(60) Ghouls, saints in Korea
During the turbulent period following the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Joseon Korea was plagued with unrest and crime. Some of these crimes were quite bizarre.
In December 1896, a band of grave robbers were apprehended single-handedly by a Korean policeman. The band had preyed upon the graves near Peking Pass (where the Independence Gate is located) and dug them up and removed the valuables leaving the corpses to the elements and the feral dogs and vultures.
Sometimes, however, the bodies themselves were stolen and held as ransom. One early tome describing Korea declared:
“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.”
An article in The Independent, an English-language newspaper in Seoul, seems to lead credence to that charge:
“A band of robbers entered the ancestral grave of Pak Ki-yang, a former governor of Chungcheong Province, 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 graveyard within three days. This was not done, hence the head is still in the hands of the robbers.”
But not all incidents dealing with the dead were so overtly money-grubbing.
In mid-March 1897, Han Don-guk dreamt that he was passing a review stand near the East Gate when he encountered a large crowd of men and women standing around the corpse of a barely dressed woman. Disgusted that no one was doing anything about the corpse, Han hired a couple of coolies and transported the body to the nearby hills outside of the city and buried it in a “decent manner.” It was after returning from the grave that he was summoned by a Korean official who had learned of Han’s kind act. The official praised Han and promised to reward him for “his charitable act.” But, unfortunately for Han, he woke up before the reward could be given.
The following morning Han told his friends about the strange dream and, like him, they thought it was strange. Later that afternoon while walking near the East Gate, Han apparently experienced déjà vu and made his way to the nearby review stand in expectation that he would find a crowd of people and a body. Han was somewhat disappointed to discover no large crowd and no body. However, undaunted, he went behind the stand and noticed a piece of cloth under the floor. He quickly uncovered a badly decomposed body hidden in the corner under the floor. Han claimed that he, feeling that it was his duty to bury the corpse, summoned two coolies and had them transport the corpse a short distance from the East Gate and buried it.
More than likely, Han’s dutiful act was not so much inspired by charity as it was by the possibility that the rest of his dream would come true. He was undoubtedly delighted when some policemen approached him but his delight soon turned to horror when he was arrested and hauled before the judge.
Han proclaimed his innocence saying: “I do not know anything about the dead man, the cause or date of his death, and who placed the body under the floor.”
The authorities, describing the case as “weird and incredulous” and granted Han bail while they continued to investigate. As to their success in the case, nothing is known.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.