The Coolest Old Photos of Korea from Joseon to the Korean War


This post will show you how Korea looked during different time periods.

The photographs are categorized by Joseon Dynasty, Japanese occupation and Korean War.

Let’s check them out!

The Coolest Old Photos of Korea from Joseon to the Korean War

Korea has had a busy hundred plus years.

It’s transitioned from feudalism, being colonized, division, war, dictatorship, bankruptcy to democracy since 1890. All while going from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in the world with dominant pop culture and technology.

Korea has seen it all. There aren’t many countries that have changed this much in such a short time.

These photos capture some of these changes.

Korea during Joseon 1890-1910

Daily Life

Daily life in Korea hardly changed at all for hundreds of years under the Neo-Confucianist ideals of the Joseon Dynasty.

There were four main classes in ascending order of status, Cheonmin (outsiders), Sangmin (commoners), Chungin (middle class) and Yangban (nobility).

80% of society fell under the Sangmin category. They consisted of peasants, artisans, fisherman and merchants who paid taxes, served in the army and performed statute labor(intermittent and unpaid) for public works.

The Yangban who made up 10% of the population ruled society, didn’t pay taxes and weren’t exactly beloved by other classes.

Chungin were a small but vital part of Korea and consisted of skilled labor.

Cheonmin was the lowest class that included slaves, butchers, ditchdiggers and Gisaeng (female entertainers).

The pictures below include members from each of these classes.

women washing clothes outside

Women doing laundry in the countryside. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

yeontan delivery men

Jangjak (firewood) sellers. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

general cart

Former general rolls around in style. Not sure why he uses a wheel, but it might be to make it easier for his attendants. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

woman doing laundry

Woman most likely carrying water in the countryside. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

man being punished

Man being punished by government officials. The device is meant to make one kneel in a bowing position as penance. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Men winnowing barley in streets of Chemulpo

Happy men milling barley on the streets of Chemulpo (present day Incheon). Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

Opening of railroad by Japanese

Groundbreaking ceremony for Japanese Keijō–Fuzan railway in Korea. Even before colonizing Korea, the Japanese government was gradually stepping up their influence in Korea. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

pottery carrying mountain men near Seoul

Mountain men sell pottery on a road outside of Seoul. Photo by Unknown

public school children who misbehaved

Disobedient children being educated. Not sure why the girl is behind bars in the lower left corner, but it must have been something serious. Not all of these children were naughty, some probably couldn’t pay their tuition and were punished in this way. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

royal tombs and yangban

Yangbang and their attendants in the countryside. Photo by Unknown

rural road near Seoul

Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

School children and teachers

Educators and their students. Photo by Unknown

shoe market seoul

Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

tiger hunters outside Seoul

Tiger hunters outside of Seoul. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

smoking gambling gossiping

Women relaxing while smoking and gambling. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

view of Seoul

A view from a wall in Seoul. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

Hay carrier

Photo by Unkown

Gisaeng and entourage

This woman is most likely a Gisaeng or entertainer not unlike Geisha in Japan. They were also known as accomplished poets. Photo by Unknown

Han river lodging town near Seoul

Port settlement on the Han River known as Yong Sung. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

Horse getting shoed at the blacksmith

Blacksmith taking the highest precautions while shoeing a horse. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

Japanese official for Imperial Department of communications

Government ministers. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

Korean girls testing Short Drop parachute design

Some things never change. Women trying out a new form of sun blocker. Photo by Unknown

marble pagoda from China

Stone pagoda gifted from China. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

orphanage for blind and destitute

Orphanage for the blind and destitute. Photo by Unknown

electric trolley at west gate of seoul

The first electric trolley car in Seoul going through the West Gate, which was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. Photo by Unknown

yangban seesaw

Women enjoying a traditional Korean seesaw (널뛰기). Photo by Unknown

road to beijing outside seoul

Men peddling firewood. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Korean archery

Yangbang archers. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

old Busan

A road in old Busan. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Royal Family

Korean Empress

One of the last known photographs of the Empress Myeong Seong (명성황후). Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Korean emperor in uniform of a Korean General

One of the last known photographs of the Emperor Yung Hui or Sunjong (순종) dressed as a Korean general. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

royal gisaeng

Royal Court Gisaeng. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

empress servant

One of the Royal Guards to the Empress. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

General prince Min Yung Huan Commander in Chief of Korean Army Seoul

General prince Min Yun Huan Commander in Chief of Korean Army Seoul. Photo by Unknown

Korean minister of war

Korean Minister of War. Photo by Unknown

queen's funeral

The funeral of Empress Myeong Seong. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Korea during Japanese Occupation 1910-1927

Daily Life

posts on road carved to prevent evil spirits from passing

Totems meant to repel demons on a road outside of Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Koreans praying to shamanistic gods

More shamanistic totems that people prayed to. Photo by Herbert G. Ponting

engaged boy

Noble boy engaged to be married. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Buddhist monk

Buddhist monk. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Family

Noble family. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

French nun Converts

French nun and her converts. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George Grantham Bain Collection

Government buildings in Seoul

Government buildings in Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

government post Seoul

Government buildings in Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Ironing

Women ironing clothes by beating them. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

itos house

Ito’s House. An old Japanese Legation building on Namsan in Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Mother daughter

Mother and daughter. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Olderman

Old nobleman. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

sedan chair Korea

Lady riding a sedan chair and her attendants. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Playing Goban

Couple playing Baduk or Go (바둑). Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

railway station Korea

One of the first railway stations in Korea. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

seoul YMCA building

Seoul Y.M.C.A. building built in 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

streetcar Seoul

Electric trolley car in Seoul up close. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

telephone booth seoul

An old telephone booth in Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

TempleofHeavenSeoul 1925

The Temple of Heaven in Seoul. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Yangban

Yangban riding a rickshaw. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

YMCA boys

Y.M.C.A. boys. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

welcoming committee

Not Korea but Los Angeles, California. Korean National Association members celebrate Korean independence day in the 1930s. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Korea during the Korean War 1950-1953

artillery

Heavy artillery. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

best friends

Brothers in arms. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

heavy ordinance

Some serious ordinance. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

housing

How life was like for Koreans during the war. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

living conditions

A refugee camp. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

refugees

Soldiers boarding a train and some local children selling things. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

rickshaw ride

Rickshaw ride. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

seoul area command

Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

shoveling snow

Doing the tough jobs in winter. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

siteseeing

Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

soldiers in arms

Soldiers relax during a moment of calm. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

train ride

Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

vegetable sellers

Local children selling food. Courtesy of Redditor Azurmyst

Learning Korean

Guided conversation is the fastest way to get fluent in Korean. Pimsleur takes you from 0 to conversational in 90 days. You can try the full Pimsleur course free for 7-days here.  

Let’s Hear from You!

Korea has undergone impressive changes in the last century.

Now we want to hear from you.

Let us know your favorite photographs in the comments!

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this article that provide us a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only endorse the best language learning tools we use ourselves. Find out more about our code of ethics.

Leave a Comment