Window into 1950s North Korea

H.E. Jaroslav Olša, Jr. Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Republic of Korea

SEOUL, February 18, 2014 - H.E. Jaroslav Olša, Jr. Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Republic of Korea since 2008, gave a lecture called "Window Into 1950s North Korea: Czechoslovak-North Korean Relations in the times of intensive cooperation and how the Czechoslovaks saw the North.”

Ambassador Olša started his presentation with an overview of contacts between Czechs and Koreans prior to the Korean war. He explained that the beginning of relations between began in 1901 when Czech traveller Enrique Stankov Vráz made numerous photographs in Korea 150 slides exist from this early encounter, but were not made public in Korea until 2011. The second encounter of note was afrter World War 1. At this time, the Czechs and Slovaks were fighting the Bolshevik forces in Russan, and to reach Europe took them on a long journey through Siberia up to Vladivostok on Korean border. However, the 60,000-strong Czechoslovak Legion did not want to také their arms back to Europe, so they gave or sold it to the Korean independence fighters in Manchuria. Ambassador Olša stated that the reason for the Czechs´ and Slovaks´ interest in helpingKoreans was a “feeling of togetherness,” since the Czechs and Slovaks had just a few months back gained their independence and empathized with theKoreans who only a few years back lost theirs.

During the 1920s and 1930s a number of Czech-language books were being published in then Czechoslovakia. A small number of Czechoslovak nationals visited Korea in the 1920s-30s, and even less Koreans visited Prague as well. Alas, as early as in 1943, a regular language courses of Korean started in Prague, led by Korean Han Heung-su.

In 1948, due to the communist coup, Czechoslovakia became a close ally of the Soviet Union and was the third country to recognize North Korea as an indpendent country and established the diplomatic relations with them. When the Korean War broke out, the Czechoslovak communist government became one of the North’s earliest and most avid supporters. Czechoslovakia provided humanitarian aid and development cooperation in the form of clothes and machines, building hospitals, receiving North Korean orphans and students, but not delivering arms and weapons. Czechoslovakia was the third largest donor to North Korea, behind China and the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. They were able to use their early experiences in N. Korea as a guide for offering development projects to other parts of the world since the late 1950s.

The fraternal communist tiesalso led to the production of cultural propaganda directed towards Czechoslovak citizens., There were books filled with anti-American and pro-North Korea poems published, theatres were producing North Korean plays and there was even a musical film created titled, Tomorrow People Will Be Dancing Everywhere, staring a Korean actress and dancer .

When the Korean war ended, Czechoslovakia became a part of four-country Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which was created to guard the peace on Korean Peninsula. To fulfill its aim, not less than 300 Czechs and Slovaks were sent to serve in Panmunjeom. Their knowledge was very limited and they soon found that the image of Korea, they had while reading such books as Younghill Kang´s The Grass Roof, set at late Joseon countryside, was in stark contrast with post-war reality. Ambassador Olša said, that it was not an easy task, but as Czechs and Slovaks are curious people and they wanted to show how they saw Korea to their families and friends back home. Owing to his country’s economic strength and the affluence of the middle class already in the 1930s, most Czechoslovak families owned cameras, thereby allowing the soldiers for the documentation of their Korean trip during this remarkable period. With limited availability of photos from 1950s North Korea, the photos from places such as Gaesong, Pyongyang, Manpo, Sinuiju and Cheongjin, which Ambassador Olša showed during his presentation, are both rare and valuable historical source.

The whole collection oh photos was created a few years back. When Ambassador Olša was designated Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, he decided to pursue the project of delving into the history of this early 1950s Czechoslovak contact with the Korean Peninsula. After two years of work, some 5,000 photos were recovered from that time, around half of them were taken in North Korea. Since Czech and Slovak members of Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission could easily purchase high quality films at US PX shops and – in the same moment - could move around the North fairly freely, these collected photographs offer a rare look into the historical relationship between these two countries, from the extent of the damage to North Korea before the arrival of the Czechs, to the relief provided by the humanitarian and developmental aid, to their daily lives and how their traditional customs began mixing with more modern ones.

Contributing writer: Matthew Fennell