Turn Back the Clock
Thursday - Woljong
Temple, Part 1

Traces of the past at an ancient temple

For decades the graffiti etched into the glass windows of a number of cars in the Pyongyang Metro has been perennial topic of discussion among foreign visitors. ‘Did locals scratch these? Are they a subtle indication of rebellious youth, or more sensationally, civil disobedience?’ No, the marks came with the cars imported from Berlin in 1988. The cars are Berlin Type D and you can read more about them at http://www.pyongyang-metro.com.

Perhaps it is because graffiti is almost non-existent in North Korea that a few scratches on a subway window become suddenly much more interesting than they would be in anywhere else in the world. As is usually the case in North Korea, the key word above is ‘almost’. Nothing is absolute, nothing is monolithic, nothing is totally black and white in Korea – except that perhaps anyone who says that’s the case has little or no idea of what they are talking about.

And so it wasn’t all together surprising to find graffiti on the wooden paneling of Woljong Temple in Mt. Kuwol. Much of it is relatively mundane without any temporal reference; Korean names hastily carved into aged wood. Examining the walls, a group of painted markings stands out, Chinese characters written in traditional fashion: 月精寺探勝紀念 or the ‘Commemoration of the Exploration to Woljong Temple’. Below it is written the year 1953, the last year of the Korean War.

At first I thought perhaps this could be graffiti left by the ‘Chinese People’s Volunteers’ (中国人民志愿军) stationed in Korea until 1958. However, it appears the word for year is written with the Korean nyon (‘년’) rather than with the Chinese equivalent nian (‘年’). Was this perhaps left behind by an early post-war North Korean archaeological or historic expedition to the area? Many traditional temples were either destroyed or damaged during the war and it would make sense that a survey should be done to see what survived. It is hard to say and we likely may never know. The answer may reside deep in North Korea’s state archives, in some lost books from the 1950’s surveys and expeditions. Or if these stone monuments could talk, perhaps they would tell us. For now they aren’t talking.

'Turn Back the Clock Thursday' brings you views of Korea from more than two decades of Koryo Tours' trips to the DPRK and images in the public domain.

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