Korea’s modern history as seen through NARA photos

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Korea’s modern history as seen through NARA photos


The G-2 Myitkyina Task Force of the U.S. army questions three Korean sex slaves or “comfort women” who were liberated from Myitkyina in Myanmar at the end of the war.

Being a subject of Japan’s 36-year-colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula meant leading a life of shrunken possibilities in all realms: Social, political and economic.

The grim faces of Korean athletes accepting medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics offered a glimpse into the oppressed lives of the colonized.

Sohn Kee-chung was forced to run the marathon under a Japanese name, Son Kitei.


Left: Lee Bong-chang, a 32-year-old independence activist, threw a bomb at a carriage containing Dr. Kitokuro Ikki, Imperial Household Minister, preceding the Imperial Carriage carrying Emperor Hirohito from the Yoyogi Parade Ground in Tokyo after attending the New Year Military Review. The incident occurred at 11:48 A.M. on January 8, 1932. Photo shows officials of the Metropolitan Police Board inspecting the spot where the bomb went off. Right: A photo showing corpses of Korean women massacred by the Imperial Japanese Army. No date or location of the site were provided.

Nam Sung-yong raced under the name Nan Shoryu. They had Japanese flags sewn onto their uniforms. After Sohn won gold and Nam won bronze, Japanese media outlets praised their victory and called it a victory for Imperial Japan.

But when they mounted the blocks to accept their medals from German Chancellor Adolf Hitler - with the Japanese national anthem playing in the background - their faces remained stern and they bowed their heads as if in shame.

Reporting on the two runners’ victories, newspapers back home altered the images of their uniforms to remove the flags, immediately prompting retribution by the Japanese authorities.

The nature of Japan’s rule was repression and discrimination against Koreans. Imperial Japan did not grant Koreans political rights, freedom of assembly or speech; they were forced to adopt Japanese names and only speak Japanese in schools. Their goal was to dissolve the national consciousness.


Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Sung-yong, winners of gold and bronze in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, walk to the winners’ blocks to accept their medals with Japanese flags sewn on their uniforms.

In a bid to justify iron-fisted colonial rule, Japan attempted to instill a notion that Korea’s history and culture were inferior to Japan’s, had been idle for centuries and were in need of being improved upon by its overlord.

Koreans fought colonial rule with different methods. Some said the nation must boost its economy and adapt to Western culture to achieve independence, while others joined an armed struggle for independence.

BY BAE YOUNG-DAE, KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

*Ko Ji-hoon, a researcher at the National Institute of Korean History, contributed to this article.
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