A New Mysterious Korean War Temple Case


Once again I was asked to solve a temple mystery. This time, it was for the American National Air and Space Museum.

Hello Again Everyone!!!

It’s not every day that you can say that you helped the American National Air and Space Museum. But a couple of weeks ago I received an email from a museum specialist from this institute. He had some very specific questions about a collection of pictures taken during the Korean War, so he turned to me for answers.

For a second time, someone with Korean War pictures has turned to me for some assistance, which I find to be quite humbling both for me and my tiny blog. In his email, he asked if I could help him identify a set of five pictures for the museum that looked like a temple. I told him I would do my best, and I set about trying to identify the pictures. Talk about the proverbial needle in a haystack!

So the first thing I always do in cases like these is that I really look closely at all the pictures that I’ve been given. Unfortunately, and unlike the last time I did this, there was no clear identification marker or markers on the picture like a Korean name or a Chinese character. The only help that I received was a general location in Gyeonggi-do, near Suwon. Right away I could tell that the pictures didn’t represent a Korean temple; instead, they looked more like a royal tomb. I based this opinion on a couple factors like the T-shaped shrine hall that appeared in the first picture. In addition, there was a lack of buildings near or on the “temple” grounds. Also, there appeared to be something behind the T-shaped shrine hall. Finally, there appeared to be a scholar statue in and around the grounds which is typical of a royal tomb. But since the statue didn’t appear in the picture of the shrine hall, I wasn’t sure.


The original “temple” pictures from the Korean War with the T-shaped hall to the left. 


The warrior and scholar statues in the National Air and Space Museum pictures.


And here’s a closer look at the burial mound, stone lantern, and stone altar.

So going under the premise that this was a royal tomb, I started to examine some of the more prominent royal tombs in and around Gyeonggi-do. But with there now being 40 Royal Tombs from the Joseon Dynasty being officially recognized by UNESCO in 2009, I knew it was going to be tough. So I decided to start with the most prominent, King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), who was the famous ruler of Korea that invented the written language of Hangeul (Korean). And through dumb luck, it seems as though I was able to identify the royal tomb in the picture: The Yeongneung Royal Tomb.


A portrait of the famous King Sejong.

King Sejong was first buried at Mt. Daemosan in Gwangju; however, in 1469, his remains were transferred to their present location in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do at Yeongneung Royal Tomb by King Yejong. According to legend, the transfer of his remains prolonged the success of the Joseon Dynasty for an additional 100 years. Additionally, the grounds in and around Yeongneung Royal Tomb have undergone some change with the addition of a statue of King Sejong, as well as in the creation of the Sejong-jeon Memorial Hall. Finally, and what put me off a bit by the details found in the Korean War pictures, are that the grounds underwent a bit of rearranging between 1975 and 1977. So there was no guarantee that what I was looking at presently was the same as what it looked like formally.

What really made me think I had correctly identified the right royal tomb was the topography that was found in the Korean War picture. This, in combination with the look of the T-shaped shrine hall made me feel as though I was on the right track. Then finally, when I received two more pictures from the museum specialist, I knew I had found the correct royal tomb: The Yeongneung Royal Tomb. The skirted stone tomb was one indicator. Another indicator was the orientation and arrangement of the stone statues that surround the royal tomb. And finally, the very faces of the scholar and the warrior that stand next to burial mound were the surest indication that I had found what the American Air and Space Museum were looking for.


A look at the contemporary royal tomb of King Sejong with the T-shaped hall in the foreground.


As well as a look at the statues and the mound. Notice the striking similarity between the masonry in this picture and the black and white pictures from the Korean War.

So with all this now known, I passed this along to the museum specialist that works at the American Air and Space Museum. And like me, he was pretty positive that I had found what he was looking for. So through dumb luck, and a hunch, I was able to figure out that the grainy black and white images from the Korean War that someone had visited in a more tumultuous time, were in fact the Yeongneung Royal Tomb.

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