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.
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.
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?