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.

North Korea resumes construction on world’s most hideous hotel

North Korea

North Korea is the hermit kingdom; a strange land of mass games and dear leaders trapped in a 1950’s communist time warp. While they may not have modern supermarkets or PlayStation 3, North Korea does have one of the tallest hotels in the world, and it looms high above Pyongyang like a tribute to the ill advised whims of dear leader Kim Jong Il.

According to USA Today, The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel began construction in the late nineteen-eighties and was spearheaded by Orascom – an Egyptian architectural firm. Construction of the abominable structure was halted after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without Soviet subsidies, North Korea could not afford the expensive project. Today, the 105 story building is again under construction and may cost as much as two billion U.S. dollars to complete, or 5% to 10% of estimated North Korean G.D.P. Relative to American G.D.P. terms, it would be like the United States sinking over a trillion dollars into a hotel project.North Korea The windowless and hollow structure stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city. It is a metaphorical monument to a country plagued by its own agitprop claims of supremacy and the central lunacy that drives this madness further. The North Koreans even spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure.

When completed, the Ryugyong Hotel will have 3000 rooms and roughly 3.9 million square feet. The original plan entailed three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several revolving restaurants and an observation deck at the hotel’s pinnacle. For a country that just opened its first burger spot last year, it is very ambitious stuff.

Many architects in the international community are questioning the suitability of the project. Bruno Giberti, a professor at California Polytechnic State University’s department of architecture, called it “the worst building in the world.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea deemed the structure irreparable almost fifteen years ago, citing curving elevator shafts. From a humanitarian standpoint, a nation filled with malnourished children could probably make better use of the estimated $2 billion project.

With elevator shafts more crooked than Kim Jong Il’s epic golf game and decades of structural decay, the “ghostscraper” faces a long road to accepting its first guests. North Korea plans to open the hotel to coincide with the posthumous 100 year birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung in late 2012.

flickr images via John Pavelka

Pyongyang burger joint opens to wide popularity

Pyongyang has its first hamburger joint, and the locals who can afford it are flocking to the place. With a name rooted firmly in propaganda – not exactly surprising – the restaurant serves distinctly American fare, though I doubt there’s a disclaimer on the menu.

Samtaesung, the name of the fast-food spot, translates to “Three Huge Stars,” an obvious reference to current leader Kim Jong-il, his father Kim Il-sung and the first dictator’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk.

Like the cuisine – and unlike the name – there is a distinctly capitalist flavor to this undertaking. The profits, such a loathsome term in a Communist regime, are going right to Kim Kyong-hui, the Dear Leader’s younger sister. The Korea Times reports:

“Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages is Kim Kyong Hui’s personal operation. It is run by Light Industry Vice Minister and member of Kim Kyong Hui’s inner circle Kim Kyeong Oak, who is in charge of all operations of the hamburger joint, from management to overseas fund transfers,” the official said.

To pick up a burger at Pyongyang‘s Samtaesung, the crowds have made reservations necessary; you have to place your order a day in advance to grab some grub between 6 AM and 11 PM. You can’t make a reservation after 1 PM, because of the long lines that still pressure the 24-hour stand. In a further nod to the regime’s pride, North Korea has not adopted the word “hamburger,” as its neighbor’s to the south have. Rather, they call it “minced meat and bread, reports the Korea Times. Waffles, also on the menu, carry the appellation “baked dough.” Most people do use the term “hamburger,” though.

A burger will set you back around $2 at Samtaesung, making it an unattainable luxury to the average North Korean citizen. The fact that you can make your purchase in U.S. dollars, euros or Chinese yuan – in addition to North Korean won – further indicates the exclusive nature of this establishment.

Curiosity brought the traffic initially, but the locals have developed a taste or “minced meat and bread.” According to the Korea Times, “The third time you eat a hamburger, you really get to appreciate it. By the time you’ve had your fifth, you’re already addicted to the taste,” he said.

North Korean art show focuses on the familiar

A new fine art exhibition kicked off in Pyongyang last week, and according to the Korea Central News Agency, it’s a must-see. If you’re down with the “anti-Japanese struggle,” I suspect you’ll be right at home at the Pyongyang International Cultural Center.

There are “at least 60 fine art works” on display, among them pieces created by Pyongyang-area artists during the “period of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle.” At the top of the list are paintings with the catchy titles “Return Blood for Blood and Oppose Arms with Arms” and “Arirang on Jiansanfeng,” They highlight the efforts of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, and his first wife, the Dear Leader’s mother, Kim Jong Suk. Both, according to the country’s official view of the past.

And, you won’t want to miss “You Should Conduct Combat Training under the Simulated Condition of Real Battle,” which addresses “the commanding trait of General Secretary Kim Jong Il who has strengthened the Korean People’s Army into the invincible revolutionary armed forces.” No exhibition, of course, would be complete without a Kim Jong-il painting!

The KCNA continues:

Among the works on display are Korean painting “Grievance on the Shore of Lake Pujon”, oil painting “Echo in Ulsa Year (1905)”, woodcut “Sea of Blood in Northern Jiandao” and poster “Brigandish Japanese Imperialists Who Forced Koreans to Change Their Names to Japanese Ones!”, which expose the hair-raising atrocities committed by the Japanese imperialists.

Was the Thursday opening well-attended? This is the best we’ll get: “Officials concerned, artists and working people in the city went round the fine art works on display.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

World Cup hangover: North Korea team grilled


The North Korean World Cup soccer team never had a chance in South Africa, but that didn’t make the trip home any easier. At the beginning of July, they faced a “grand debate” because they let down the regime in the “ideological struggle” to put the ball into the net a lot during the tournament. More than 400 government officials, students and journalists watched the spectacle, though I have this sneaking suspicion that none really enjoyed it.

Responsibility for the loss fell to the coach, and the team members were allegedly compelled to point their blame in his direction. He was punished for having betrayed Kim Jong-sun, Kim Jong-il‘s son and rumoured next top dog of North Korea. The coach was fired and reportedly made to become a builder – he was also tossed from the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Apparently, just getting to the World Cup for the first time since 1966 wasn’t good enough, and I’m guessing that the next coach will take note of this.

It could have been a lot worse, though. Past coaches who didn’t measure up were sent to prison camps, according to South Korean intelligence sources.

Meanwhile, travel plans made the difference for two of the team’s players. Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak, both born in Japan, were able to avoid the humiliating public display by dashing off directly to Japan following the World Cup tournament. If they had middle seats the whole way, I’m sure they weren’t complaining.