This large complex of buildings (currently nearly 20) originally dates from 992 when the site housed the Taemyon Palace which later became an imperial guesthouse and then the Bureau for Confucian Doctrines. In 1089 it became ‘the Kakjagam’ or highest centre of learning in Kaesong for those seeking to enter the civil service. Children of the aristocracy attended this centre of Confucian learning throughout the Koryo period and the subsequent Ri period which ended in the late 19th century.
The Kakjagam was renamed the Songyungwan Academy in 1308 but was brunt down during the failed Japanese Invasion of 1592 –the Imjin War. Thus, Kim Il-sung wasn’t the first Korean to have to deal with a Japanese Invasion. The Academy was rebuilt in 1602 and since 1987 it has been the site of the Koryo museum.
In addition the admiring the beautiful Confucian buildings set in tranquil grounds containing two 500 year old Ginkgo trees and a 900 year old Zelkova tree, all of which miraculously escaped destruction during the 1950-1953 Korean War, the museum houses a modest, but interesting, array of pottery, iron work and other archaeological finds and relics from the Koryo period, in addition to charting the history and evolution of Kaesong itself.
Also here is a reconstruction of the interior King Kongmin’s tomb which we had visited (exterior only open) earlier in the morning.
While the museum principally covers the period prior to Japan’s occupation of the country in 1910, the curators clearly could not resist the inclusion of a few more modern exhibits. My final photograph is of an early 1900’s Japanese chart showing the monetary value placed on Korean men, women, children and oxen. I selected this chart to show you rather than a more unsavoury painting of marauding Japanese slaughtering innocent Koreans.
We were guided through the museum by a local guide – a rather dour and uninspiring one, if I were to be honest. Nonetheless an interesting place to visit, if only for the old buildings - though there is more to the museum than the buildings. It is a welcome break from the "Kim Il-sung trail'.
Having explored the museum and its delightful grounds, there are a couple of shopping opportunities at the museum worthy a look.
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
Tomb of King Kongmin
Although North Korea is an ancient country with roots going back 4000 years tourists have very little opportunity to see or hear about anything pre-dating the Japanese occupation of the country in the late 19th century. Visits to North Korea focus on the iconography of the modern age, monuments and museums perpetuating the cult of personality of the Kim Dynasty which only dates from 1945, with the ending of Japanese occupation of the peninsula.
There were a small number of exceptions to this 'Kim Dynasty focus' on our trip and one was a visit to the Tomb of King Kongmin (more formally the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb) about 13kms outside Kaesong. The Tomb of King Kongmin, together with a number of other Koryo period relics in North Korea, received a joint UNESCO World Heritage site listing in 2013.
After a pleasant bus ride from Kaesong along winding rural roads surrounded by recently planted rice paddies we reached the tombs of King Kongmin and his good lady wife, Mongolian princess, Queen Noguk, perched on a hillside affording splendid views of Oh My mountain in the distance and into the valley below.
Prior to telling you about the tombs themselves let me digress slightly and tell you a story related to the selection of the King’s future burial spot, the unfortunate chap who proposed it and the naming of the mountain opposite as Oh My.
King Kongmin was having great difficulty finding a suitable location for his tomb and having finally got fed up with his advisers (in one version he had them all killed) failure to locate a suitable site he, out of frustration, struck the ultimate make or break deal with the young hopeful who recommended the very spot where the king now lies.
When the young hopeful found the spot Kongmin decided to climb the mountain opposite to inspect it. Before doing so, he told his soldiers that if he was unhappy with the proposed spot he would wave a white cloth at which point they should behead the young man. Having reached the top of the mountain he was delighted with chosen spot, but it had been an arduous climb and he took out a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. Misinterpreting this as the agreed signal to remove the young man’s head, the soldiers duly did so. When the king returned to bestow riches on the young man he found him headless. ‘Oh My!’ he said and thus the mountain became Oh My.
Enough, back to the King and the tombs.
Kongmin was the 31st and one of that last Koryo kings and reigned from 1352 to 1374 (the Koryo period lasted from 918 to 1392).
Following the death of this wife in 1365, King Kongmin designed and had built, in the mound style typical of the era, two beautifully carved granite faced tombs, one for his wife (on the right as your approach the tombs from below) and the other for himself.
On each side of the tombs are 3.3 metre high granite statues of two civil Confucian officials and, on a slightly lower level, two military officers. The civil officials were positioned closer the tomb to advise the king while the military officers are further out and thus better positioned to fend off an attack on the King.
Also scattered around the tomb area are statues of lions (symbol of the king) and sheep (symbol of his Mongolian wife).
The interiors of the tombs were plundered by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. While much was lost, some relics were saved, including King Kongmin's coffin. The items saved now form part of the collection at the Koryo Museum in Kaesong, our next stop.
- Historical Travel
Other extra curriculum activity
Not all children make it to the Students and Childrens’ Palace for its wide range of fun extra curriculum activities. Many, the non-elite, are forced engage in less fun extra curriculum activities (assuming they go to school at all). For city children this frequently appears to mean sweeping the streets and other public areas. While these children, tidying up around Kim Il-sung’s statue on Mount Janam seemed perfectly happy to engage with us and have their photos taken it wasn’t long until we were told by our guide to desist from taking photos of the kids (clearly from less well to do families) as we were frightening and upsetting them!
As a general rule you are not permitted to take photographs of anything that could paint North Korea in a poor light.
Image and perception are important in North Korea and while they try hard to protect their image they are also quick to jump on anything which tarnishes the image of their number one enemy, the United States. This leads to some rather crazy situations one of which, related to what has become a de facto dress code for visiting the Demilitarised Zone (along the border with South Korea), I will relate here.
While we could wear anything we liked when we visited the DMZ, visitors from the south are required to be smartly dressed and, in particular, no ripped jeans, torn t-shirts and the like are permitted.
You would have imagined it would have been the other way round and, as such, the reason for this dress code for southern visitors may surprise you.
Apparently when more casual attire was permitted the North Korean soldiers would photograph visitors in their ripped jeans and torn t-shorts and broadcast the images within North Korea as evidence of the impoverished state existing in the US, and outside North Korea generally, such that people were destitute and could not even afford basic clothes.
I trust, dear reader, that you will not assume, based on my pictures here that all children in North Korea sweep the street. Most assuredly some do not!
With the evening drawing to a close we made our way, on foot, down Tongli Street past the Namdae Gate, the old south city gate rebuilt after the Korean War (to dark for photos), to our hotel –the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel.
Kaesong Students and Childrens’ Palace
The most noticeable building in Kaesong and one we had a great view off from the Kwandok Pavilion on Mount Janam is the Kaesong Students and Childrens’ Palace, a smaller version of the Mansudae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang though here in a more traditional Korean architectural style. It opened in 1961.
Children’s Palaces, found throughout North Korea, are not Palaces in the western sense but rather complexes offering a wide of extra curriculum activities to children. These activities concentrate on sports, music, the arts and culture. While theoretically open to all children, and we were told about 3000 attended this one in Kaesong, in practice they are restricted to the children of the elite and party faithful.
I have written an extensive review on the Mansudae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang and encourage you to have a look at that for further detail as the concept, ethos, etc of all childrens’ palaces are the same.
While passing by the Great Leader’s statue again on out way down to our hotel we came across some children engaged in another important extra curriculum activity. Continue with me for a look.
- Historical Travel
Kaesong Old Town
Kaesong has a very long history and has the best preserved old town area in North Korea. While most of North Korea was razed to the ground by US bombing during the Korean War, Kaesong was spared by virtue of the fact that, until it was captured by the North Koreans, it had been on the South Korean side of the border - the 38th parallel north- as determined by Russia and the United States at the end of WWII. It is the only town that changed hands in the three year long war which cost the lives of nearly three million people.
While predating 918, Kaesong was the capital of the Koryo kingdom from 918-1392, after which the capital was moved to present-day Seoul (now the capital of South Korea) only 80 kilometres to the south, but accessible today to the average visitor only via Beijing.
Kaesong has a very extensive old town area dating from the post Koryo, Ri dynasty period which, unfortunately, is (with one exception) not accessible to visitors.
So, while the Kwandok Pavilion is pleasant enough in itself the main reason for visiting it is for the view of the old town, brimming with traditional Ri dynasty (post 1392 to Japanese occupation in 1910) single story housing. The town layout, which presumably dates from later rather than earlier in the Ri dynasty period, looks very similar to that of similar era towns in neighbouring China with their very narrow streets, walls separating small clusters/compounds of houses and outdated facilities. Looking closely (using my camera zoom), while indeed brimming with traditional Korean houses they unfortunately appear to be in varying stages of decay (picture 5).
It is a great shame that a visit into the streets of the old town is not possible. I suspect that, charming as it looks from the Kwandok Pavillion, the poverty and squalor within the old area is more than the powers that be wish to share with visitors.
The exception that I referred to above is the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel were we stayed. This comprises a block of the old town converted to accommodation for visitors which, I suspect, is totally unrepresentative of the remainder of the old town as it stands today.
The substantial building to the rear of the old town area (picture 3) is the Kaesong Students and Childrens’ Palace.
- Historical Travel
Perched on the side of Mount Janam, about 100 metres walk from the large bronze statue of Kim Il-sung, is Kwandok Pavilion. The original pavilion was constructed in 1780 for archery contests. It was destroyed in 1950 by US bombing in the early days of the Korean War. The existing structure is a 1954 reconstruction.
In feudal times, in addition to being the outdoor manly sport of choice, archery was essential for national safety in times of war and to ensure a ready and competent supply of archers nobles encouraged on going practice by hosting competitions at pavilions such as this. Prizes were from the public purse.
There are a number of other (much more) important historic sites in this area on Mount Janam which we did not have time to visit as it was now starting to get dark and we had to walk down (briskly before it got dark) to our hotel on the perimeter of the old town.
While the pavilion itself did not overly excite me (reconstructions rarely do) the best view of Kaesong's old town, for photography, came from here, at the Pavilion.
- Historical Travel
Turning your back on the Great Leader is hard to do, but do it you must in this case.
The view down Tongil (Reunification) Street is the most photographed in Kaesong and one of the best recognised vistas in North Korea.
Everyone tries to get a picture of this four-lane highway, which cuts through the centre of Kaesong, with no vehicles on it and if they are lucky the picture will include a traffic policeman directing this non-existent traffic – a classic image of North Korea in many people’s minds, and reasonably so.
Alas, there are three vehicles in my main photo and no one seems to be directing them, somewhat extraordinary in a country that takes its traffic control so seriously.
What can be seen from my photos is that, in Kaesong, the people are the traffic in the city.
Presumably the explanation that our guide gave me for the four-lane, in each direction, and almost equally car-less Reunification Highway between Pyongyang and Kaesong also applies here. That is, it will be needed when the country is reunited, soon.
Putting this optimism aside, apart from the ‘need’ to have a grand avenue lead up to the stature of Kim Il-sung (from which I took the photographs) I see no transport logic for it. It comes to an end at the foot of Songak Mountain, in the distance, where the Reunification Highway connects with it. If the slopes at either end were not as steep as they are I would have suggested it was an airstrip in the centre of town. Indeed, it might actually be capable of being used as one in the event of an outbreak of hostilities in the near by Demilitarised Zone.
What you can’t appreciate from the photographs is the thunderous loudspeaker broadcast which we had to endure for about ten minutes, breaking the more regular silence of the city. Our guide assured us that it was the evening news being broadcast for the benefit of the people. A member of another tour group, who could speak Korean, told us that the people were being reminded that there were foreign visitors in town (us!) and they needed to be on their best behavior. I can’t vouch either story.
Having admired the view we took a short walk to the Kwandok Pavilion, just off to the right looking towards the city centre from the Great Leader’s statue.
Kim Il-sung watching from on high
No city in North Korea is complete without its bronze statue of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, placed on the top of a hill for everybody to see. So naturally there is one here in Kaesong on Mount Janam at the end of the grand boulevard that is Tongil Street. Clearly Kim Il-sung did not share the same modesty of his son who banned statues, etc of him being erected while he was alive. This statue of Kim Il-sung was erected in 1968.
For the benefit of readers who have not read my Pyongyang page or do not otherwise know, people come to these statues basically to worship the former (though Eternal) Leader as if he were a god. You will see them come in their finest attire and bearing flowers. Having laid the flowers at the foot of the statue they will bow – from the waist. Tourists visiting the statues (which you will do on arrival into any new town) must show their respects in the same way as locals. So, having paid our respects we were free to have a look around and take photographs.
It is surprising, given the size of Kaesong (over 200,000) and its importance, that the Great Leader has not yet been joined by his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il on the dais. I imagine there is a limit to how many of these statues, which reputedly each take around a year to make, the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang can produce. I guess Kaesong has to wait as Pyongyang gets first call and there was certainly a massive demand for statues, murals and other adulatory works of art in the run up to Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday celebrations in 2012. On our way out of North Korea via Sinuiju in the north, I learned that the reason we could not see the Great Leader there was that the Dear Leader was in the process of being added. Perhaps Kaesong will be next.
In the meantime, Kim Il-sung watches over his people, alone.
My first and last photos attached were taken from the grounds of our hotel – the Folk Custom Hotel - in the old part of town. The first one is an early morning shot while the last one is obviously taken at night when the rest of the city would have been in pretty much total darkness. Unlike in Pyongyang, where they have some lights at night, we did not get out into Kaesong after dark to check out the power situation.
Having sufficiently admired the stature, we turned around to take in what is perhaps the most famous street scene in North Korea – Tongil Street.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
Enjoy your bus trip to Kaesong
Approximately half our tour group spent the morning of our second day in North Korea running some part of the Pyongyang Marathon. The rest of us watched the start and finish of the run and two soccer matches in the Kim Il-sung Stadium.
It was a relief, especially to those who ran, to hear that, rather than a packed afternoon’s sightseeing in Pyongyang, we would be going down to Kaesong where we would spend the night and have a look at a few sights there prior to our trip to Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone, on the border with South Korea. the following day.
Kaesong is about 10 kms from the border and the trip from Pyongyang, by bus, took us approximately three hours.
I have given a full account of my trip down the Reunification Highway on my Panmunjom page. Also on that page I have provided details on an al fresco ‘comfort stop’ we had en route.
Rather than repeat identical information here I invite you to read the following two reviews on my Panmunjom page. Do return here having done so!
The Reunification Highway
Dining al fresco en route to the DMZ
My second picture, attached, is of the Reunification Monument, our first stop on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Further details on this amazing piece of work can be found on my Pyongyang page.
For those who may not have seen the Team America skit alluded to in the title of my first picture attached, have a look here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEaKX9YYHiQ
After a pleasant, if a little bumpy, trip we arrived into Kaesong just before dusk and, first up, made our way to the massive statue of Kim Il-sung which sits on Mount Janam, high up above the town, looking down on it. Do come up for a look.
- Road Trip
Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb (King Kongmin)
There was a delay on our journey back form the Concrete wall near the DMZ. A loud 'bang' from under the bus, followed by unpleasant grinding noises. We stopped for an hour as curious local came through the fields to peer at the tourists. We observed ingenuity at work as the bu' suspension was fixed inside an hour with what seemed no more than a large rubber band!
On to one of the Royal tombs of the Koryo dynasty, outside Kaesong city (we made a run through the backstreets). The road winds through steep hilly country, past the mounds of other tombs to a carpark at the base of the ceremonial steps to the two adjacent mounds where King Kongmin and his wife are interred. Stone statues of State Civil Officials line the path, and the toms themselves are guarded by grinning tigers and smiling sheep.
- Historical Travel
- Road Trip
Grand Shopping Mall
Kaesong Grand Shopping Mall, centralize located in Kaesong city.
Best place to buy souvenir of North Korea. Traditional wear, food, craft works, and antiques. The price is fixed in Chinese RMB or US dollar.
You can try your luck to bargain.
- Budget Travel
- Arts and Culture
Nandemon Bell Tower
Most of the people may think Nandemon can only found in South Korea, actually there is one in Kaesong North Korea.
In Nandemon, one of the most famous buildings is this Ancient Bell Tower. This is one of the famous bell towers in North Korea.
The bell was kept in one of the old temper in Kaesong, in 1563, the temper was burnt in fire, so they move the bell to Nandemon and built a Bell Tower.
- Theme Park Trips
Coree Museum was built in Coree Era named as Songgyunguan University, the building is remain and now turns into Coree Museum, the remains indicating the way of development of Coree, the cultural assets, Buddhist image, metal craft, building model, stone art object were displaying in this building.
- Arts and Culture
Find a day, if you realize that there isn’t any spy around; try your luck to go around.
The places I would definitely visit is local village. Here is one of the villages I’ve chosen near by Kaesong city.
As you can see, the house is made of wood, with very think concrete. Very old design, oldies but goodies.
I was told that usually few families share a small piece of farm land for cultivation. The farm land that I visited was almost empty.
Perhaps in another few weeks, the leaves of potato or sweet corn will comes out?
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
The Grand General Hall
Some call this Grand General Hall as The Cultural Central or The Cultural Hall, but it really depends on the guide book.
There is a cultural food court inside where can fit more than 500 people.
When there are tourists visiting to this hall, they may have traffic control for the local people, that’s why we can meet no one local here.
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
- Food and Dining