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Book review: Chris Springer — North Korea Caught in Time

North Korea Caught in TimeChris Springer: North Korea Caught in Time – Images of War and Reconstruction
with introductory essay by Balázs Szalontai.
Garnet Publishing, 2010 (148pp)

In the English-speaking world, the story of the Korean war and its aftermath, if told at all, is told first from the perspective of the US and UN combatants that came to South Korea’s aid. Sometimes, we hear the perspective of the South Koreans – for example in Paik Sun-yup’s highly readable account of the war, From Pusan to Panmunjom. What we hear of the North Korean viewpoint is limited largely to what the North Koreans want us to hear, and most of that is tiresome twaddle.

Kim Il-sung provides on-the-spot guidance to the Wonsong Department Store
So, where are the glasses? Kim Il-sung provides on-the-spot guidance to the Wonsong Department Store

North Korea has carefully controlled the images that it has released. Those images shared with its fraternal communist nations were designed “to illustrate the devastation wreaked upon North Korea [by American bombing], the indomitability of its people, and the resilience of the socialist system,” says Chris Springer in his introduction to this fascinating collection from the archives of one fraternal communist nation, Hungary. The collection is also accompanied by an essay from a Hungarian diplomat, drawing extensively on contemporary materials.

South Koreans greeting a Northern tank
A staged photograph of South Koreans greeting a Northern tank

There are plenty of images here to support the picture that North Koreans suffered huge losses during the war. We have known for a while that the country was devastated by the war. Perhaps what is more interesting, given the impression that North Korean rhetoric never changes, is the evidence that we see of shifts in the rhetoric, or the literal airbrushing of certain people out of history. Kim Tu-bong, eminent linguist and, as chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly, effectively North Korea’s head of state, was present at the signing of the armistice which ended the 1950-53 hostilities, but he was erased from later official photographs of the occasion once he was purged in 1957. Similarly, posters of Stalin were removed from official photographs of the triumphant North Korean capture of Seoul in 1950.

Although many photographs are clearly staged, the collection captures well the devastation of the North Korean cities and countryside. The collection is sorted into five sections: War, Reconstruction, Politics, Agriculture & Industry and Culture & Education. This last section, though brief, has some particularly interesting images: a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Nikolai Gogol; an artist at work in his studio; and an early example of the Mass Games.

Mass Games
An early staging of the Mass Games in what is now Kim Il-sung stadium

Most of the pictures are “official” records, but a few are more informal snaps taken by Hungarian diplomats. Together with the informative captions, the collections makes for a fascinating record of North Korea in the 1950s.

Chris Springer will be showing some of the images from this book at SOAS on 13 May


Photo credits:

  • Hungarian National Museum
  • Ministry of Defense of Hungary, Military History Institute and Museum

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