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Hungarian surgeon's photos capture dying days of Joseon era

Among Korean men dressed in white traditional garments and women covered with pale green cloak-shaped headgear, Japanese walk in geta, traditional Japanese wooden sandals. Brand new Japanese and German-style houses stand out amid aged Korean homes. These were what Hungarian doctor Dezso Bozoky photographed in 1908 when Korea was undergoing modernization under pressure from Japan, just two years before the country was formally annexed by Japan.

As a medical officer, Dezso Bozoky traveled around East Asia, sailing the navy cruiser Franz Joseph I for 26 months from 1907 to 1909 with his camera at hand almost everywhere he went. He traveled to Korea in 1908, visiting three cities and an island: Jemulpo (now Incheon), Seoul, Port Hamilton (now Geomundo, South Jeolla Province) and Busan.

Some 50 photographs taken by Bozoky are on exhibition at the Seoul Museum of History as part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of ties between South Korea and Hungary, the first Eastern European country to establish ties with South Korea on Feb. 1, 1989. 

Street of Japanese-style houses in Jemulpo (Seoul Museum of History)
Street of Japanese-style houses in Jemulpo (Seoul Museum of History)

In the summer of 1908 just after visiting China, Bozoky and fellow officers anchored at the port of Jemulpo, where he spent several days. Jemulpo was open to foreign vessels in the late Joseon era and considered a symbolic site where modernization began. Photographs taken at Jemulpo include a residential area full of Japanese and German-style buildings. Bozoky is known to have enjoyed looking down at cities from nearby hills, as he was interested in the layouts of towns, according to Seoul Museum of History.

Bozoky traveled to Seoul for one day and looked around the palace Gyeongbokgung, Bosingak belfry and Pagoda Park. At Gyeongbokgung, Bozoky wrote in his journal, “Japanese diplomats in European hats and saloon jackets are managing the country’s fate … the area around the lotus lake is slowly being overtaken by the weed which reminds me of death.”

“The photographs taken by Bozoky show how confused Korea was as Joseon was on the brink of collapse before colonization,” said Lee Jae-kyung, the curator in charge of the exhibition. “Bozoky seems to have felt some pity for Joseon’s fate and had some affection to people of the time.” 

Seoul scenery viewed from Namsan (Seoul Museum of History)
Seoul scenery viewed from Namsan (Seoul Museum of History)

Bozoky’s final stop was Port Hamilton and Busan in the southern parts of Korea. Upon his arrival at Port Hamilton, Koreans who encountered the naval surgeon soon asked him to examine them. Because the island was far from the mainland, people at Port Hamilton had little chance to see a doctor. A photo of people on boats shows what the situation was like when Bozoky encountered the patients.

Visiting Busan, he captured a seashore where a railroad was laid in 1905 to link Busan and Seoul.

After traveling Korea, Bozoky and his crew sailed to Japan.

Bozoky donated the photo albums and journals to the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts in Budapest in Hungary before he died in 1957

The exhibition runs until Dec. 1.

By Park Yuna (