Complex of Koguryo Tombs

The Koguryo Tombs are exceptional testimony of the Koguryo culture, its burial customs, and its daily life and beliefs. The special burial customs of thisculture had an important influence on other cultures in the region, including those in Japan. The wall paintings of the tombs are masterpieces of the culture and the period of the Koguryo Kingdom, while the construction of the tombs demonstrates ingenious engineering solutions.

The World Heritage site includes several groups and individual tombs, totalling about 30 individual graves, from the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom, one of the strongest kingdoms in north-eastern China and half of the Korean peninsula between the 3rd century BC and 7th century AD. The tombs, many with beautiful wall paintings, are almost the only remains of this culture. Only about 90 out of more than 10,000 Koguryo tombs discovered in China and Korea so far have wall paintings. Almost half of these tombs are located on this site and they are thought to have been made for the burial of kings, members of the royal family and the aristocracy. These paintings offer a unique testimony to daily life of this period.

The site includes 63 tombs from five areas in North Korea, believed to have been constructed between the 5th and 6th centuries. Of these, the Kangso Three Tombs and the Royal Tomb of King Tongmyong, along with 16 other tombs, contain mural paintings.

As Koguryo extended from what is now Jilin Province in north-eastern China to Pyongyang in North Korea, the historical sites in the two nations have long been a point of conflict over their ancestry. Koreans insist that Koguryo is a kingdom of ancient Korea based on historical evidence, whereas Chinese historians have claimed Koguryo as part of their history, as artefacts from the period have been held and preserved by China because of their geographical distribution within its borders. The two countries agreed to put the ancient kingdom's historical heritages on the World Heritage List separately as it is considered to be 'non-political' and the two countries are focusing on preserving the sites and taking advantage of them as tourist attractions and as sources of historical research.

Koguryo, one of Korea's ancient three kingdoms, existed for 700 years and was ruled by 26 wise kings. All these rulers strove to improve the welfare of the people and strengthen the military forces. Koguryo had to fight against invaders from the north, and so its citizens were well organized and trained in the art of warfare. It developed a unique culture and remarkably advanced educational, socio-political and military systems. Koguryo murals are rich in color and tone: the images of women dancing, warriors in training, birds in the sky, dragons, fish in rivers, beasts in forests, wind and clouds of the murals are so real and fresh that they seem as though they may jump out of the canvas at any time.

Historical context

The Koguryo kingdom existed for nearly 1,000 years, from 277 BC to 668 AD. It was established in Huanren, Liaoning Province in China, relocated in the year 3 AD to Kungnae Castle in Ji'an, Jilin Province, China, to Mt. Taesong area in Pyongyang, in 427 AD and finally to the Jangan Castle in the centre of the present day city of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang, situated in a strategic location, had long been the political, economic and cultural centre, as the capital of ancient Korea (Kojoson) which is the reason why the Koguryo kingdom moved its capital here and made great efforts in developing it.

The Koguryo kingdom expanded its territory to cover northeast China and half of the Korean peninsula,
becoming one of the strongest powers in the east. It collapsed in the year 668 AD.

The best known cultural heritage remains of this kingdom are thousands of tombs, built of stone and covered by stone or earthen mounds. Earthen mound tombs, including many with murals, were prevalent once Koguryo moved its capital to Pyongyang - but existed in other parts of the kingdom as well.

Most of the known tombs suffered of clandestine excavations in the last thousand years. As a result very few were scientifically excavated prior to such activity and there are very few complete objects coming from the tombs. The tombs received worldwide attention only in 1905, when during the Japanese occupation many of them were opened to the general public. The first scientific research and documentation were carried out by Japanese scholars between 1911 and the 1940s.

Regular surveys, excavations and documentation took place from 1945 on.

Minor conservation actions took place in early 1940's, such as restricting entry to tombs and creating entrances to some. Regular maintenance, protection and conservation works started in 1946, with proper legislation and nomination of site managers.

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion (i): The wall paintings of the Koguryo Tombs are masterpieces of the culture and period of the Koguryo kingdom; the construction of the tombs demonstrates ingenious engineering solutions.

Criterion (ii): The special burial customs of the Koguryo culture had an important influence on other cultures in the region, including those in Japan.

Criterion (iii): The Koguryo Tombs are an exceptional testimony of the Koguryo culture, its burial customs as well as its daily life and beliefs.

Criterion (iv): The complex of Koguryo Tombs is an important example of burial typology.