When Korea Was One: Exploring Kaesong’s Koryo Dynasty Treasures In North Korea

Changes in Longitude

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.

The Kimchi-ite: Thousands Of Lanterns At Busan’s Greatest Temple

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling

Down in Busan, South Korea’s seaside second city, one of the greatest temples on the peninsula quietly sits. Samgwang Temple is large, imposing and beautiful on any typical day, but becomes a new spectacle altogether for Buddha’s Birthday; for the holiday, it suddenly blossoms with the soft glow of 10,000 lanterns.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling

It’s absolutely a sight worth seeing, and taking your time to get lost amongst the lanterns in such bright and colorful lights, can be pleasantly disorienting. Each individual lantern is sponsored and paid for by a follower of the temple, an obvious, visible sign of its influence.

There are quite a few lantern festivals throughout Korea and Asia, but this is certainly the largest density of lanterns that I have ever seen.

Jonathan Kramer, Gadling

To get to Samgwang Temple, go to Seomyeon Station on Busan Subway Line 1, where buses 63, 54 and 133 will take you to “Samgwansa Entrance;” unfortunately this is a misnomer and not the actual entrance to the temple. From the bus stop, cross the street and walk up the narrow road before you. From there, make your first left and then your first right. Finally, follow the road and the enormous temple will be at the top of the hill.

For more on Korean culture, food and festivals, you can always check out “The Kimchi-ite” archives by clicking here.

The Kimchi-ite: Iconic Landmark In Seoul Re-Opens 5 Years After Arson Attack


In early 2008, Sungnye-mun (commonly referred to as Namdae-mun), one of Korea’s most important cultural landmarks, was destroyed in a devastating arson attack. The shocking event was a national tragedy and has been engraved into the collective Korean consciousness. Today, people are able to immediately remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that the gate, which is very much linked to Korea’s identity, had been destroyed. The attack ultimately destroyed much of the gate’s wooden roof, which at the time was the oldest wooden structure in Korea.Now, after more than 5 years of extensive restoration, the iconic Sungnye-mun, meaning “Gate of Exalted Ceremonies,” has reopened to great fanfare with a visit from South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. During much of its restoration, the gate remained behind scaffolding, which intentionally obscured it from view, making its return to the Seoul landscape all the more welcome.

Originally built in 1398, its intended purpose was to control access to the capital, welcome foreign diplomats and protect the city from Siberian Tigers. During Japanese occupation, from which the gate received its controversial “Dongdae-mun” name, the surrounding walls were destroyed as the Crown Prince of Japan saw himself as too honorable to pass under the gate. Today, it sits in the middle of a grand intersection in the heart of the metropolis, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, symbolic of South Korea’s constant struggle between its modern aspirations and ties to tradition.

Getting to Singnye-mun is incredibly easy, just get to either City Hall subway station and go straight out exit 8 or to Seoul Station and go straight out of exit 3 or 4. The gate is roughly a 10 – 15 minute walk from any of those locations.

For more on Korean culture, food and all around eccentricities, check out The Kimchi-ite by clicking here.

[Image Credits: Jonathan Kramer, Najonpyohyeon and WatchWants via WikiMedia]

Officials Search For ‘Frankenfish’ In Central Park

Environmental officials plan to survey a lake in Central Park for the northern snakehead fish, a curious species often referred to as the “Frankenfish.”

After sightings in Queens in recent years, the toothy, predatory fish is thought to have reared its ugly head in the park, NBC News is reporting. Native to China, Russia and Korea, the invasive species eats frogs and crayfish, and – scarily – has the ability to live out of water in certain conditions.

The fish is such a threat to the ecosystem that signs have been posted around Harlem Meer warning anyone who catches the fish to “keep it in a secure container until it’s picked up by officials.” In 2002, the fish was discovered in a pond in Crofton, Maryland, leading to a slew of major media coverage and spawning three horror movies.

[Photo credit: United States Geological Survey / Wikimedia Commons]

South Korea Assures Country Is Safe For Travel

North Korea has issued a warning to foreign companies and tourists to leave South Korea in order to avoid harm in the event of a nuclear war, according to USA Today. The message came Tuesday, just after the joint industrial zone, the last cross-border cooperation in the long-divided Korean peninsula, was closed last week.

Fearing drops in tourism numbers, the government officials in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, called a meeting Monday to discuss the escalating situation. The city is located just 118 miles from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and is well within range of hundreds – if not thousands – of North Korean artillery and missile units.But in reality, no country has issued alerts or warnings concerning travel to South Korea, and the country’s tourism numbers are up, writes CNN. Last week, the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) announced a record number of visitors for March, with the inbound international tourists numbering more than a million for the first time in history. Although tourism numbers are not yet available for April, Korean Air and several major hotels told the news outlet there has been no noticeable dip in bookings.

“North Korea has a long history of making confrontational rhetoric and empty threats to South Korea, the United States and other nations as well,” Sejoon You, the executive director of KTO’s New York office, said in an announcement to the travel industry. “All the experts in this matter, both international and based in the U.S., agree that there is no real or present danger that North Korea would act on its threats.”

“The real situation in Korea is completely normal, as the daily lives of the Korean people and its visitors remain peaceful, safe and uninterrupted,” You added. “Korea remains a safe, pleasant and beautiful destination to be enjoyed now and later. All hotels, airports, airlines, cities and attractions are operating normally.”

Our own Jonathan Kramer can attest to that. He’s on the ground in South Korea writing “The Kimchi-ite,” and shows no signs of stopping soon.

[Photo credit: The U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons]