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 Builds Ski Resort To Rival 2018 Winter Olympics

U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear missiles aren’t the only thing being built in North Korea that have made headlines lately; it seems dictator Kim Jong-un has also ordered construction on a ski resort that will rival the facilities being built in South Korea to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, news.com.au reports.

According to multiple reports citing North Korean state media, the dictator predicts a “skiing wave will seize the country” and has ordered construction on a “world-class” ski resort with beginner, intermediate and advanced tracks, plus a hotel, cable cars, equipment shops and more. He has also ordered the domestic production of ski equipment and clothing.

Jong-un’s orders came shortly after the 2011 announcement that the South Korean city of Pyeongchang will host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the 1988 Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea, the neighbor to the north boycotted the games – but no official announcement has been made on the 2018 Winter Olympics. Although the new resort is slated to be a “world-class” attraction, it’s not likely very much of the world will get to experience the North Korean slopes – tourism in the country is strictly controlled by several state-owned tourism bureaus.

The Kimchi-ite: Living And Traveling South Of North Korea

One of the top stories this past week on CNN, BBC, Fox News, Reuters and so many other major news organizations was that of North Korea‘s plans for a nuclear test. However, in South Korea, no one seems to care. It was certainly not the biggest story for Korean news outlets, sometimes even buried under stories about a coming cold front, the president-elect’s cabinet choices and advice on how not to get your cellphone stolen from a sauna. People often worry about whether or not it is safe to travel to less talked about South Korea because of the psychotic neighbor to the north. The truth is that even with today’s threats, which are only the most recent in a long string of hostility, South Korea remains one of the safest travel destinations in the world. When traveling throughout the country, rarely will there be an instance of theft or physical abuse. But obviously, travelers are not so much worried about pickpockets and scam artists when curious about the Koreas, but instead are much more worried of World War III breaking out.However, many feel safer in Seoul, roughly 30 miles from the North Korean border, than in the United States. And that is taking into consideration that the Korean War technically has not ended and also that the world’s largest artillery force is likely pointed at the capital right this minute. Much of that safety can be attributed to how ill equipped North Korea is and how well allied South Korea is.

I have asked my Korean friends how they feel about the situation and many reply that it is extremely complicated and they are numb to it all. They have grown up with this constant threat of North Korea. Very rarely does a month go by without some sort of threat to South Korea or the world at large. Most feel that these threats are empty and are simply ways for the nation to intimidate other countries into giving them food aide.

There is a feeling of sadness and sympathy for the people of North Korea. Their situation is dire and there is little anyone can do about it. In many ways, South Koreans don’t feel as though North Korea is a neighbor. Even though it is the only country South Korea shares a land border with, there is no real communication or travel between the two nations, making ties to nearby Japan and China stronger.

All of this is not to say that any report of danger in a foreign country is false, but it’s always important to consider a local perspective. The truth is, there are risky and dangerous aspects to almost all facets of travel. Whether it be the threat of attacks from North Korea while checking out a palace in Seoul, an imminent hurricane while at Miami Beach or having your camera stolen from your hotel room.

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: U.S. Army Korea Historical Image Archive]

Former chef to North Korean dictator dishes on change prospects with Kim Jong-un

It looks like Kim Jong-un will follow in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-il. This succession plan, of sorts, will extend the Kim dynasty in North Korea to a third generation, separating the top dog even further from the supposed revolutionary exploits of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung.

With new blood, of course, the question of change is inevitable. Under Kim Jong-il, there have been brief, constrained flirtations with some activities that could be described as capitalism, particularly in the depths of the famine that struck the nation. Marketplaces for privately grown or procured goods opened, resulting in a black market in plain sight that was subject only to occasional government intervention.

So, can we look for Kim Jong-un to loosen the family’s (allegedly) merciless grip on the country? One man doesn’t think so.

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Kenji Fujimoto (not his real name) used to be a personal chef to the current dictator, and despite the pseudonym, sunglasses and bandana – all to conceal his appearance and identity, for security reasons – he somehow finds the media when it’s time to comment on his former employer.

Fujimoto told reporters in Seoul last week not to expect too much too soon. The Wall Street Journal does report that there is long-term hope, however:

Kim Jong Eun, the dictator’s third son who’s emerged as his likely successor, will ultimately have to open up the country, above all, to feed people, Mr. Fujimoto said. But the younger Kim won’t be able to do so in the near term because of his fragile standing in the party.

“He will have no choice but to continue policies set by his father at least for several years,” Mr. Fujimoto said. “So it’s not until a decade later when a policy change, if any, would materialize.”

The chef escaped from North Korea in 2001, without being able to take his wife and two children. He has since written four books about his experiences in the DPRK.

Fujimoto watched the next leader grow up, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve seen him since he was seven, and he always took the lead when he played with his brothers, and his strong leadership disposition was clearly visible.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]