The revisionist history of North Korea

From the recent past to ancient legends, North Koreans reconfigure history to suit themselves

Isaac Stone Fish and Adam Cathcart / Foreign Policy /

Published Jan 6, 2013 at 04:00AM

In early December, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's state wire service, provoked much online merriment when it reported that archaeologists had “reconfirmed” an ancient “unicorn lair” in the heart of Pyongyang. The discovery, “associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea,” the article claimed.

The legend in question has it that the king, who founded the powerful Koguryo kingdom in the third century A.D. and was a descendent of the creator of the world, rode a mythical beast. The Koguryo extended through northeastern China toward the Mongolian frontier and down the Korean peninsula south of Seoul; it was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Asia, and its later capital was in Pyongyang.

So was North Korea claiming that unicorns exist, as some mocking accounts put it? Nope. A Korea scholar quickly debunked that interpretation, explaining that “unicorn” was a mistranslation. The mythical beast was actually a kirin, a four-legged creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a tiger. And it turned out that the North Koreans weren't using the fanciful story to prove that the kirin actually existed. Instead, they were reinstating their claim on the king's birthplace, to remind their people and their neighbours that North Korea was once a great nation — and can be so again.

North Korea's relentlessly propagandistic state media often mentions how Tongmyong built a military powerhouse by unifying tribes throughout the peninsula, and has mentioned his 7th century successor, King Yeongyang, who slaughtered tens of thousands of Chinese troops instead of paying tribute to Beijing. North Korea is keen to portray Kim Jong Un as the inheritor of this legacy. In mid-December, KCNA called his successful rocket launch an event “to be specially recorded in the 5,000-year-long history of the nation.” A Jan. 8, 2012, propaganda documentary about Kim placed him in the tradition of Korean kings by describing his relationship to Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of both the Korean nation and Kim Jong Il. Two days after state media praised Kim Jong Un's horse-riding prowess, KCNA ran an article extolling ancient Koguryo traditions — of horsemanship.

Glorifying past kings is unsurprising in a country where leaders are worshipped like gods. In 1993, then President Kim Il Sung approved the reconstruction of King Tongmyong's tomb complex — a year before he himself was interred in a marble mausoleum in the heart of Pyongyang that cost an estimated $100 million to construct. The country is reportedly expanding former President Kim Jong Il's massive marble tomb so he can lie in state next to his favourite Italian yacht.

But North Korea also commemorates Koguryo to remind its neighbours that the past is just as important a battleground as the present. Apart from Pyongyang, the world's largest concentration of Koguryo tombs lies in that empire's former capital Ji'an, a city that now belongs to China. When Kim Jong Il passed through the area on his armored train in August 2010, he was allowed to stop in a nearby city to sample wine but couldn't stop in Ji'an, where the Chinese have been constructing a new museum to tell their story of the Koguryo — that it was always Chinese, not Korean. In November 2011, after a high-ranking Chinese delegation left Pyongyang, KCNA ran several articles about Chinese cowardice and malfeasance — in the 7th and 11th centuries.

And it's not just China: North Korea's historical beef with Japan goes well back into the 16th century, when samurai plundered the southern half of the Korean peninsula and invaded Pyongyang. The invasion comes up regularly in North Korean children's stories, popular documentaries and historical dramas, where it's portrayed (inaccurately) as a Korean victory despite Japanese savagery. Pyongyang reaches even further back in history for the Dokdos, a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan whose ownership it disputes with Japan and South Korea. In May, KCNA wrote about a “detailed report” put out by Kim Il Sung University proving that the “Koguryo expanded its territory” to a nearby region, putting those islands under its control and thus disproving Japan's claim as “brigandish sophism.”

When a delegation of Japanese came to Pyongyang during a brief thaw in October, the North Koreans made sure to film them in front of a huge new mural of Korean naval victories over Japan of the late 1590s, placed in one of Kim Jong Un's signature “theme parks.” The subtext was clear: North Korea defeated Japan in the past and could do so again in the future.

In short, North Korea may not be claiming that unicorns exist, but its other forays into history are just as fanciful.

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