A gloomy supernatural tale from northeast Korea
Unlike Christmas, Halloween is almost totally unknown in North Korea. If not belief, then at least indulgence in superstitions goes somewhat against the guiding philosophy Juche which teaches belief in the self and self-reliance. While some traditional supernatural stories have been relegated to the flowerily realm of folklore - beautiful immortals from heaven, underwater kingdoms, ‘and the like’ – darker stories, the kind suitable for Halloween, although they undoubtedly exist across society, can be hard to come by.
There are plenty of South Korean or generic Korean stories of the supernatural, but we wanted to at least find something geographically relevant to North Korea. And so, after searching far and wide, we have settled on a traditional story, recounted in a recent South Korean publication Korean Fantasy Encyclopedia: 120 Mysterious and Interesting Stories (Do, 2017), about a region in today’s North Korea and a monster there: the Hamgyong Province Cloud Monster.
The scholar Lim Bang (1640-1724 AD) wrote down the story of the cloud monster in his Chonyelok (천예록-天倪錄) or ‘Records of Heaven’s Beginnings’, a collection of yadam, or unofficial histories’, dating to the early 18th century.
Hamgyong Province is located in the far northeast of the peninsula. Today divided into North and South Hamgyong as well as Ryanggang provinces, it has long been on the frontiers of Korean civilization and was the last region to come under full central government control. Until the mid 17th century semi-nomadic Jurchen peoples still inhabited the highlands and forests, some peacefully co-existing with Koreans, others regularly raiding Korean towns. As a result, the region has heavily militarized, governed by military officials in garrison towns. Hamgyong is also where economic refugees, political exiles, and criminals were sent, often never to return.
The story begins with a rumour from remote county at the far north of the province where an unknown monster was said to have made a multiple appearances. Anytime a new chief (this was a frontier after all) came to the county government office, he would not last more than ten days before the monster appeared to kill him.
At first people just laughed in disbelief upon hearing such a rumour. At least that was the case until six county chiefs, dispatched from far away Seoul, died in succession. Then people began to take the matter seriously. Officials in Seoul did their utmost to avoid being sent to Hamgyong, which proved problematic given the region’s strategic importance and tentative position in the Korean realm (by this time the Jurchen’s powerful cousins, the Manchus, were in power across the Tumen River.)
And so it was decided to send an up and coming military official north with a band of soldiers. He was brave, but ambition would also serve as further motivation. His future career (and life) would depend on his success– after all, when Cortez landed in the New World, did he not burn his ships behind him? (Although this story may seem irrelevant, by this time New World crops, taken from the Americas, would have been making their way to Korea. Maize, red pepper, and the potato would help make Hamgyong more habitable for agricultural peoples like the Koreans.) He now had three choices: face the monster and die, return in shame (and likely face execution), or face the monster and triumph.
Upon his arrival to the county seat, where his six predecessors has died, a terrible stench, like rotten meat, spread throughout the town.
‘What is that smell?’ the military official asked.
‘That’s the sign of the beast! Be careful!’ the good townspeople replied.
Although he had not previously believed the tales of the monster, the overwhelming sensation over his sense, convinced him that this was not something to be trifled with. Thus, he armed himself with a large sword, slung over his back.
As the days passed the smell became stronger and stronger to the point of throwing up a few times a day from dizziness. On the sixth day, the good people of the village fled, saying that the monster’s appearance was imminent. As did his soldiers, no doubt deciding it wiser chances on the run from the mundane authority of the government rather than this supernatural force.
He passed the next few days alone in the county yamen building drinking rice wine until the tenth day. That night, as soon as the sun set, a dark cloud appeared in the courtyard and formed into a mysterious hovering shade of 2-3 chang (6-9 meters) in length. This shape was without hands, feet, or a head, but emerging from the clouds were two terrifying eyes. As the cloud moved through the door, the man downed his cup of wine and drew his sword, charging towards the incoming monster.
At that moment, an ear-splitting thunderclap rang out across in all four directions and the cloud scattered without a trace. The rotten smell, which had filled the air for ten days, also dissipated and the man collapsed in the courtyard.
The next morning, people came back to find him still lying in the courtyard. He has lost consciousness out of fright, but soon awoke and the cloud monster of Hamgyong never made an appearance again.
Happy Halloween from Koryo Tours!