Gyeongju and the Political Use of Relics

Minjae Zoh

This article looks at the controversial issue of how the ancient city of Gyeongju was politically uncovered and used by the military dictator Park Chung Hee (1961–1979) in order to ‘construct’ his own image, and to ‘reconstruct’ South Korea’s pride. In particular, this piece explores Park Chung Hee’s (PCH) obsession in finding the golden crown of the Silla dynasty: namely why was he so interested in finding it and what measures did he take in doing so?

After seizing power via a military coup d’état on May 16, 1961, PCH proactively promoted South Korea’s cultural heritage as a national endeavour. It has been argued that PCH’s interest and personal investment in heritage were aiming to legitimise his rise to power, and to further construct his image as South Korea’s nationalistic leader. PCH continuously emphasised ‘heritage’, and stated that it was only through it that the nation’s history and cultural legacy could be preserved. PCH’s motive in reconstructing South Korea’s broken pride via heritage was contextually relevant and in many ways an ingenious idea which worked in his political favour, considering the historical events prior to his administration (i.e. the Japanese colonial period of 1910–1945).

Fig 1: Tombs of monarchs and royal elites during the Silla dynasty

A number of heritage sites in South Korea were selected for restoration work, but at the forefront was the ancient city of Gyeongju, upon PCH’s orders. The city of Gyeongju is geographically located in the south-eastern corner of the North Gyeongsang Province, and it is best known today for its outstanding preservation of relics from the ancient Silla dynasty (57 BC–935 AD), which ruled about two-thirds of the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. Gyeongju is possibly South Korea’s most iconic heritage site and arguably, PCH’s role was pivotal in making it so.

In the 1970s the PCH government announced plans to turn Gyeongju into an international tourist attraction. Consequently, the Gyeongju development project grew into the largest-scale excavation project in South Korea. However, this issue became controversial as it appeared that, rather than being interested in the long-term preservation of the Silla relics in Gyeongju, PCH was more interested in the fast-timing of findings, particularly in finding the golden crown of the Silla dynasty. With the tombs of the royal monarchs and elites of the Silla Dynasty scattered around the city (fig.1), it was assumed that the golden crown would be buried in one of them. When excavations began in 1973, PCH personally hired archaeologists to excavate the largest tomb in Gyeongju (tomb 98); but due to the concerns from the lack of experience and expertise, a smaller tomb (tomb 155) was excavated instead. The excavation began on April 6, 1973; on August 23, 1973, the much-anticipated golden crown was found (fig. 2). Prior to the discovery of the crown, PCH had made a visit to the field (July, 3, 1973) and asked the excavator whether the crown had been found. On the day the crown was found, PCH ordered that it be brought over from Gyeongju immediately to the Blue House. The excavation director at the time (Dr. Kim Junggi) insisted that proper procedures be carried out (i.e. photographs, paper work, etc.). Despite this, the golden crown was taken to PCH on that very night. When the crown was taken back to Gyeongju, PCH went to see the interior of the tomb (fig. 3). Park was persistent and forceful. As a result, the development of Gyeongju has been seen as the product of PCH’s “personal desires and pursuits.” Moreover, it was argued that PCH manoeuvred the excavations according to his wishes rather than by listening to expert archaeological advice.

Fig 2: The golden crown excavated from Tomb 155

Why was PCH particularly interested in Gyeongju, and why was he specifically determined to find the golden crown of the Silla Dynasty? Looking first at his focus on Gyeongju, it was found that PCH intentionally promoted historical periods in Korea which he found to be significant and strong – in particular the Unified Three Kingdom Period (57 BC–668 AD, referring to the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla dynasties) – in order to emphasise South Korea as a racially homogenous nation. By promoting periods of historical strength, with rich cultural remains and memories of national heroes, PCH apparently believed that he would infuse national pride back into the nation after the scars left by foreign invasion. This sheds light on how Gyeongju was used to promote his ‘personal’ colonial view of history. PCH also particularly promoted and emphasised the historical military generals of Korea (i.e. General Kim Yu Sin from the Silla dynasty and General Lee Sun Sin from the Joseon dynasty), a deliberate political move in order to narrate, or ‘dictate’ to the nation that military power was needed to protect the country; and also that he – a military general – was much needed for the country. This further highlights that PCH used heritage (in this case, his promotion of Gyeongju) to strengthen his personal political legitimacy.

Regarding the golden crown, it is clear that PCH was eager to find it mainly so that he could see it. As previously noted, before the crown was found, he consistently questioned the excavator to find out whether it had been found, and when it was eventually found, he insisted that it be brought over to him against the recommendations of the excavator. It is necessary to note here that numerous other goods (gold and silver) were excavated along with the crown, but PCH was essentially only interested in the golden halo. One theory explaining PCH’s ‘obsession’ in finding and seeing the golden crown is that PCH may have believed that he was the royal descendent of the Silla monarch, according to his ancestral heritage, and therefore that he had a personal desire to find and see the crown of his ancestors. The fact that such a theory has been put forward brings to surface how extreme PCH’s attitude and measures were. On a more general note, it can be argued that PCH wished to specifically find the golden crown in order to leave his trademark in the heritage sector: as impressive as the golden crown is, the fact that it was found during his administration was a significant achievement under his name and his policy.

To conclude, this case is one that sheds light upon how heritage and relics can be used by political leaders to their political advantage (i.e. to construct or reconstruct image and pride), as well as how political leaders can use their powers to find certain relics with which they feel a personal attachment. By investing extensively on how to restore and conserve Gyeongju, PCH intended to be remembered as the leader who infused and ‘reconstructed’ broken pride back into the nation. The problem, however, is the contradictory and ironic nature of PCH’s actions. Although he supposedly set out to preserve and protect the relics and heritage of South Korea, he was unwilling to listen to expert advice and prioritised searches on what he himself decided to have significance. The issue of Gyeongju, in the realm of academia, is therefore inseparably associated with PCH’s ‘personal desires and pursuits.’ However, PCH’s actions have in turn undeniably made Gyeongju one of the most iconic heritage sites in South Korea. Arguably, PCH was primarily interested in the immediate finding and exhibition of the relics and heritage site rather than their long-term preservation – which again returns to the argument that he used heritage as a tool for his personal aims: establishing his political legitimacy as well as fulfilling his own personal interests.

Minjae Zoh is a PhD candidate in Heritage Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her interests revolve around political heritage, principally the relationship between dictatorship and heritage as well as the wider relationship between heritage and 'territorial politics'.