By Robert Neff
Bears have always been a part of Korea's past — even its foundation.According to legend, a bear and a tiger desired to become human and were sent to a cave with nothing to eat but garlic and mugwort.
They were told that if they stayed in the cave for 100 days they would be transformed into humans. The tiger, unable to endure the closed confines and food, ran away but the bear was successful and was rewarded with the shape of a human. She eventually gave birth to son, named Dangun, who became the first king of the Korean people.
The Korean peninsula once had a very large population of bears: the huge ussuri brown bear (also known as the black grizzly) and the smaller black bear (commonly known as the moon bear). It should be noted that in the 1910s, the zoo in Seoul took a large brown bear (presumably a fairly light-colored one) and displayed it as a polar bear — apparently claiming it was native to Korea.
Judging from newspaper accounts in the 1920s, bears were (unlike wolves, tigers and boars) apparently not that dangerous to humans. In 1928, there were 48 attacks on humans by wolves, four from boars and one by a tiger but none by bears.
But, one of the greatest Western hunters in Korea, Valery Yankovsky seems to have been the exception. One day, while hunting boars, he was suddenly attacked by four bears — three of them he killed and the fourth managed to escape. It appears that he had inadvertently clambered onto their collective den.
There were various ways of hunting bears.According to William Elliot Griffis:
"Those (Koreans) who hunt bears wait for the occasion when the mother bear leads her cubs to the seashore to feast them on crabs. Then the hunters bide their time till they see the mother lifting up the heavy rocks on edge, while the little cubs eat the crabs. The hunters usually rush forward and assault the bear, which, frightened, lets fall the rock, which crushes the cub."
Apparently not all cubs were killed. Some of them were sold as pets as evidenced by pictures taken at the Western gold mining concessions which show little bear cubs tethered in front of some of the buildings.
William Franklin Sands, an American advisor to the Joseon government, kept at least one bear cub not only as a pet but for protection.According to him:
"A bear is a one-master animal. Mine obeyed me but were not nice with other people. Since there were some misguided people in town who did not like me, I did not encourage my bears to be polite to strangers."
Nothing on a bear went to waste. The flesh was readily eaten, the hides were tanned and Yankovsky used bear fat as a salve for treating his dogs' wounds. The liver and gall bladders were especially valued for their perceived medicinal properties. Bear liver was used by Koreans as an anesthetic for mothers following child-birth. According to one contemporary writer: "(It is) extremely bitter and expensive, intending to act the part of Simpson's chloroform, though not by insensibility."
But Koreans were not the only ones buying and using these bear body parts.Chinese bought bladders and livers from Korean hunters for a very high price.
Griffis claimed in the 1880s they were "sold for their weight in silver." In the 1920s, bear gall bladders were sold for nearly $200 — a remarkable price considering the average Korean gold miner at Unsan gold mines only made 25 cents a day.
Today, the Korean wild bear is all but gone. In an attempt to prevent the extinction of the wild black bear in Korea, the Korean government has reintroduced 27 black bears obtained from North Korea and Russia into the Jirisan preserve since 2004. Hopefully, in the future, black bears may once again roam the Korean peninsula.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.