(40) Mt. Kumgang: Sacred, Shining Symbol of Nation

By Yang Sung-jin

Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung and his entourage wrapped up their five-day visit to North Korea Saturday amid intense media hoopla. As a result of Chung’s landmark visit, Hyundai has secured exclusive rights to “develop” the historic area. The result? Posh hotels, hot spas, golf courses, ski slopes and other entertainment facilities will inundate the sacred mountain and “modernize” its natural beauty.

The only problem with the grandiose project may be the exclusionary past of the famous mountain. Historically, only a select few people were allowed to visit Mt. Kumgang.

The origin of the name — Kumgang (meaning `diamond’ in Korean) — speaks for itself. It was taken after the ancient Buddhist scripture,

“Hwaomkyong,” which includes the verse, “In the East, there is Mt. Kumgang where Buddha lives.” In other words, it is a place where the Buddhist saint allegedly led a quiet and peaceful life away from the hustle-and-bustle of the developing world.

Thus, it can be argued that Mt. Kumgang has long been a safe haven for those seeking solitude. According to “Samguk Sagi” (History of the Three Kingdoms), Crown Prince Maui pleaded with King Kyongsun, the last monarch of the Silla, not to surrender to Koryo, the emerging power in the region. But, his request was rejected and his country was taken over by Koryo. Deeply depressed, Prince Maui fled to Mt. Kumgang and led an isolated, humble life there until his death.

So, Mt. Kumgang is truly sacred. It towers over the other mountains on the Korean peninsula both literally and figuratively. That is why the Choson kings respected Mt. Kumgang.

Sacred Symbol

King Taejo, the founder of Choson Kingdom, for example, did not hesitate to contribute 600 bushels of rice to temples in Mt. Kumgang even though Confucianism, the founding philosophy of the nation, suppressed Buddhism.

After retirement, King Taejo faced strong opposition when he tried to visit the mountain’s Yujom Temple. Official Park Yong-mun said, “People are suffering from starvation due to the floods and draught of last year, and your large-scale entourage will do much harm to the farming along the paths leading to Mt. Kumgang.” King Taejo immediately withdrew his plan, realizing his mistake.

Meanwhile, the religious atmosphere of Mt. Kumgang even attracted Yi I (1536-1584), the most important Confucian scholar of the Choson period. When Yi was 19 years old, his mother died suddenly. The sadness led him to Mt. Kumgang, where he tried to become a Buddhist monk. Yi’s great aptitude for learning applied to his studies of Buddhism as well, which touched off a rumor about the appearance of a living Buddha. But, he soon realized Buddhism was not for him and returned to Confucianism.

The fact that he chose Mt. Kumgang for a spiritual awakening indicates the powerful image it had at the time. But, not all of the monks at the mountain had purely religious intentions. Po Wu, a notoriously corrupt monk, became a sort of a cult leader with a base in Mt. Kumgang and challenged the government authority, according to documents dated 1552.

In 1560, a local administrator named Kim Han-gol filed a letter protesting the corruption of Buddhist temples in Mt. Kumgang: “While ordinary citizens are unduly burdened with heavy taxes, servants and monks at 12 temples in Mt. Kumgang are evading the taxes.”

Perhaps, it is natural that people from diverse walks of life cited many reasons for visiting Mt. Kumgang, with its 12,000 peaks.

Chinese envoys visiting Choson in 1403 singled out images of “Buddhist sculptures” from Mt. Kumgang’s 12,000 peaks as the main reason to tour the site.

In 1412, an Arabian named Toro had a different motivation to visit Mt. Kumgang. He appealed to King Taejong to allow him to scout the rocky terrain in search of crystals, saying that “there must be invaluable treasures hidden behind the mountains and streams in Mt. Kumgang.”

Then in 1545, according to an article dated that year, King Sejong ordered mid-ranking official Shin Hee to travel to the mountain on a mission to observe the solar eclipse from the Ilchul peak.

Must-See Site

The multifarious aspects of Mt. Kumgang and its inspiring beauty attracted foreigners as well as Koreans. Almost all Chinese diplomats visiting Choson requested a tour of Mt. Kumgang be put on their itineraries, reflecting how famous the mountain was even during the Choson period.

In 1404, Chinese envoys On Chon and Yang Yong met with King Taejo and expressed their willingness to visit the renowned site.

“Due to the ice covering the paths to Mt. Kumgang, it will be difficult to tour the place,” the king cautioned.

But a monk stepped in and said, “This is the best time to see Mt. Kumgang” and the Chinese officials proceeded to go to the mountain.

According to an article dated 1408, another Chinese official was deeply impressed by the other-worldly atmosphere of Mt. Kumgang, so much so that he ordered his servants not to kill anything living on the mountain.

While Chinese officials were granted a tour of Mt. Kumgang, Japanese envoys were rejected, often amid heated discussions in court. In 1485, high-ranking official Lee Kyong-dong filed an appeal to King Songjong with regard to the Japanese and Mt. Kumgang: “We have heard that Your Majesty allowed Japanese envoy Ang Ji to tour Mt. Kumgang. Although it looks like a small affair, it is a bigger issue. Other problems aside, what if other visiting Japanese follow suit and request a tour?”

The court officials huddled and decided to let the Japanese go as long as a decision was already made. Officials No Sa-sin and Chong Nan-jong suggested making up an excuse, citing the heavy snow on the road to Mt. Kumgang.

Official Cho Ji-so pointed to a strategic problem in permitting the Japanese to wander around the area: “When I visited a Japanese island, they even did not show the main roads in a bid to conceal strategic points from us. Given that Kangwon province is near the Japanese islands, we cannot allow them to know our roads.”

Finally, the king decided to warn Ang Ji about the dangers of snow and bumpy roads and to see if he wanted to go.

No Japanese, Please

In 1522, the Choson court faced the same problem involving the Japanese touring Mt. Kumgang. This time around, a number of officials called for the king to flatly reject their requests.

Interestingly, all the Choson kings, except for King Sejo, had never seen the sacred mountain in person; they had only heard about it. Therefore, it was a historic landmark that King Sejo embarked on a trip to Mt. Kumgang in February of 1466 and returned to his palace in Seoul in late March.

What the king felt after witnessing the beauty of Mt. Kumgang was not recorded in “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.” Yet other people’s comments can provide a general impression. After viewing Podok Cave, a Chinese envoy named Chong Dong said he would be born again as a Choson citizen to live in the holy Buddhist world of Mt. Kumgang.

The legendary beauty of Mt. Kumgang was not only a religious inspiration, but also an aesthetic subject. In 1455, court painter An Kyu-saeng drew a picture of Mt. Kumgang for a Chinese envoy. Then, other diplomats demanded similar works.

In early 1468, King Sejo dispatched court painter Pae Yon to sketch the outline of Mt. Kumgang, a request that reflects the popularity of the scenic mountain.

But, capturing spectacular images of Mt. Kumgang is easier said than done. When Japanese imperialists ruled Korea in the early 20th century, a number of Japanese painters tried to draw a realistic painting of Mt. Kumgang, only to realize their limitations.

One Japanese painter named Morita said, “The landscape of Mt. Kumgang is beyond a painter’s imagination. The entire scenery changes into a different one as the painter moves only an inch, making it impossible to draw it.”

The immense inspiration of Mt. Kumgang is also summed up by the late historian Choe Nam-son (1890-1957): “If all the poems about Mt. Kumgang were put in a pile, it would be large enough to fill a library.”

Chong Son (1676-1759), a renowned court painter, was a pioneer in capturing the image of Mt. Kumgang in paintings. He drew a lot of pictures of the mountain and his highly realistic style based on close observations is now regarded as a turning point in Korean art history.

Inspiration for Painters

Chong supposedly completed a large-scale picture containing all 12,000 peaks of Mt. Kumgang. But to the disappointment of art historians, it wasn’t preserved.

Kim Hong-do (1745-?), another respectable painter of the Choson government, was dispatched to Mt. Kumgang for 50 days to draw a detailed landscape of the mountain under the order of King Chongjo.

Late last month, a rare sketch of Mt. Kumgang by Kim Hong-do titled “Haedongmyongsan-do” was revealed to the public, drawing immense public interest.

Meanwhile, well-known eccentric Choson painter Choe Puk leapt into the Kuryong Pond of Mt. Kumgang in an attempt to kill himself, thinking he should conclude his life at a mountain whose supreme prominence matched his own artistic talent, according to “Kunyok Sohwajing,” a publication comprising the `Who’s Who’ of Korean artists.

A modern painter who paid keen attention to Mt. Kumgang was Kim Kyu-jin (1868-1933). He stayed in Mt. Kumgang for three months under the order of King Sunjong, the last monarch of the Choson Kingdom. One of Kim’s masterful works is now in Changdok Palace, testifying to King Sunjong’s yearning for something that could represent the Korean spirit at a time when the nation appeared to be coming to an end.

Historian Choe Sung-sun said, “Mt. Kumgang carries symbolism. It represents the pride of Korean people. Therefore, Mt. Kumgang should be measured not by its economic value, but by its spiritual inspiration.”

Thanks to Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, who received the go-ahead from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il regarding the Mt. Kumgang tour project, South Korean tourists aboard pleasure boats will set sail for Mt. Kumgang on Nov. 18 in a much-awaited program that will open full-fledged development of the scenic site.

The tourists will pay about $1,000 for the prized trip to the long-forbidden mountain. For better or for worse, the presumably profitable development of Mt. Kumgang has begun.

Back in the Choson period, however, Mt. Kumgang was not about money. On Nov. 25, 1796, King Chongjo was told of the benevolent behavior of a female Cheju island resident named Mandok. Although she was a “low-class” courtesan who entertained the elite class, Mandok donated her earnings to starving people, saving lots of lives. When the king tried to give her a “monetary” reward for her good deeds, she politely declined, expressing instead her desire to cross the sea and tour Mt. Kumgang. Willingly the king complied, in the unspoken understanding that her true request was in fact for the “true diamond.”