but always closed off and opaque. Since its founding in 1948, the country has plunged into diplomatic and economic isolation, driven by founder Kim Il Sung's policy of juche, or "self-reliance." Today, images of daily life in North Korea are a rare sight, often met with fascination.

But this wasn't always the case. For a brief period in the early 20th century, after the 1910 fall of the original "Hermit Kingdom" -- the Choson dynasty -- -- and before the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, Pyongyang, then a provincial capital, was open and growing. The city served as a focal point for Western Protestant missionaries in Asia, prompting some to call it the "Jerusalem of the East." Although under unwelcome and often harsh Japanese occupation at the time, colonial rule also brought rapid changes, including industrialization and upgrades to transportation networks.

Here's a rare look inside Pyongyang at the time -- known then by its Japanese name, Heijo -- through pictures drawn from a number of collections housed at the University of Southern California's digital archives, including the Maryknoll Mission Archives. They provide a window into Pyongyang before the Kim era, and give us a glimpse of some of the forces that shaped the North Korea we know today.

Above, two men saw a wooden beam while others work in the background.


A view of the Eastern Gate of Pyongyang's original walled city, also known as the Taedong Gate due to its location on the banks of the Taedong river. Today, visitors to the Hermit Kingdom still make officials stops at the Eastern Gate, which is considered a national treasure and has remained a fixture since it was first constructed in the sixth century. The present gate -- built in 1635 after its predecessor was burned down during 16th-century Japanese invasions -- is one of the oldest structures in the capital city and, according to Lonely Planet, serves as a "reminder that Pyongyang was once a traditional Asian city rather than the post-Soviet monolith it is today."


A Pyongyang street scene. The city's population surpassed 200,000 under Japanese colonial rule as it began to industrialize and morph into a provincial capital. It was not until after the Korean War (1950-1953) that Pyongyang was built into the city we know today, with wide boulevards and imposing monuments.


Two men sit atop "anchor stones" in fields outside Pyongyang. According to the original caption for the image, Korean folklore holds that Pyongyang is a boat floating in the waters of the Taedong and Potong rivers; some interpretations claim the two great stones moored the city, preventing it from floating away, while others maintain that the monoliths served as masts for the "floating island city."


A street vendor sells goods on a busy Pyongyang sidewalk.


A postcard printed with Japanese names depicts two women standing at the Chongryu Pavilion, located on the Chongryu cliffs overlooking the Taedong river. The cliffs -- said to look like they were "created by a single stroke of a gigantic sword" -- occupy a storied place in the capital city's folklore. One tale has them originating with the wish of a young farmer: The boy saves a carp that grants him one wish, which he uses to change the flow of the Taedong so that it will no longer flood the village's farms.


A man catches fish on a frozen river. Trout soup from the Taedong river is a typical Pyongyang dish, and ice fishing from frozen rivers during Korea's cold winter remains popular today. South Korea even holds an annual ice-fishing festival.


A man rides a donkey in front of a barren landscape and wears a traditional Korean hat called a gat. Typically made from horsehair and bamboo, these hats date from the Choson dynasty before the Japanese occupation and were traditionally worn to signify rank.


Two young boys play in front of a schoolhouse. The Japanese used education to erase Korean national identity in the latter part of their occupation; the Korean language was banned from schools and citizens were required to use Japanese names.


Men gather under the Seven Star Gate, or Chilsong Gate. The name refers to the Big Dipper constellation, which points to the North Star -- signifying the gate's northern orientation. In the early 20th century, parts of the ancient city were razed to make way for electric-car lines, but many of the gates were preserved as historical monuments. Chilsong Gate is still standing today in Moran Hill Park in Pyongyang. The shots that marked the start of land-based battles in the Russo-Japanese War were fired from the top of this gate.


A man dines on a traditional Korean meal, composed of small dishes and rice. Prior to the Japanese occupation, the peninsula was divided into administrative provinces that largely retained regional cuisines. Today, the food around Pyongyang consists of grains and meat dishes designed for enduring the country's notoriously harsh winters. Food shortages are common in the Hermit Kingdom due to mismanagement and a lack of arable land.


Farmers sit in a field with their team of oxen. Under colonial rule, North Korea's agriculture production was directed toward supporting Japan's food supply. Today, the country -- which is less than 25 percent arable land -- depends on farming for much of its food supply. Members of the North Korean army are even required to serve as farmers. According to one defected soldier, "North Korea can't farm without the army.… The North Korean army's main job is malnutrition eradication."


Three young girls play on the steps of a building. At the turn of the 20th century, Christian missionaries opened girls' schools, granting Korean women access to modern education for the first time. When the Korean Peninsula split in 1945, the North applied communist principles of gender equality, placing a particular emphasis on the participation of women in economic production -- an approach that is still taken today.


A scene capturing the striking natural landscape around Pyongyang. Over 80 percent of the country is covered in mountains, which play a prominent role in North Korea's past and present political mythology. Kim Il Sung is believed to have organized his resistance against the Japanese from atop a mountain on the border with China, while Kim Jong Il is said to have been born on the same mountain. The country's isolation and lack of development have left many of these peaks largely unexplored, prompting Lonely Planet to extol the untouched beauty of the North's "vast tracts of virgin forest, abundant wildlife, lonely granite crags, fresh springs, gushing streams and dramatic waterfalls."


A young girl stands with a baby strapped on her back.


A woman works at a textile loom. Then and now, North Korea's economy has relied heavily on its textile industry, which is responsible for one of the country's primary exports. Like many industries, it has suffered as a result of the country's isolation; the European Community, for example, has strict quotas and bans on the importation of North Korean textiles.


A man walks along a Pyongyang sidewalk.

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