It was a hot, sticky day in North Korea as we trudged up the steep hill on Tongil Street to gaze upon yet another massive, gilded statue of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. We were in the industrial city of Kaesong, only miles from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. The city bears the signature architecture of the DPRK: broad boulevards leading up to the city’s high point, the pinnacle of which is decorated with the massive gold monument.
Although Korea is an ancient country with roots over 4,000 years old, a visit to the North focuses on the iconography of the modern era, monuments and museums propping up the cult of personality related to the dynasty started by Kim Il Sung, passed on to his son Kim Jong Il, and now perpetuated by Kim Jong Un. But that regime has been in place for only 75 years, the blink of an eye in the Korean peninsula’s long history. Surely there was something else to see?
Fortunately, relief was only a few miles away. From 918 to 1392, Kaesong was the capital of Korea and the home of the Koryo Dynasty, whence modern-day Korea gets its name. We boarded a bus and headed to the countryside to visit royal tombs from that era. The city’s haze melted away as we drove through winding rural roads that were surrounded by verdant rice paddies; farmers hunched over tending to their crops as ever-present soldiers on patrol strode nearby.
After climbing a narrow path that barely clung to the hillside, we pulled up to the Hyonjongrung royal tombs, the 14th-century burial site for King Kongmin and Queen Noguk. The site is remarkably unscathed despite the intense bombing and artillery fire that targeted the region during the Korean War. The tombs typify burial architecture of the era, two large grass-covered mounds perched on a hilltop with a commanding view over the valley below.
We hiked up several flights of steps to the tombs, passing stone statues of men wearing robes and traditional hats. They are the king’s advisors, there to provide guidance forever. Seven-ton stone slabs mark the entranceway to each tomb. Gray stone statues of tigers and lambs, representing strength and compassion, guard the tombs in perpetuity.
Our guide, Mrs. Lee, was proud of her country’s long history, but in a country like North Korea, current events usually cast a long shadow over the past.
“These tombs represent a time when Korea was one country. But as you can see, it is now divided. One wonders whose fault that is?” Mrs. Lee intoned, giving the official government line that the United States and its South Korean “lackeys” are preventing the reunification of the two Koreas.
Despite the message, it was refreshing to view a historic site in North Korea that truly was historic, not something manufactured after the rise of Kim Il Sung. Similar tombs on the South Korean side of the DMZ have been recognized by UNSESCO as World Heritage sites, but such attention is not forthcoming anytime soon for these tombs in the North. The flip side is that the North Korean sites are unblemished by mass tourism and can be experienced in this pristine ancient setting.
Unfortunately, the interiors of the tombs were plundered by Japanese troops during their early 20th-century occupation of Korea. However, some relics were saved and are now preserved at the Koryo Museum in Kaesong. Housed in a former Confucian Academy that trained the children of nobility, it displays relics of the Koryo Dynasty that include several royal tombs and statues. The museum is set in a green oasis, slightly removed from the city; pride of place is given to two 500-year-old gingko trees, which are much revered as a link to the past.
The docent, Mrs. Park, walked us through the histories of the various rulers in a rote, methodical fashion. Her demeanor was somewhat dour until Larissa noticed the bright turquoise pumps she was wearing and asked her about them. The shoes were a Technicolor beacon in a gray country. Mrs. Park lit up as she and Larissa traded shoe stories. This display of “shoe diplomacy” broke down some of the built-up barriers between a North Korean and an American. If only their respective governments could get along so easily.
Outside one of the temples we watched a wedding couple as they posed for their official photos, the bride resplendent in a traditional Korean choson ot dress in a scarlet red fabric, while the groom wore a Western gray suit and the slightly dazed expression exhibited by grooms everywhere on their wedding day. In a country where so much madness occurs, these were refreshing signs of normalcy.
As we saw at Kaesong, the Korean peninsula has been ruled by centuries-long dynasties. We drove out of town and passed once more under the shadow of the foreboding statue of Kim Il Sung. One wonders if that icon will still be standing and venerated centuries from now.
Larissa and Michael Milne chucked it all to travel around the world for a year. You can follow their journey and pick up travel tips at their site.