Grassy mounds with stone sheep
DPRK,  History,  Squares

A rare glimpse of history in North Korea

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.

Stone statue and green mountain beyond
Stone Confucian adviser looks out at Acha Peak

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.

The tomb

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


        • Sarah Wilkie

          That’s good to hear – it’s one of the main reasons I post about these places, to introduce them to people who may not have the chance to travel there themselves. We read so much in the news about North Korea but it only really shows us one side of a very complex country.

          • Gradmama2011

            The only thing I knew about Korea was that my army husband was sent there for one year, stationed in the 38th parallel DMZ. He sent some photos.
            Also, when I was in high school the war in Korea claimed some of my classmates. My boyfriend, later husband, joined the army then but was sent to Germany…he served in Korea a few years later.

            I also dated an air force pilot who was a fighter pilot in Korea during the war–so although I have never been there, I did know people who were.

          • Sarah Wilkie

            So you have a connection to the country and its difficult recent history. The politics of the North in particular have been shaped by that history, as you can imagine. And of course the war technically never ended – there is an armistice but no victor (despite what the North claims). You might be interested in my post about the war museum in Pyongyang,, although do bear in mind that the museum presents the war 100% from the perspective of the North; there is no sense of balance as we might hope for in a war museum in our own countries.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      And I’ve not been to South Korea, although I’d like to do so one day, to compare. I would think there is much more of the country’s history left fairly intact there?

      • margaret21

        In response to your query, Sarah – it’s complicated. At one level, it’s true. You can get involved in historical sites at the drop of a hat in South Korea. But scratch the surface, and much of it is replica. Over the centuries, so many sites were despoiled by ongoing conflict with Japan, but were quickly rebuilt in exactly the same way once that particular war was over – sometimes several times. Towns like Gyeongju , with their undulating burial mounds, are rare. But there’s an increasing interest in archaeology, and their museums are fabulous, with well-interpreted collections. In short – they’re immensely proud of their past. It looks as though this might be true in North Korea too – though they have lost far more?

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Thank you Margaret, that’s all really interesting. In the North too there are many sites that are replicas. We were taken to this one in particular precisely because it’s a fairly rare example of a genuinely unspoiled site. As to whether they are proud of their history, I’m not so sure. In some ways yes – they like to show it off to tourists, certainly. But I think that’s mainly because they have realised that those tourists are interested, not because they are themselves. Places like the Secret Camp on Mount Paektu, with its emphasis on recent (i.e. Kim era) history, are visited by very many North Koreans, whereas here and at the history museum in Kaesong we saw none. But maybe they will come to value them???

          • margaret21

            Maybe. At bottom, they are the same people, non? At tourist sites, we definitely saw more Koreans than foreigners. And as it was the season of Chuseok, often wearing hanbok too. As it’s not a religious, but more a family festival, I presume they celebrate Chuseok in North Korea too?

          • Sarah Wilkie

            Yes, they celebrate Chuseok – they really love, and value, their public holidays. Many are related to their recent history – the birthdays of the Dear Leaders, Victory Day, National Day (which we were there for). But they do also celebrate the traditional Korean ones. They are attached to some of the earliest traditional myths too, such as the creation story of Mount Paektu – but the recent history of that region, as the base for Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla exploits, is overwhelmingly more important to them. And that’s the only tourist site outside the capital where we really saw many local visitors, although there were plenty of day-trippers in the mountains nearer Pyongyang (we were there on a Sunday).

  • maristravels

    What a lovely story. I love myths and legends like this, but who knows, it may even be a true story. i think you’ve probably seen and done more on your trip to Korea than most people. What you’ve given us so far in your Posts has been absolutely fascinating and I await the post dealing with the Koryo Museum with interest.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 😊 Yes, we did indeed see more than most people – we chose to do the longest tour available so we could properly see the country, or at least as much as foreigners are permitted to see!

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