By Michael Breen
SEOUL, April 1 ― The diaries of Dangun, the founding king of Korea, have resurfaced some 2,000 years after their unexplained disappearance from a library near Mt. Baekdu.
The diaries, a collection of hundreds of scrolls, were discovered lining the attic of a public house in England by a Korean scholar who has dedicated her life to searching for the lost texts.
Experts say the contents are explosive and may lead to a rethink about the origins of modern-day Korea and China.
Ho Heom, a leading authority on ancient Korean history, said she has reviewed the scrolls with other Korean and international experts and has no doubts as to their origin.
``These are authentic,” Ho said. ``The handwriting is Dangun’s.”
Ho said there are several hundred scrolls with some showing signs of decay while others look remarkably fresh.
The discovery has electrified historians who say it restores credibility to the field after the hoax ``discovery” of Dangun’s tomb near Pyongyang, North Korea, in the early 1990s.
Dangun was the legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom, in the year 2333 B.C. His rule stretched across the peninsula into modern-day Liaoning province in China and lasted for 1,500 years.
According to legend, Dangun’s father was a god who wanted to live among humans. His mother was a bear, who wanted to become human. Attracted by this shared interest, they mated and had little Dangun. He was already 408 years old when he became king. He died at the age of 1,908, which earned him the spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest serving monarch in history.
Ancient Chinese and Korean texts refer indirectly to possible diaries. The oldest Dangun biography, the 13th century Samguk Yusa, cited the Chinese Book of Wei and a lost Korean text called Gogi.
Ho said she became interested in the Dangun diaries when researching a Ph.D. thesis on Korea’s walled cities. Some experts believe the diaries were destroyed by Goguryeo thought police, but Ho was convinced they had been rescued and kept secretly in temples.
``I traced the journey of the diaries through analysis of ancient texts and local myth,” she said.
The most intriguing clue came when inhabitants of Dokdo told her they had ``heard” that the crew of the French whaling ship Liancourt (the origin of the official international name for the disputed islets) had ransacked east cost temples in 1849. This search led her to Harry Forger, the great great grandson of the ship’s cook, who runs a pub in the English town of Shipley in Yorkshire.
With help from a Korean interpreter at the nearby university of Leeds, Lee Ba-gum, she made the astonishing discovery. ``I told them all about Dangun and the diaries and they told me to come back the next year,” she said. ``The following summer they let me into their attic. The Forgers said they had inherited the scrolls but had no idea what they were.”
The significance of the discovery is immeasurable, scholars say.
``What was Dangun like? Now we can know. It’s incredible,” she said. ``For example, there have been persistent references through the ages to Dangun’s fondness for exaggeration. Indeed, it is almost certain that Dangun was the author of his own myth. The difficulty has been to figure what is true and what isn’t. The diaries should clear this up.”
Deciphering them, though, is no simple matter. The script is believed to be a primitive form of Chinese characters with either spelling mistakes or Gojoseon symbols whose meaning has been lost. Ho said that Dangun also appears to have used of personal symbols that were rather like bear-paw marks.
From remarks added in the margins, presumably by court scribes, Ho said that Dangun confirmed that even though his mother became human, she never quite lost her hairy coat. “He had issues with his parents,” Ho said. “His father was always away on heaven’s business and his mother neglected him.”
Ho has translated one verse he learned from his mother:
Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature's recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life
``Dangun admitted that he was rude, did not apologize if he bumped into people, and did illegal U-turns on his horse in the middle of the highway. That much is clear,” she said.
As for the rest of the story, she said, we will have to wait.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.