Mungyeong Coal Mining Museum (South Korea)

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Long story short — after the end (well, technically not even that) of the Korean War in 1953 South Korea was a mess.  Cities were devastated and the economy was basically agrarian.  By the 1980’s the “Miracle on the Han” was underway, and South Korea was poised to become the global powerhouse that it is today.

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Of course, it wasn’t easy — far from it.  Even to this day many foreigners are amazed (maybe even appalled) at the long hours that most Koreans put in with their companies, universities, and schools.  Some older Koreans even scoff at the younger generation — “You only work five days a week?”  For a generation of Koreans who came of age in the 1960’s, life was tough.  While for most Westerners the life of a coal miner must look like hell, for older Koreans genuinely worried about basic things like food and shelter it was a “happy” life (if you believe the reproduction poster above).

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The mine itself is suitably dark and miserable, but the most interesting thing about the museum is the reproduction of a 1960’s Korean company town.  Here’s the barber and the bath, a necessity after an eight-hour shift under the ground.

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There are tons of great black-and-white shots of the mine when it was still in operation.

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There was no date given on this shot but it must be from the 1960’s or 1970’s.  In a country with very little electricity coal products were a necessity for heating and cooking.  Here, a guy is hammering coal dust into the shape of a Korean-style briquette which will fit into a portable heater or cooker.  Even today if you walk past a Korean restaurant that uses grills you’ll see the white briquettes that were cooked off the night before.  Heat, thankfully, comes from electricity these days.

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Matchboxes used to be a traditional housewarming gift.  These days, it’s tissue paper.

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One of mine entrances dotting the mountainside.

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At the company restaurant, two animatronic Koreans were drinking makkoli.  Good times.

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The mannequins were probably overdoing it a bit, but the old movie posters are fantastic.  According to a guide they’re authentic period pieces, not reproductions.

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Candy and gum dispenser at the company store.

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Inside the museum there were reproductions of company offices.  On the wall is a portrait of President Park Chung-hee.  Depending on who you ask, he’s either the brutal military dictator who persecuted and executed hundreds of South Korean democracy activists (current president Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, spent some time in a prison himself as a young, open-minded college student).  To others, he’s a hero who brought a booming economy and self-sufficiency to a country reeling from the body blows of the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).

His daughter, Park Geun-hye, was just elected the new president of South Korea.  (President Park’s father and mother were both assassinated.)

I think this is a great museum but honestly, it’s pretty far off the beaten track.  I visited with my boss and some Filipino exchange students, and it made up for part of a nice day-trip.  If you ever find yourself in the region it’s worth checking out.  It really brings home the huge sacrifices, and some of the small joys, that constituted the life of the South Korean working class before the major economic successes of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

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