What is shown in this Korean picture post card?


A question for the detectives among us. For some time I have had this image in my possession. It is the picture side of a Korean postal card. The card itself may not seem very interesting from a philatelic point of view and the seller didn’t ask much for it (I think 1500 won, just over 1 EUR), but this card shows something which makes this photo very interesting to me.

The picture post card as offered on Kobay (Korean auction website).

Unfortunately, despite the low price I forgot to bid on the item on Kobay at the time, so this picture is all I can show. The photo was taken at the 산방굴사, a mountain temple on the island of Jeju (Cheju). The image looks to the south (south west), and shows the south-western tip of the island in the distance. To get an idea of what the area looks like, this Korean language blog shows the exact same view today as the first photo. If you scroll down you can also see the rest of the area, including a peninsula in the distance.

Enlarged part of the picture. The small image is (relative to the enlargement) the same size. This gives an idea what AI can do. It may not be perfect, but using a graphics editor to enlarge an image would have created an image with a much lower quality.

We know the location, that part was easy. Now please have a look at the men in the photo. They are clearly wearing military uniforms, three different types actually. Since several of our members were in the military for years, I wonder: does anybody recognize any of these uniforms? I have created an enlargement of the relevant area using a new type of AI. The result is quite good, notice the difference in size at 4x enlargement, but some things may be a bit overdone.

Obviously there is a point at which this trick doesn’t work any longer and it seems this is pretty much the maximum size the software can usefully enlarge the original image.

Oh, and that thing which makes this photo so particularly interesting to me? Well, the thing about this card is that I happen to have a family connection to the area shown in the card. That south-western tip, the peninsula in the distance, actually is the area (모슬포/대정읍) where my mother-in-law’s family still lives up to this very day. I even own the original (Japanese era) document showing my mother-in-law’s grandfather buying the farm land her father is still(!) working today, complete with the (Japanese) revenue stamp attached to it. But that document is for another day.

So, for now: what can we learn from this photo? Please leave your ideas in the comments below.

Ivo Spanjersberg
Currently KSS Publisher/Webmaster, previously KSS Chairman (2018-2019). Living in Amsterdam. I collect Korean revenue stamps, see my website:

5 thoughts on “What is shown in this Korean picture post card?

  1. The person in the center is not in any type uniform, indeed appears to have breasts and may be a female. The person on the left may be in a uniform that I don’t recognize but resembles a cavalryman’s dress or the Imperial Japanese Army. The uniformed person on the right has a confrontational stance, or of a person providing answers to the questions of the person in the center.
    I would be surprised if the picture is as late as the 60s. The image I see is of a woman of some international repute, perhaps an academic, being escorted by a Japanese Imperial Army officer, asking questions of a guard/sentry. The guard/sentry is in a position of attention, that makes me see the person on the left as an officer. In my mind more likely a picture from the 30s (or earlier)
    Second thoughts:
    The above was my initial impression of the image, however the closeups make me rethink the gender of the center figure. The “breasts” are rather oddly shaped. Note what appears to be a respiratory mask dropped so the person could speak easily and the person on the right that I took to be a soldier in a great coat is more likely attired in temple/shrine garb. Other than that I stick with my original scenario – an escorted tourist questioning an attendant.

    1. The “breasts” are perhaps a breast pocket?

      You also emailed me two other thoughts:
      “I don’t suppose there are any ancients in the village from the pre-WWII era that might remember matters (perhaps in the village archives there would be mentions) of an observation post in that location.”
      That’s an inspired idea! I think you are actually correct about that observation post. Jeju (Cheju) was indeed heavily militarized, especially towards the end. And in that same area as this cave there was a military airfield. So you are probably right.

      “During the Korean War we had a massive POW camp(s) on an island I remember as Cheju-do. Is this the same island?”
      I think you mean Koje-do. Jeju did have a few prison camps for “unreliable elements” (read: anyone thought to be sympathetic to the communists), but unfortunately these were “cleared out” (you can imagine what happened) at the start of the war because Rhee Syngman wanted to have a sort of Taiwan option for himself.

    1. It is a photo, which was colorized. Then the colorized version was used to create a print run. The reason why the people look like a drawing is because of the software (some form of AI) I used to enlarge the low-resolution image. It is an optical effect.

      The problem with the colorization is that we have no way to know for sure that the uniforms were colorized correctly.

  2. If this is a photo, we can try to get some ideas from its background. If this is a pre-war card, then we can compare the dress with old Japanese military uniforms. If this is a card of 1960s or 1970s, I may guess they are just old fashioned dresses.

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