Let’s all laugh at the North Koreans: the Korean “unicorn” affair

What the western press wanted you to think

Towards the end of November, western media were full of news about the purported discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” by a North Korean archaeologist. The story was first announced by the official Korean Central News Agency on 29 November in a brief and sober press release (albeit poorly translated into English). It is what the much-vaunted free press of the democratic west did with this piece that is the reason it is of interest to Bad Archaeology, not the original story.

Statue of King Dongmyeong
Statue of King Dongmyeong, at his tomb in Pyongyang (source)

The story

The press release, headed Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK, concerns the discovery of an inscription close to the Yongmyong Temple in Pyongyang, which identified the lair of a fabulous beast ridden by the ancient Korean King Dongmyeong (동명, also transliterated as Tongmyong, the form used in the press release) (58-19 BCE, king 37-19 BCE). According to various medieval histories, King Dongmyeong was the founder of one of the three states of ancient Korea. The release quotes Jo Hui Sung, director of the History Institute of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Academy of Social Science, as saying that the beast is mentioned in medieval texts, two of which describe the location of its lair. The discovery of the inscription confirms the location given in these texts.

So far, so good. There is, of course, a political sub-text to the press release, which concludes: “[t]he discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom”. In other words, Pyongyang is the historic capital of the nation and other contenders (such as Seoul) have no legitimate claim to be such. This seems to have been largely overlooked by the western media.

The manipulation of the story

The press release was rewritten (an increasingly uncommon practice in churnalism) to poke fun at the North Koreans. While most reports stopped short of saying that the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, some gave the distinct impression that they might. To back this up, many published pictures of cute Disneyesque unicorns. At least one English newspaper speculated that it might be a hoax. A more perceptive report, unexpectedly from Fox News, of all places, put it in a more political context, suggesting that North Korean state media were trying to bolster Kim Jong-eun’s still slightly precarious position as leader by comparing him with King Dongmyeong.

How the animal in the story really looks

The problem is that the story wasn’t even about a unicorn. The Korean Central News Agency’s poor English translation service had rendered the word kirin (also 麒麟, qilin) as “unicorn”, whereas anyone familiar with the Japanese beer of the same name, will recognise the true appearance of the beast from its labels. It’s nothing like the western idea of a unicorn. A kirin has a dragon’s head, antlers, the mane of a lion, the body of a deer, the tail of a cow and hooves like a horse. Some news outlets have published clarifications.

Ultimately, the way the western media treated this press release says more about western attitudes to North Korea than it says about North Koreans’ beliefs about “unicorns” (or kirins). The glee with which the story was held up to ridicule does not reflect well on those who chose to publish it as a humorous piece. Yes, North Korea is a place that is very different from the West, with a totalitarian régime that promotes the most bizarre ideas, but this is not one of them. Why did western journalists not recognise this? Or do they have an agenda?


  1. You mention that most of the time people recycle press releases, so even if re-written a few times it might be going a bit far to speculate as to some overriding “agenda” of “western journalists”. Obviously, laughing at people isn’t nice, but even taking the story as reported at face value I think it’s only obvious ‘agenda’ is to wonder at the ridiculous consequences of an isolated, totalitarian regime. North Korea is socially and politically fascinating and if the story as reported only got wrong the exact nature of the fictional beast then actually the point of the story still stands?


    1. It’s not just that the western press got the nature of the animal wrong (and that wan’t their fault, anyway, as the Central News Agency used the word “unicorn”), but that they also tried to spin the story as saying that North Korean archaeologists were claiming to have found evidence that at least one unicorn had existed. Our media has a fairly limited view of what other cultures are like and is always very willing to poke fun at foreigners without trying to understand why they do things and think things that are quite different from us. It’s almost impossible to imagine western media printing a positively slanted story concerning North Korea.


  2. I think that, in this case, you are providing an example of the oversensitive west. This is just more “biblical archaeology” and should be held in the exact same level of seriousness and respect you hold claims of finding evidence Noah’s Arc.


    1. I disagree. The original story made no claims for the discovery of either a “unicorn” or the “unicorn’s lair”, merely of a medieval inscription that labelled a place as such. My interest in the story was the way in which the western media set out to portray North Koreans as simple-minded whilst ignoring the blatantly political sub-text of the news release.


  3. Good day! I think you make a great (and rarely mentioned) point about depictions of North Korea in Western media. Although the North Korean government is certainly a regular perpetrator of kooky ideas, Western media often makes a field day of depicting North Koreans in general as either enslaved and suppressed or naive and childish.

    Historians and archaeologists in North Korea, South Korea, and China have been making separate claims of “cultural inheritance” from the Goguryeo kingdom. Much of Goguryeo territory was located in what is now northeastern China, as well as North Korea. Some Chinese historians claim that Goguryeo was a tributary state to “China of the past,” and is therefore, a Chinese culture. This, of course, enraged many North Koreans and South Koreans, who see Goguryeo as being directly ancestral to modern Korean ethnicity. To make matters more complicated, some scholars have even suggested that Goguryeo was in fact a predecessor, or perhaps even a vassal state to a Japanese culture. This has all created quite a bit of mayhem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goguryeo_controversies), and I’m sure this is one of the reasons North Korean archaeologists were keen on letting the world know of their (supposed) recent discovery. I read your article(“What’s in a Name?”), and I feel that this controversy is tied up in a similar way to very complicated questions of ethnicity in the past. I don’t know if there will be any satisfying way to reconcile this ancient kingdom past with modern borders, nationality, and concepts of ethnicity.

    I came across your blog just a month ago, and I’ve been glued to it since! Please keep up the wonderful work!


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