A Korean Ghost Story: The Ghost of Ansan

A True Story by Charles Wetzel

First of all, I want to start off requesting that you, the reader, try to keep an open mind while reading this account, and try not to be judgmental or perceive it as a joke. It is not a joke. It is something that Hwangdae (my Zainichi Korean friend) and I saw on Ahn Mountain (hereby known as Ansan in this essay). Whether or not it was supernatural in nature is anyone's guess, but I believe there are compelling reasons to believe what we saw wasn't just a coincidental trick of the light. If you are willing to keep an open mind, read on, but otherwise, read one of my more light-hearted essays like my summary of the Boryeong Mud Festival.

Siri (from Thailand, left) and Hwangdae (Korean permanent resident of Japan, right)
Today, April 14, 2009, I decided that for some exercise, I would go to the mountain behind Yonsei University Korean Language Institute (my alma mater) and hike. I invited my Zainichi Korean friend Hwangdae, and my Thai friend, Siri, who is also a graduate of Yonsei KLI.

We started out when the sun was still out, and proceeded up the mountain to Muak, which is a Korean-style pavilion approximately halfway from the back of Yonsei University and the peak of Ansan. We rested there. At that point, the sun had almost set, and at 7:30, Siri informed us that she had to go home. Hwangdae and I, although preferring to accompany Siri in case she ran in to trouble descending the mountain in darkness, also wanted to continue ascending the mountain to the peak. At Siri's reassurance that she would be all right, we continued to ascend.

As we approached the top, I received a text message from Siri that she had safely reached the bottom of the mountain.

We soon reached the peak. The peak of Ansan has a fantastic view of the city of Seoul. One can see Namsan Tower on Namsan (South Mountain) easily, and on the peak, there is a bongsudae (a circular stone structure used historically in Korea for lighting signal fires in case of wars and other things). I took some pictures, such as the one to the right. We soon began our descent. We had accomplished what we had set out to do — we had reached the peak, and had gotten our exercise. We were ready to go home.
Namsan Tower, as Photographed by Me on 2009/4/14 at the Peak of Ansan

“That was when we had a most peculiar experience.”

Unfortunately, after descending and ending up at Muak (the pavilion) again (pictured left), we lost our way trying to reach the back end of Yonsei University campus to go home. We ended up along a concrete-lined trench that was probably made to facilitate drainage down the mountain. By that time, it was completely dark. We decided to rest.

That was when we had a most peculiar experience.

I said the following to Hwangdae, somewhat facetiously, in Korean: “Hwangdae, you know, this mountain was where Yu Yeong-cheol, a serial killer, buried his bodies!”

This is actually true. In 2004, Yu Yeong-cheol went on a secretive killing spree by which he murdered elderly and prostitutes and buried their bodies on the mountain until he was caught. He is currently serving life in prison. He even claimed at one point to have eaten the victims' livers. However, at the time that I said that to Hwangdae, I was under the impression that we were on the other side of the mountain, fairly far from where he had buried the bodies.

Then Hwangdae said: “Look! A woman in white clothes!”

A woman in a white dress is the stereotypical Korean/Japanese ghost. Hwangdae was just joking. He had not actually seen a woman with white clothes, but what happened just as he finished speaking made us break out in goosebumps. That was when we had a most peculiar experience.

A small fire, the size of the fire on the tip of a match or perhaps the end of a lit cigarette, began to hover in the woods just where Hwangdae was pointing. It lasted for about 10 or 15 seconds. We figured it must be another hiker, and yelled “Yaho!” (a thing Koreans yell when they hike in the mountains) and “Nuguseyo?” (“Who is it?”) but there was no reply. Then the light went out.

We went and inspected the place where the tiny fire had been burning. What shocked us was that there was an incline such that no human being could have entered the area and left without us knowing (to do so would require passing by close to us). Therefore, the tiny fire light could not have been caused by a person smoking or otherwise lighting a match. Hwangdae and I both agreed on what we had seen — it was definitely a point of burning light, like a cigarette or a match, but what we were about to find out galvanized our belief that this had been something of supernatural nature.

We quickly found the path again, and saw Korean-style pavilions, and after approaching them, we knew where we were. Bongwonsa. Bongwonsa is a Buddhist Temple. Bongwonsa is also where Yu Yeong-cheol buried his victims' corpses, cut up in pieces and put in plastic bags (they were discovered in 2004). Little had I known when I told Hwangdae about the murders and when we saw the tiny firelight, that we had been standing at the very location where Yu Yeong-cheol had secretly buried the corpses of his victims!

So you can think what you want about this sighting that Hwangdae and I had, but I just want to say that I think it's awfully coincidental that an inexplicable point of firelight should appear at the very instant that Hwangdae was joking about a ghost, in a location that was a known burial ground for a serial killer. In fact, the point of light even appeared in the direction Hwangdae was pointing as he made his joke. It was almost as if the spirit of a deceased person was saying to us “You might be joking, but know this — I am here.”

I also want to add that prior to this incident, when I had been walking with my friend, Ji-yun, she had commented that Bongwonsa had an atmosphere like a “haunted house,” without any knowledge whatsoever of the murdered corpses that had been buried there. Koreans say that ghosts do not generally appear at Buddhist temples, but it appears, based on our experience, that the surrounding woods are fair game.

Yu Yeong-cheol is currently serving life in prison for the string of killings he conducted, largely with a home-made hammer. He would be an obvious candidate for the death penalty, but South Korea recently abolished it. Perhaps the spirits do not rest because Yu Yeong-cheol never got the punishment he deserved.

Bongwonsa Temple, Taken in 2008 by Me