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The haunted skies of Joseon Korea
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승인 2010.10.31  10:41:53
페이스북 트위터
▲ British warship (HMS Severn, circa 1894) similar to the HMS Caroline. Robert Neff Collection.

In the spirit of Halloween and the reports of UFO sightings this year in Seoul, I thought it might be interesting to examine early reports of UFOs in Joseon Korea’s history.

Ancient Koreans had a great and scientific interest in astronomy but also harbored many superstitious fears. There was a belief that meteors falling to earth, known as Hoenbul (Red Fire), were portents of evil and death. According to the superstitions, if a Hoenbul landed in front of your home – someone within the home would die within three days. If it landed near a village – then an observer in the village would die within three months. And, if the Heonbul landed far away, an observer would die within three years.

It is no secret that the Koreans kept careful records of astronomical events – recording such things as the Great Comet of 1402 (which apparently the Chinese failed to do even though many other nations around the world did so) and being able to predict with shocking accuracy eclipses and the return of comets. However, there is one incident that seems to stand out.

On July 22, 1413, a strange object was seen in the skies over Seoul. The object, bowl-shaped, appeared in the early evening from the north and circled around the sky for some time before it disappeared. King Taejong (r. 1400-1418), who had witnessed the great comet of 1402, was intrigued by the object and called upon his court astronomers to identify the object. None of them could and were subsequently punished.

But Koreans were not the only ones to witness strange objects over Korea. One of the earliest and best documented incidents by Westerners took place off the coast of Jeju in 1891.

On Feb. 24, about 10 p.m., the British warship HMS Caroline encountered a strange spectacle of lights in the sky. According to Captain Charles J. Norcock they were about 17 miles off the coast of Jeju (32 deg. 58 min. N., longitude 126 deg. 33 min. E.) when the watchman sighted strange lights in the horizon. Captain Norcock wrote:

“It was a windy, cold, moonlight night. My first impression was that they were either some fires on shore, apparently higher from the horizon than a ship's masthead, or some junk's ‘flare up’ lights raised by a mirage. To the naked eye they appeared sometimes as a mass; at others, spread out in an irregular line, and, being globular in form, they resembled Chinese lanterns festooned between the masts of a lofty vessel. They bore north (magnetic), and remained on that bearing until lost sight of about midnight. As the ship was passing the land to the eastward at the rate of seven knots an hour it soon became obvious that the lights were not on the land, though observed with the mountain behind them.”
Throughout the following day the HMS Caroline continued along Korea’s southern coast without incident. Like the previous night, at about 10 p.m. the lights again appeared. Captain Norcock was careful to note that the night was clear, cold and lit by the moon, and there was no land in the direction of the lights when they were first sighted.

Norcock was better prepared for the spectacle than he had been the previous night and wrote:

“The globes of fire altered in their formation as on the previous night, now in a massed group, with an outlying light away to the right, then the isolated one would disappear, and the others would take the form of a crescent or diamond, and hang festoon-fashion in a curved line. A clear reflection or glare could be seen on the horizon beneath the lights. Through a telescope the globes appeared to be of a reddish colour, and to emit a thin smoke.”

The lights continued to run parallel to the ship until dawn the following morning when they disappeared from view.

The rest of the voyage was relatively eventless.

Later, after arriving in Kobe, Japan, Norcock learned that his ship was not the only one to have experienced these strange lights. The HMS Leander had encountered these lights some weeks earlier in the same area. According to Captain William C. Castle, the commander of the HMS Leander, they had first thought the lights were caused by a ship in distress but as he approached them they increased their altitude. Unsure of their cause, he attributed the strange lights to volcanic activity and, pressed for time, resumed his course.

Norcock, being somewhat of a scientific sleuth, began investigating these encounters – even going so far as to write about his experience in a scientific journal. Norcock discovered that a local paper in Kobe had reported that “The Unknown Light of Japan” was a well-known event which was often witnessed by Japanese fishermen. It normally occurred when the weather was very cold, stormy and clear. It went on to say that Japanese school books attributed the lights to “electrical phenomena.”

Dr. Daniel J. MacGowan, an American missionary doctor serving in China, even went to Japan to conduct his own investigation. He determined that the lights on the water, also known as “sea fireworks” or “thousand lanterns” were caused by an algae growth that occurred twice a year – on the “16th day of the 7th moon, and in he winter on the 30th of the 12th moon” (using the lunar calendar) and was visible from midnight to dawn.

Another Westerner in Japan witnessed this event at two in the morning on Jan. 18, 1893. He described the weather as being almost freezing with drizzling rain and that he and his companion had been summoned to witness the event by 500 Japanese who had patiently waited for the event. According to him, “strange, weird flames” two or three feet high appeared on the ocean for several miles in length. The flames were only visible for a few seconds before they were extinguished only to reappear a few minutes later. This went on for nearly two hours.

Norcock eventually concluded that his experience near Jeju Island was “something in the nature of St. Elmo’s fire.” While it is easy to dismiss these accounts as ignorance of an unenlightened period, it does not explain why some Westerners, in this modern era of science, still claim to see strange lights over Mt. Halla.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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