02 December 2012

Hard truths about North Korea's unicorn lair

I SO wish (Gawker)
"North Korean archaeologists discover unicorn lair" is maybe the best lede ever. Yesterday this amazing press release from North Korea got splattered all over the interwebs: 
Pyongyang, November 29 (KCNA) -- Archaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences have recently reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668). The lair is located 200 meters from the Yongmyong Temple in Moran Hill in Pyongyang City. A rectangular rock carved with words "Unicorn Lair" stands in front of the lair. The carved words are believed to date back to the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392).
The 'unicorn' in this case is a Kirin, a chimera-like beast common to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythologies. The Kirin is right up therein the power rankings with dragons and phoenixes, and has a very decent beer named after it.
Maltier than your average unicorn
Like everything in North Korea, bad translation + opaque political posturing = wackiness. But as Sixiang Wang notes at sci-fi blog IO9:
The English release poorly translated the name of a historical location, Kiringul, as "Unicorn Lair," a very evocative name for Westerners. But in Korean history, the name Kiringul has a rather different significance. Kiringul is one of the sites associated with King Tongmyŏng, the founder of Koguryŏ, an ancient Korean kingdom. The thrust of the North Korean government's announcement is that it claims to have discovered Kiringul, and thus to have proven that Pyongyang is the modern site of the ancient capital of Koguryŏ.
The mausoleum of Tyongmong (Japan Focus
Koguryo is one of these kingdoms, like Troy, Camelot, or Israel, that is kind of legendary, kind of historical, and also key to national identity. The kingdom left archaeological traces from Manchuria (in China) through the Korean peninsula and has been claimed by all three countries. There are over 10,000 Koguryo tombs, many with cool wall paintings. In 2002, South Korea and China traded accusations about the theft of two of these murals from a tomb in North Korea. China and North Korea competed to claim Koguryo on the World Heritage List first, giving UNESCO a giant headache which it solved by putting the Chinese and North Korean sites on the list at the same time in 2004. Adding to the complication, some people think the (long extinct) Koguryo language might have been related to Japanese. The political machinations remind me a little of the struggle over Philip of Macedon's tomb at Vergina (Greece), which has variously been claimed as Greek, Macedonian, Albanian, or Bulgarian heritage.

The Kiringul 'Unicorn Lair' (via IO9)
North Korea, mind you, has a history of weirdo nationalist archaeology (which also suits South Korean nationalists) and of associating its rulers with magical powers. The fact that the 'lair' happens to be in Pyongyang strengthens North Korea's claims to be the inheritor of Korean history, and as Wang speculates in that IO9 article, its claims that Kim Jong Un is the latest in a line of superhuman rulers.
Moon and Sun dieties from a Koguryo tomb (Japan Focus)
The hard truth about the unicorn lair: it's more politics than cheerful insanity. I wish it was the other way around.

Read MOAR:

No, the North Korean government did not claim it found evidence of unicorns [IO9]
The contested heritage of Koguryo [Japan Focus]
North Korean archaeology of convenience [Far Outliers]

Post scriptum: I love that a science fiction blog has the web's best coverage of an archaeology story. For more on the connections between the two, read: Archaeology is Science Fiction. And don't miss:  more unicorn coverage on Archaeopop.


  1. Excuse me, but you heard explanation just from a Chinese person! There are still several critical mistranslations and misunderstandings (aside from misspellings) in this article :(

  2. I'm no expert on Korean archaeology, that's for sure. What did I get wrong? Feel free to set me straight, I'm sure readers would appreciate it.