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Conjuring a Korean Phantasm
Historian and longtime resident Robert Neff on ghoulish anecdotes from Korea's past
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-10-31 15:53 (KST)   

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Although Halloween is relatively new to Korea, ghosts are not. Ghost stories have always been a part of Korea. Not only as tales to scare small children, but also as implements used to influence society or to disguise transgressions against social norms.

Korea셲 palaces have hosted intrigue, murder, and disaster over the centuries -- it is no wonder that many of them were claimed to be haunted. George Trumball Ladd, a pro-Japanese writer who visited Korea in 1905, described the brutality that went on in one of the palaces:

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"It was erected by the tyrant Lord Kwanghai who was here dethroned, and from here sent into exile, where he died a prisoner. From it also his successor was driven out by the usurping 쁔hree Days King. It was in this palace, also, that the King Suk-jong having surprised his favorite concubine in practicing magic rites to accomplish the death of the Queen whom she had already caused to be divorced and banished, turned upon the concubine in revenge, mutilated the Crown Prince, had her torn in pieces."

Another palace, ironically named the "Palace of Splendid Happiness," but often referred to as the Mulberry palace was abandoned after Queen Myung Sung-hwang (Min Bi) refused to dwell there. She allegedly believed that she could hear the screams of those who had died during the Imho Revolt 1882. Lillas Underwood, who knew the queen very well and as served as her Western physician, had this to say:

"The picturesque palace, with the remarkably beautiful park which surrounds it, was not occupied again by the queen. Her Majesty averred that it was impossible to sleep there at night for the mournful wailing of the voices of her murdered friends, which she heard continually crying, 'Why was I killed, why was I killed?' So now the wind whistles and moans through the deserted rooms, grass and weeds push their way through the crevices of the beautiful marble steps, green mould grows thick on the once lovely lotus pond, and the charming little summer pavilions are falling to ruins, while snakes and lizards slide about the stone seats. The wide reaches of lawn are overgrown with long grass, and tigers and leopards are said to make their lairs in the noble woods and grottoes. The gateways fashioned in various charming designs to form frames as it were for the beautiful vistas beyond, are choked with a wild overgrowth of vines and weeds. Fancy has not to look far, or listen long, to read in all this deserted and neglected beauty the story of that one night of blood and horror, and to hear in every chilled whisper of shuddering foliage the word 'haunted.'"

Isabella Bird Bishop, a famous British woman explorer and traveler in Korea, echoed Mrs. Underwood셲 sentiments when she wrote that the ghosts "taking possession of the fine Audience Hall of the Mulberry Palace, rendered the buildings untenable, frightful tales being told and believed of nocturnal daemon orgies amidst those doleful splendors."

Often places that were believed haunted were avoided by the general Korean public. Often they were used as tools by the Korean government and local officials to show their displeasure with foreigners. According to George H. Jones, a missionary doctor in Seoul:

"The 'Special South Palace,' which was erected nearly five hundred years ago by one of the kings for his favorite daughter and her consort. But the latter made it such a 'veritable den of infamy' that it was abandoned as a house haunted by evil spirits and unsafe for habitation. The mixture of fawning malice and hypocritical servility characteristic of Korean officialdom was at one time humorously exhibited in a way to deceive even the Chinese; for when the Mings were overthrown by the Manchus, the hated envoys of the latter were assigned to this House, 'for their entertainment and as a covert derogation.'"

When Paul Georg von Mollendorff, the German advisor to King Kojong, arrived in 1882, there were no houses readily available for him. It was decided that he would be given Min Kyon-ho셲 home who, along with his entire family, was literally butchered in his home during the Imo Revolt. In the months following the massacre, the house gained the reputation of being haunted by the murdered family. Although King Kojong was concerned that Mollendorff would be furious knowing he was lodged in a 쐆aunted house it does not seem to have bothered Mollendorff at all, and in fact, he probably took some pride in it.

Horace Allen, ever cheap and always looking for a bargain, noted the positive side of haunted houses in Seoul:

"The foreigners here have purchased places former occupied by noblemen who were killed in the revolt some two years since. As the buildings were supposed to be haunted they were sold quite cheap."

During the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the years that followed, ghost stories became early tools of propaganda and war. They appear to have been used not only by the Koreans, but also the Japanese and Chinese.

In the spring of 1894, Kim Ok-kyun, a Korean rebel reformer living in exile in Japan, was assassinated while visiting Shanghai by a Korean allegedly dispatched by King Kojong. Kim Ok-kyun셲 body was then taken back to Korea aboard a Chinese warship and cut into eight pieces, one for each province. The pieces were then sent to each province and displayed as a warning to any other rebels that might attempt to usurp the rule of the Korean king.

The ghastly demonstration was unsuccessful, and in fact, made Kim Ok-kyun a supernatural martyr. Many of the Koreans in the countryside, as well as a large number of sympathetic Japanese, believed that Kim Ok-kyun셲 spirit was leading the rebel army of the Tonghaks in the southern Korean provinces and had made the army invincible.

Not only did Kim Ok-kyun셲 spirit guide the army, but it later took part in a naval battle. According to an article printed in the Hiogo News (Japan), the Chinese warship, Tsaokiang was captured by the Japanese after it surrendered during a naval engagement. The Tsaokiang was infamous as the ship that had transported Kim Ok-kyun셲 corpse from Shanghai, China, to Korea. The vengeful spirit of Kim "fought on the side of the victors in the naval engagement and caused the ship셲 surrender to the Japanese."

However, the North China Herald correctly noted that the Chinese ship that had transported Kim셲 corpse to Korea was actually the Weiching, and not the Tsaokiang. It also noted that the Tsaokiang was "an old despatch-boat, with no fighting guns and no ammunition, engaged on a perfectly peaceful mission before war had been declared, did not take part in any naval engagement."

According to an article published several decades ago by Yi Kyu-tae, there were several ghosts "sighted" in Korea following the Kabo reforms in 1894-95.

According to him, many of the Korean residents of Seoul were convinced that there were Japanese ghosts haunting the streets of Seoul. For some reason the people called them "Yobosang," a derogatory name for Koreans used by the Japanese during that period, and believed that Korean women were especially susceptible to these ghosts. At night, if a woman had to go out into the streets, she carefully packed a packet of ground red pepper and placed it in the roomy sleeves of her jacket to be used as a weapon against the Japanese ghost. According to the local belief, the ghosts could not endure the fiery taste of the red pepper.

Perhaps even more interesting is the alleged sightings of "a strange creature appearing at the old sites of the Namso and Sukchong gates, which had not been used for hundreds of years. The ghost, it was said, had a white face, yellow hair, blue eyes, and blood-red lips, and cried in a child셲 voice. Its appearance was obviously that of a Westerner, and many people immediately connected it with the idea that Westerners, kidnapped children, killed them, and made a power from their bodies that was used for photographic film." This is obviously a reference to the Baby Riots that took place in 1888.

Ghosts were sometimes used to explain away mischief, as in the case of the broken street lights in central Seoul during the Japanese occupation. The Koreans claimed that the street lights were broken by ghosts whose bodies were buried nearby and were bothered by the lights.

Other ghosts were used as convenient excuses to explain away compliance with unpopular laws and decrees. Supposedly there was a ghost that cut off the prized top-knots of Koreans or forced their children to go to modern schools.

In the past, widows and unmarried women were expected to abstain from sexual activities -- to participate in them brought shame upon them, their families and their communities'. However, sex is a part of human nature, and it did occur. Unfortunately, it sometimes resulted in an unwanted pregnancy.

Out of desperation, some of these women claimed to have been raped by a ghost. According to Mr. Yi, there are many cases of widows and young unmarried women who bore "ghost children."

In the 1960s, "a widow living at Kimpo became pregnant, and tried to disguise her illicit love affair by pretending to have been raped by a ghost. She arranged to have her six-year-old son set fire to her house. This he did seven times, while his mother claimed that she was being tormented by a ghost, which had raped her."

"Unfortunately, the police took an interest in the matter. After 15 days of intensive investigation, they got the boy to confess to setting the fires, and the truth came out."

Sometimes it is scarier to think about the great lengths people will go to hide their secrets.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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