Eumseong Middle School students in 1976 diligently copying from their textbooks. Today, the ink bottles have disappeared and the desks are nicer but only minor gains have been made in demanding a more in-depth understanding of subject matter. Photo: Tom Coyner

In August 1975, American Tom Coyner arrived in South Korea as a US Peace Corps volunteer. He was assigned primarily to work in the schools of Eumseong and Okcheon, in the center of the country, for a two-year period, teaching English-language methodologies.

A keen photographer during his stay, he took mostly photographic slides of many of his experiences in the countryside as well as in Seoul. 

Coyner stayed on for another two years in Korea after his Peace Corps duties ended, working at an American bank in Seoul, before spending a decade in the US and another decade in Japan. He and his Korean wife returned to Korea and retired in the country 20 years ago.  

The photos below depict the South Korea of 45 years prior. That’s not a long span of time for many countries, but for a nation where change has come so incredibly fast, it is.

In the mid-1970s, South Korea was a gritty, poverty-racked, unsophisticated nation that was one decade into an industrialization program that would lead to riches. Millennial South Korea is a G11 nation, home to a high-tech infrastructure, global brands, a famed popular culture and a populace among whom poverty has been largely eradicated.

As a result of these sweeping changes, much of what was photographed below no longer exists. 

A coffin maker delivers his product to a funeral in the town of Jinju. Photo: Tom Coyner

With urbanization, changes in dying as well as living have been noticeable. Families are increasingly less inclined to search and procure grave sites in the hills and mountain slopes or in cemeteries.  Land has become too expensive and the maintenance costs in time and money have become concerns. Today cremation has become commonplace and some 40 years ago, the practice was almost unheard of, save for very devout Buddhists in the world’s most Confucian nation. Modern practicalities have trumped long-held traditions.

The once ubiquitous ‘rear car pull cart is a survivor of the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial occupation. Photo: Tom Coyner

These all-purpose vehicles often moved fertilizer and other farm supplies, as in this case in 1975 Eumseong. They were also the vehicle of first choice for almost everything else in the towns and even the cities. While largely replaced by small delivery trucks, one can still, very occasionally, see these carts to this day being used for back-alley garbage or re-cycling collection. 

A landmark at Seoul’s downtown Gwanghwamun intersection was the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper posting that day’s edition on a signboard – here being read, for free, by four men. Photo: Tom Coyner

Since this 1977 photo, the newspaper’s building has been massively upgraded with a modern structure and its readers today get a free peek via the internet. South Korea’s newspapers face the same challenges of newspapers in other countries, yet the country still has one of the world’s highest numbers of newspapers per capita.

Unlike today when a South Korean movie can win the Best Picture Oscar, 40 years ago South Korea’s cinema industry was of poor quality.  Photo: Tom Coyner

Theatre owners made their money on foreign films that appeared in Korea six months or so after their overseas release. However, a quota system required two domestic films to be shown for each foreign film. 

As a result, cinema companies cranked out cheap, low-quality films to meet the quota to be able to distribute more profitable foreign movies – such as here, where “The Deer Hunter” and a Hong Kong kungfu flick are being shown. 

Going to the movies was a very popular activity given the low quality of TV and limited ownership of sets. At a time when Koreans could not travel abroad, many people’s first exposure to the outside world was on screen. 

Korea today boasts high-tech, luxury cineplexes but has, alas, lost the skilled artists who quickly whipped out hand-painted, bespoke billboards for the movie houses.

In the 1970s countryside, entertainment was not so readily available – so, it was exciting when a traveling show of one sort of another came to town. Photo: Tom Coyner

These women are having a sneak peek at an upcoming performance. The older woman is wearing a traditional hanbok dress with rubber gomu shin shoes, which was standard dress for almost all occasions for her generation. The younger woman in front is wearing an ankle-length one-piece that was worn as a common dress. Today, both garments have been largely replaced with various cuts of blue jeans, blouses and athletic shoes.

Forty years ago, weekly country markets were major social and commercial events, offering local older people the opportunity to dress up in their finest. Photo: Tom Coyner

As respected elders, they socialized amongst themselves while casually appraising local society. This man is wearing a particularly fine hanbok robe. Today, it is a relatively rare to see men of any age  wearing traditional clothing. However, there has been a recent trend of couples hiring faux, polyester hanboks to take selfies in and around Seoul’s restored medieval palaces.

A younger, and less dapper, male of the day. Normally, no hard-working fishmonger will readily step away from his stall to pose with his fare – a pair of dogfish or small sharks – like this. Photo: Tom Coyner

In 1979, in Seoul’s Namdaemun Market, in order to get his picture, I lied to him, telling him I was taking photos for a famous magazine. He gallantly posed, and thanks to Asia Times, I’m redeemed as an honest photographer – a mere four decades later.

Some things never change, such as the demand for fresh and attractive fruit, which forms a typical Korean dessert. Photo: Tom Coyner

However, unlike today, fruit was enjoyed exclusively in-season only.  This cheery lady at a traveling market visiting Eumseong, proudly displays last season’s apples and the current season’s strawberries. This photograph must have been taken in early May during the brief window when both fruits were available.

At Cheongju public market in 1975, a pickled radish vendor makes a living the hard way. Photo: Tom Coyner

We still can find such older women to this day selling goods on sidewalks in certain places throughout Korea, but markets composed predominantly of struggling locals have largely disappeared. Today’s markets – like other retail outlets – are brighter, better equipped and more prosperous places.

In the 1970s Korean men often carried terrific loads on their ‘A-frames.’ Photo: Tom Coyner

Although they have largely disappeared, they can occasionally be spotted in traditional market districts, where they are used to carry goods for short distances.  The most common form of heating was by charcoal briquettes – which as being hefted by the man in the photograph near Seoul’s Jahamun Tunnel.

Briquettes were notorious for their carbon monoxide toxicity that annually dispatched more than a few people who never woke up from their heated floors. Eventually, heating systems switched over to safer piped hot water systems – which also obviated the smog which hung over Korean urban spaces in winter.  

Another ‘A-frame’ in action, this time on a gravel road that led from Eumseong’s town center towards the Girls Middle School and beyond. Photo: Tom Coyner

Today, it is replaced by a four-lane road. Needless to say, there is virtually no pedestrian traffic on this route anymore.  In the background is a woman balancing a small load on her head – another practice that has almost entirely disappeared today, but was common 40 years ago.

When this image was taken in November 1975, the roles of oxen had already started to disappear, though these rural power trains would continue to lumber on rural roads through the 1980s. Photo: Tom Coyner

For generations prior, they had been multipurpose beasts of burden whose ultimate destination was to end up as beef of a particularly stringy variety – a result of their years pulling ploughs. Such beef could present gum pains to rustic diners. Today, the tired old oxen have disappeared, replaced by small tractors and chunkier beef cattle. 

T0 see more of Tom Coyner’s work from the 1970s, please click here.

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