Digging up the Past

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov
5/10/2007

Since the mid-1990s antique dealers in Seoul have uncovered a new source of quality items: North Korea. Indeed, around that time, antiques secretly excavated in North Korea began to arrive in Seoul in ever increasing quantities.

By the late 1980s, the antique trade in South Korea was going through hard times. Most of the important sources had been used up, and the state had established a fairly efficient control over excavations. Supply was shrinking, and prices kept growing. This was just when the antique items from North Korea hit the market.

This was a result of three important transformations. First, the famine and near collapse of the state bureaucracy in the North meant that many people were ready to do whatever it took to earn some money, and that officials, if given sufficient bribes, would not interfere much, if at all.

Second, the same combination of corruption and collapsing border controls essentially opened the Chinese border with North Korea.

Third, the adjacent areas of China became popular with Korean tourists who frequented the areas, and were on occasion ready to do some small and profitable, if illegal, business.

The major attractions are the Goryeo-era tombs which have been intensively excavated in the last decade (the major centers of the Goryeo Kingdom were located in what is now North Korea). These illegal diggings produced a flood of Goryeo items on the Seoul antique markets. Actually, the amount of antiques that have appeared makes archaeologists wonder about the scale of damage inflicted on the Goryeo sites in recent years. If rumors are to be believed, tomb raiding usually involves North Korean officials, people whose job would be to protect the historical site.

Apart from Goryeo “grave goods,’’ smuggled items include Buddhist images of all kinds, old books, furniture and stoneware. Some of these items originate from the Unified Silla Kingdom (7-10th century) while others are relatively new and can be dated to the early 20th century.

In most cases, the items are “mined’’ on the spot, but there have been a number of confirmed or nearly confirmed instances of books and other works which clearly have been stolen from museums and libraries in the North.

Then the items are transported to the border and smuggled into China. This might require bribing customs and immigration officials, but for a few hundred dollars one can purchase an uncontrolled passage (and, as a merchant told a South Korean journalist in an interview, well-paid custom officials can even help to move heavier items across the border).

The border city of Dandong plays the role of the major illegal market for the smuggled North Korean antique items. In China, some antiques go to the local buyers, but far more frequently the items are smuggled again, this time to Seoul, to appear in the antique shops in the Korean capital.

Some items are bought by rich collectors, while others end up in private museums. However, the Kookmin Ilbo journalists, who investigated the trade in 2005, discovered that museums are very secretive about such acquisitions, being uneasy about the legal implications of provenance, and the likely influence on relations between the two Koreas.

A major role in the business networks is done by two ethnic groups: the Joseonjok, or ethnic Koreans in China, and the hwagyo (huaqiao), the ethnic Chinese in Korea. Members of both groups have ample opportunities for legal cross-border travel, have money and connections, and are fluent in both languages.

They transport the booty, and also provide the North Korean diggers (not exactly experts in Goryeo celadon or early Joseon books) with instructions regarding the most preferable items at any given moment.

This is a risky business, and in the late 1990s the North Korean authorities attempted a number of crackdowns, with few high-level officials arrested for involvement in antique smuggling. However, people take risks.

A good piece of Goryeo-era ware would easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars in Seoul. Only a fraction of this money will go to the grave robbers, of course, with intermediaries and bribe-taking officials along the route pocketing the lion’s share of the profit.

Still, we can presume that a good piece would bring a successful digger a few hundred dollars. In a country where the average salary has fluctuated between one and five dollars a month, this is still a fortune, even for a minor official, and the more high-ranking policemen and security guys are making good living out of this.

It is somewhat difficult to judge these people too harshly, especially those who are driven to tomb raiding by the real threat of starvation, but there is no doubt that extensive and chaotic diggings are wiping out an important historical heritage. When archeologists arrive at the sites, sooner or later as they will, they will have to deal with the havoc produced by the illegal diggers, and many important traces of the past will be lost forever.

In tandem with the antiques, the forgery industry has also developed, with North Korean artisans learning the techniques used by South Korean experts. They know how to make a vase of a bottle from a few small pieces, how to imitate the old patterns on the ceramics, as well as many other tricks of an experienced forger. It seems that the North Korean forgers enjoy some competitive advantages over their South Korean colleagues. At any rate, the boom is not yet over.

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