North Korea: Discovering ancient fire signal towers on the Baekdu Daegan

2017.06.01 성재산(1,102m).

In my previous story, I mentioned how I found the remnants of an ancient stone fire tower (bongsu-dae) on Seongjae-san 1102m. The evidence was rectangular rocks and a five-meter-high wall. But it didn’t show on my maps.

The only decent map I was aware of that marked this old bongsu-dae was Kim Jeong Ho’s 1860’s Taedong-yojido.

The first time I saw the Taedong-yojido, I was awed by its intricate detail. It looked alive. On it, the peninsula’s ridges splayed everywhere like a wiring diagram. No open space of flat land could be seen. The story about its creation also fascinated me. A commoner named- Kim Jeong Ho mapped the nation, on foot, for thirty-odd years before settling into the task of making his map. With his daughter, they chipped away on wooden tablets, producing the templates for prints. In its full glory, the combined prints stood seven meters high and five meters wide. A masterpiece. But in 1866, when Kim Jeong Ho presented his finished product to the Korean Regent, he was cruelly incarcerated for his mastery. His map was too detailed, revealing, and to sensitive to fall into the hands of the enemy. So the story goes.

Taedongyo-jido map of Korea.

I know there’s been good work done in the South to record these stone relics. In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Choi Jin-yeon. For the past thirty-five years, he has been photographically documenting bongsu-dae and mountain fortresses. When he started his work, there were around 1300 known bongsu-dae or forts, and when I met him, he had boosted that number to 2400 with a further 300 waiting for rediscovery. That was only in South Korea.

What of the North?

I had never made a purposeful plan to search for bongsu-dae on peaks in North Korea. But I always kept an eye out for any mountain relics of the past. For the most part, the faraway peaks of North Korea were void of human contact, covered in overgrown forests, the forest floors mottled with gnarly mossy rocks. They seemed completely untouched as if nothing or no one had ever tried to establish anything on them at all.

So when I found the Koryo-era (918-1392) bongsu-dae on Seongjae-san, I decided that when I got back South, I would try to find it on the Taedong-yojido.

I told a Korean friend about what I wanted to research, and he kindly sent me a book called the 한글대동여지도. The map’s Chinese characters are translated into Korean, which I can read.

The next task was trying to match the mountain peaks with possible bongsu-dae, using slides of the Taedong-yojido in the book. The other maps I used to help me cross-reference my findings were Pay Seong-tae’s magnificent Sinsan-gyeongpyo (신산경포), and the 1:250,000 (2008) government issued South Korean (국토지리정보원) series. I used both these sets in North Korea. The North Koreans had a good laugh at the South Korean government issued series . Often they’d spot, what they’d call ‘bad errors.’ For example, on the border between China and Korea, the map would say 중국 (China) on one side and Daehanmin-guk 대한민국 (the official name for South Korea) on the North Korean side, but they took it in good stride.

Using South Korean maps in Saepo-eup, North Korea.

Seongjae-san 1102m, just west of Wonsan city on the Baekdu Daegan, is not named on the Taedong-yojido. A lot of peaks aren’t. So I looked for a bongsu-dae or mountain fortress. There were some, but not on the Baekdu Daegan where I was. Nothing named on the Taedong-yojido! That was strange. But as you can see from my photos, there was an old bongsu-dae or fortress on Seongjae-san, a decent sized one. Maybe I was on the wrong peak? I doubt that. Even though I wasn’t allowed to carry a GPS, the maps I had were informative enough. Combine that with local knowledge, my location awareness and map reading skills, and that we could also easily see the Masik-ryong ski slopes to the south of us, and the East Sea, there was little doubt we were on the Baekdu Daegan.

The Baekdu Daegan with Wonsan city and East Sea in background. Seongjae-san1102m is far left.

Another mountain on the Baekdu Daegan was Masang-san 1124m, in Saepo-gun (county), Kangwon-do province. When we got to the summit, a ring of brush surrounded it. After pushing through the brush, a large flat circle of loose rock lay in front of us. In the middle of it all was what looked, to me, like a stone altar. I admit I was a bit aghast. I had always hoped to find an ancient altars in North Korea. On closer inspection, it wasn’t that. But it was something. My first impulse was to say it was a bongsu-dae, but Mr Pak Seong-ho from the Kangwon-do office told me that it was probably an old triangulation marker, more than likely erected in the 1960’s when the North Koreans started remapping their country.

Trig on Masang-san 1124m

I agreed with him on that. “But what about all this stone?” I said. ” “They are like bricks.” I was referring to most of the stone on the summit, not just the pieces that formed the triangulation marker.

“This site must have once been a stone fire tower or fortress.”

The men were not amenable to that theory, which quelled my excitement a little. Although the North Koreans accepted the unified eras of Korean history and knew of Kim Jeong Ho, they sometimes struck me as preferring not to talk about those periods in detail. Focusing instead on the generational reign of the Kim’s. For them, the Kim’s were history in the making, while the old Yi dynasty was lessons learnt. Still, all this shaped rock must have once belonged to a structure of some sort.

Standing on Masang-san, looking east across to the other arm of the Baekdu Daegan.

What did the Taedong-yojido reveal then? Nothing again. No Masang-san, and no bongsu-dae on the ridge. I could see other nearby mountains named on the Taedong-yojido, which I recognized on the Sinsan-gyeongpyo, like Cheongha-san 1188m. So, I was looking in the right place!

This area of the Baekdu Daegan is shaped like an elbow. As it sweeps below Saepo before turning north again, the ridge almost disappears as it passes over a small highland plateau region. In fact, the Japanese, when they remapped Korea, claimed this area as one of three places along the entire length of the Baekdu Daegan that wasn’t continuous ridge. Along with the iron spikes theory (It is said that the Japanese impaled iron spikes into some mountain peaks to kill that peaks energy), some Koreans saw this as an attempt to extinguish the emission of Korean Pungsu-jiri (풍수지리 Geomancy) from its main transporter, the Baekdu Daegan. To prove it was severed meant cutting the flow. But Kim Jeong Ho marked this elbow section as a ridge on his map. Alas, I couldn’t find Masang-san or any beacon or fort in that region. Maybe Mr Pak Seong-ho was correct. There was never a bongsu-dae on Masang-san.

Now I do not doubt that ‘these days’ the feature on Masang-san is a triangulation marker. In the South, most of the modern telecommunication towers and triangulation stations are built on the same peaks that bongsu-dae once were. Why? Well, bongsu-dae needed an unimpeded line of sight. They relayed signals via smoke in the day, and fire at night, so had to be visible to each other. Telecommunication towers and trig stations also need unimpeded high points. Especially triangulation markers as they are survey points. In my opinion, the triangulation marker on Masang-san was built from the remnants of a bongsu-dae .

In my August and September visits, I spent most of my time in the remote Ryanggang-do province in the north. The bongsu-dae network there served to provide warning of invasions from the north for the populace of the east coast. I climbed a peak near the county of Kim Hyeong Gwon called Bongsu-bong 1636m. It was not located on the Baekdu Daegan, but nearby on a short ridge called Hugol-jimaek 후골지맥 on the Sinsan-gyeongpyo map.

Views south from Bongsu-bong 1636m

Unfortunately the peak was heavily forested and overgrown making it hard for me to take good landscape shots for the book. But by chance, I found an underground bunker! Made from loose rock and framed with old tree timber, it was barely noticeable. Our local guide had never known it was there. It had collapsed inside, so accessing it was futile, and I told one of the men, who tried to go inside, that he had better not, as there might still be some unexploded ordinance in it. It seemed to have been built during the Korean War by the Chinese PLA and the KPA (Korean People’s Army). It was definitely an underground observation post of sorts. It’s possible, I thought, that whoever made this bunker used the stone remnants of an old bongsu-dae.

There’s also a good chance that these bongsu-dae collapsed naturally over hundreds of years. I figured when one stone broke away, a number followed. Also, local folk, like in this case, probably dismantled them or rearranged the fallen remnants to build stone garrisons or windbreakers. The only real clue to this find was the peak’s name, Bongsu-bong, but I couldn’t locate it on the Taedong-yojido in this region.

Of course it’s possible that some peaks have had name changes since then, whilst others retained their names. To help me with that, I matched the ridge lines from the abstract Taedong-yojido alongside the more accurate Sinsan-gyeongpyo. In this case, I did find a bongsu-dae on an unnamed peak that looked like it was in the same location. On the map, its location was above a pass unknown to me, called Hohwaee-ryong 호화이령. In fact, when I took a closer look at the slide, and then the next slide, I saw a line of eight bongsu-dae heading north to Hyesan on the Amrok river. So I felt those soldiers made their bunker from old bongsu-dae relics, and I was now looking at its location on the Taedong-yojido.

Early morning sunrise from Dongjeong-ryong in Kapsan-gun, Ryanggang-do.

I found a similar situation on a peak called Dongjeongryong-san 2113m in Kapsan county in Ryanggang-do province. More Korean War bunkers, and more evidence they were made from bongsu-dae.

Tunnel entrance to an old Korean War bunker on Dongjeongryong-san.

Now I am not trying to disprove the Taedong-yojido. I am a great admirer of Kim Jeong Ho, and find his map passionately absorbing. I am just telling you what I found and what theories they led to. By the way, my nickname in the North is Kim Jeong Ho ‘nomba tu’ 놈버투!

What my findings do show is that the remote mountains of the North remain unexplored. With the right amount of time and purpose, I could see spending the rest of one’s days in the North looking for old bongsu-dae or mountain fortresses, or mountain spirt-worshipping altars, or old temple sites, or old Buddhist carvings and statues, and sagely calligraphy, to add to Korea’s rich collection of historical relics.

With Choi Jin-yeon in 2011.

Footnote: It is with regret that photographer and researcher of Korea’s bongsu-dae and mountain fortresses, Mr Choi Jin-yeon, sadly passed away from illness, a couple of years ago. This story is dedicated to him. 


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