Once upon a time a king consulted geomancers to find the best place to locate the tomb of his beloved wife. The first one he asked recommended a place that, when he went to inspect it, seemed to him very inappropriate. So when he went to look at the suggestion of the second geomancer he was wary. He told officers in his retinue that he would climb the mountain alone to check it out. If they saw him wave his white handkerchief it would mean that he was displeased with the proposed site, and they should immediately kill the geomancer.
He set out to walk to the site. It was a hot day but when he arrived he was very impressed and saw immediately that it was suitable. Before returning to announce that he agreed with the choice he paused to mop his brow with his handkerchief. The watching officials saw the flash of white and promptly killed the geomancer. When the king arrived back he was horrified and exclaimed ‘Oh my, what have you done?’
Today the mountain he climbed is named Acha, which translates as Oh My mountain. It looks down on the tomb of the king, Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty. Next to it is the one which contains his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk.
Traces of the past in North Korea
The People’s Republic of North Korea was established in 1945 so it is a relatively new country. For the most part it takes little interest in its own past much before that date. For most North Koreans, history pretty much starts during the Second World, when their beloved Kim Il Sung heroically led the fight to defeat the occupying Japanese.
Furthermore, most traces of that past were wiped away when the North was bombarded by the US, the main ally of the South, during the Korean War. Only in the southern part of the country, around Kaesong, do significant historic sites remain. That city was part of South Korea from 1945 to 1950 until the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement brought it under North Korean control. Because it didn’t become part of the DPRK until after the war it was spared the heavy bombing inflicted on the country by US and South Korean forces, and thus more of its historical sites survived – in contrast to Pyongyang, for instance, which was so badly destroyed that today’s city was almost entirely built after 1953.
Today let me take you to this little slice of Korea’s past.
This tomb is considered one of the best preserved Koryo Dynasty tombs left in the country. Many have been so ‘restored’ that most of their character has been lost, but not this one. It was a stiff climb up steep stone steps to reach the tombs but worth it. The air was cooler and fresher than we had been having in Pyongyang, there was the scent of pines in the air, and the tombs themselves were interesting to see.
King Kongmin was buried in the left-hand burial mound and his wife Queen Noguk in the right-hand one. Each mound sits on a carved granite base and is surrounded by statues of sheep and tigers. These are said to symbolise either fierceness and gentleness, for the king and queen, or sometimes Korea and Mongolia.
The tombs are guarded by rows of stone figures – military officers on the lower level, Confucian advisers on the upper. The mounds were unfortunately looted by the Japanese in 1905 and are empty.
A peep inside
The following day in Kaesong itself we visited the Koryo History Museum. Among many other interesting exhibits, which I’ll save for a future post, we saw a reconstruction of the interior of King Kongmin’s tomb. We were told that the small rectangular hole visible in my righthand photo below was to enable the king and queen to communicate with each other between their adjacent tombs.
Replica of the tomb at the Koryo History Museum
I’m sharing this glimpse into North Korea’s rarely told past for Becky’s Past Squares theme.
I visited North Korea in 2019