Reality and North Korea are not known for being close and efforts to clear up the mystery of a reported unicorn lair only underline the yawning chasm between them.

North Korea, a nation at which it would be easy to laugh if the suffering of its people were not so tragic, underlined again how detached from reality it is, with the announcement by the state-controlled press that archaeologists had uncovered a unicorn lair near the capital of Pyongyang.

Widespread derision greeted the news, which grabbed headlines around the world as an apposite example of hubris by the totalitarian government of a people who starve to death, while hapless officials make repeated failed bids to fire a satellite into space.

It now appears that the unicorn angle was a mistranslation. It has emerged that what translators were trying to say was that top North Korean explorers had found the nest of a beast with a dragon's head, a deer's body, the tail of a cow, hooves and a mane.

The mix-up centred on the translation of the word "kirins" or "Qilins," Prof James Grayson told the Guardian.

He said the mythical creature occupies a special place in Korean folklore as the favourite mode of transport for a legendary ruler from antiquity.

Kim Jung Un, flanked by generals, meets a subject
Kim Jung Un, flanked by generals, meets a subject

The global gaffe could have been an inept bid by propaganda chiefs to glorify ruler Kim Jong-un, by announcing the discovery of a site associated with famous historical figures in order to link him with them.