Last week, the Internet was on fire with the news that North Korean archaeologists had discovered an ancient “unicorn’s lair” near Pyongyang. Of course, very few people ( I hesitate to type “none”) actually believed that a unicorn’s lair had been discovered. Reactions ranged from outright scorn to, as Hemingway might have put it, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Of course it is. Unfortunately for unicorn enthusiasts the world over, it turns out that the North Korean archaeologists never claimed to have found a “unicorn’s lair” at all. That was merely a translation error.
While the state-operated Korean Central News Agency has been known to tell some fantastic tales, the discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” was a bridge too far even for them. As I09 reported, in the original Korean text of the story, the archaeologists merely claim to have discovered a cave that, in local mythology, was reputed to be the home of an ancient Korean ruler’s unicorn companion.
As Seoul National University history professor Noh Tae-Don explained to AFP:
“An ancient poem says that is the place where King Tongmyong’s unicorn lived and where the king is said to have ascended to the heaven on the unicorn’s back. What they are saying is that they have found a site associated with this legend.”
Additionally, the mythological beast in question was actually not a unicorn at all. Rather, it was a kirin, an antlered , dragon-like creature from Asian mythology. Basically, the kirin is a hodgepodge of different animals, with the body of a deer, the hooves of a horse and the tail of an ox. Since the kirin is sometimes referred to as “the Chinese unicorn,” the confusion is perhaps understandable.
However, as I09 reports, even this much more reasonable version of the story may be stretching the truth a bit:
“The North Korean press release is unclear on exactly what was discovered, whether it was an older inscription marking the location of Kiringul or the cave itself—or whether it is referencing the already documented Kiringul. And if North Korean archaeologists did discover an older inscription in Pyongyang (and, Wang notes, there is always the possibility that their supposed discovery was fabricated), it may be far newer than the press release would suggest.”
Basically, North Korea would desperately like to prove that the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryŏ was located on their land, not South Korea’s, and the discovery of a cave that was significant in the mythology of that kingdom would certainly help their case. But as with all the propaganda that comes out of the North, it’s best to take even the toned-down version of this story with a grain of salt. Or perhaps even a handful.