Goguryeo treasures unveiled in the SouthJust a few weeks ago, a Korea University archeologist, Choi Jong-taik, crouched over crates in a dusty warehouse in the North Korean city of Nampo.
"Although the light was dim, I could see a gilt-bronze statue and a crown. They glowed splendidly," Mr. Choi says, recounting his first view of 2,000-year-old treasures from the Goguryeo Dynasty that had been stored near Pyeongyang.
Another crate was cracked open, he says, and inside "I saw two earthenware pieces that, until then, I had only heard about. ... To this day, the experience feels like a dream."
It's a dream that Mr. Choi plans to share. The Goguryeo relics will be on display starting today at the COEX Convention Center in Samseong-dong.
The exhibition, "Goguryeo!," marks the first exchange of cultural relics since the Korean Peninsula was split by war more than a half century ago. The exhibition runs through March 6.
On display are 30 relics that belong to the Korea Central History Museum in Pyeongyang and 140 museum-quality reproductions that were crafted by 2,000 technicians in North Korea.
One of the reproductions is a 6-meter-high stone monument to King Gwanggaeto from Jian, China. The tombstone, bearing a gold inscription, is the largest ever discovered in Asia.
Others include five life-size murals from 5th century tombs. They are so large that an entire wall of the COEX center had to be torn down to install them.
The Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) was one of the strongest and most prosperous kingdoms in Korean history. It stretched from the Han River to Manchuria, where Goguryeo warriors battled China's Eastern Wei, Sui and Tang dynasties.
Along with two other kingdoms, the Silla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) and Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D. 660), the Goguryeo formed Korea's thriving Three Kingdoms period.
Goguryeo relics have long been celebrated for their distinctive artistic characteristics, such as symbolic animals signifying the universe. A mythical three-legged crow, or Samjogo, represents the sun; a toad symbolizes the moon. Flame patterns, expressing the Goguryeo Kingdom's powerful spirit, are common motifs.
Halos are also an important element in Goguryeo art. One of the most elaborate on display is a gilded nimbus with the inscription "Yonggang 7th year." The halo, from A.D. 551 was discovered in Pyeongcheon, near Pyeongyang, and is one of four national treasures on loan for the exhibition.
The nimbus (pictured above) has lotus petals and vines surrounded by a delicate relief of flames. Experts, including Mr. Choi, believe the halo may be part of the "Gilt-bronze Seated Maitreya" that is owned by the Ho-Am Museum in Seoul.
The appearance in Seoul of the gilded nimbus from Pyeongcheon will allow archeologists and art historians to compare the works.
Another unique relic on display is a queen's crown from the 4th or 5th century with a flame pattern on its brim. While several gold crowns from the Silla and Baekje kingdoms have been found, this is the only known example from the Goguryeo Kingdom. It features a delicate, dynamic pattern of flames, and bears some resemblance to the queen's crown found in the tomb of King Munyeong from the Baekje Kingdom.
Another exquisitely detailed piece is a gilt-bronze decorative panel in the shape of the sun that was part of a headrest. Believed to have been used by a king, the panel once was layered with the iridescent outer shells of black beetles and fastened to a piece of fabric.
Also on display are two rare earthenware vessels. One is a steamer to make rice cakes, and the other is an urn for ashes.
Mr. Choi finds the rice steamer particularly interesting. It is the earliest known example of a steamer with a drain in the bottom. It has numerous small openings. Later versions that have been discovered have fewer, but larger, holes.
Negotiations to stage this exhibition began in April under the aegis of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation.
By September, the Korea Central History Museum in Pyeongyang had chosen most of the artifacts for the exchange. In November, Mr. Choi traveled to North Korea to photograph the artifacts and sign the agreement.
The size of the exhibition dictated the unusual venue for such a rare collection; other than COEX, few other museums or centers in Seoul could accommodate the immense artifacts.
Mr. Choi believes this exhibition will contribute to the peninsula's reunification. "Hopefully this will open up more dialogue on the cultural level," he says."When it comes to historical subjects, Goguryeo can be an easy start because the two Koreas mostly agree on its historical data."
The "Goguryeo!" exhibition runs until March 6. The COEX Convention Center is at the Samseong subway station in southern Seoul. The exhibition hall is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (02) 761-1213 or (02) 751-9626.
Cultural exchange builds ties between the Koreas
The JoongAng Daily spoke with Choi Jong-taik, an assistant professor in the department of archaeology and art history at Korea University, who oversaw the transportation of the Goguryeo relics from North Korea.
What spurred your interest in the Goguryeo Dynasty?
A I used to work in the Seoul National University Museum. In the mid-1980s when I was assisting a project involving the Baekje Kingdom, I stumbled upon a fragment of an earthenware, which was believed to be from the Goguryeo Kingdom.
After a thorough examination, I noted that the piece bore typical characteristics of the Goguryeo Kingdom and that there had been exchanges among all three kingdoms.
When I discovered that the Goguryeo Kingdom had established its military fortresses in various parts of South Korea, I became interested.
While working on the reconstruction of the Mongchon Fortress [in southeastern Seoul], I excavated many pieces of earthenware from the Goguryeo Kingdom and became an expert on Goguryeo Kingdom earthenware.
In 1997, I worked on an area near Mount Acha in northern Seoul where King Jangsu had his military fortress. My team excavated more than 1,000 [Goguryeo] artifacts in that area.
How did you feel when you made your recent trip to North Korea?
At precisely 4 p.m. on Nov. 19, I was allowed to begin opening and inspecting each box of the relics inside a warehouse in Nampo port near Pyeongyang. Everything was tightly wrapped in special materials. Although the light was dim, I could see a gilt-bronze statue and a crown. They glowed splendidly. I also saw the two earthenware pieces that, until then, I had only heard about and seen in the research materials.
Seeing them with my own eyes was truly exhilarating.
My North Korean counterpart and I exchanged the agreement and took photographs of each and every item. The process took only two hours because we didn't examine all the boxes containing the reproductions.
From the moment I got word from the Korean Council for Reconciliation that we were going to North Korea to this day, the experience feels like a dream.
What could result from this Goguryeo exhibition?
The exhibition's meaning goes well beyond cultural issues within Korea.
The study of Goguryeo has been suppressed in China. For example, a renowned Goguryeo specialist from South Korea has been banned from entering China.
For years, China has claimed that Goguryeo was merely one of its minor clans -- barbarians living in the north. If China acknowledges Goguryeo as part of Korea, then they may have to deal with ethnic Koreans in China, which presumably rank as the second or third minority, or non-Han, Chinese race. The Chinese government has already had problems involving its natives of Mongolia and Tibet. It probably doesn't want to create or incite any situation with ethnic Koreans seeking independence from China.
Regardless of those [political issues], we researchers wish for easy entry to China to learn more about our lost history.
by Inēs Cho