By Robert Neff
The dead in Korea’s past did not always rest peacefully — occasionally they were disturbed by the living.
King Bongsan, who reigned over the Goguryeo Kingdom from 292-300 A.D., was most likely not a popular ruler. He was arrogant and even worse he was suspicious of everyone — including his family. He had his uncle, a popular war hero, executed for treason and forced his own younger brother to commit suicide. In 296, Goguryeo was invaded by a Chinese army that was fairly successful in the beginning until, according to legend, their disrespect for the dead helped lead to their defeat.
Chinese soldiers dug up the tomb of Bongsan’s father, Seocheon. Apparently, as they were digging up the tomb, a number of the Chinese troops literally died from terror. Then, the sounds of music began to emanate from the tomb convincing the Chinese general that the spirit of Seocheon would not suffer their disrespect. Wisely, he and his forces retreated back to their own country and Goguryeo was saved. Bongsan, however, was not. Just four years later the people rose up in revolt and Bongsan and his two sons committed suicide.
During the Imjin War (1592-1598), invading Japanese forces were said to have dug up some of the royal tombs in the vicinity of Seoul and scattered the remains about the ground or burned them. They then filled the tombs with rubble.
A notorious attempt of grave robbery occurred in the spring of 1868. Ernst Jacob Oppert with a band of mercenaries tried to dig up Korean regent Heungseon Daewongun’s father’s tomb and hold the remains hostage until Korea agreed to open its doors to the West. He failed miserably and was forced to flee Korea. Despite Oppert’s horrendous act, Korea did eventually open in 1882 but even then, Korean graves were not safe.
At least one European employee of the Korean Customs Department in Jemulpo (modern Incheon) dug up Korean graves so that he could sell the skeletons to universities and museums in Europe.
But Korean graves weren’t only robbed by foreigners. According to William E. Griffis, an early Western expert on Korean affairs, Korea was “governed out of the graveyard” and that families and clans often fought over choice gravesite locations and often desecrated each other’s tombs. He explained:
“No country is more famous for its skilled grave thieves and expert desecrators of tombs than is Korea, for no custom is more common, than that of seeking revenge on the living by molesting the resting places of the dead.”
It is not clear just how common this was but The Independent — Korea’s first English-language newspaper — does provide us with a couple of examples.
In December 1896, a lone Korean policeman managed to apprehend a gang of grave robbers near the West Gate and Pekin Pass where they had been preying upon the graves, digging them up and removing valuables. Sometimes, however, the bodies themselves were stolen and held as ransom.
“A band of robbers entered the ancestral grave of Pak Ki-yang, a former governor of Chungcheong, and dug up Pak’s father’s body and cut away the head of the corpse. They left a letter on the grave saying that if Pak wants to recover his father’s head he must send $2,000 in silver or paper money to them at a certain point in the grave yard within three days. This was not done, hence the head is still in the hands of the robbers.”
While a lot of these stories may be explained as mere superstitious nonsense of the past, it is interesting to note that the occasional story manages to make its way into the press. Not too long ago, there were stories that the National Assembly was haunted by the restless spirits of palace women. Supposedly measures were taken but were they successful? Only the members of the National Assembly know.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.