Ornate moss-covered oriental roof
DPRK,  History,  Ruins

Another slice of North Korean history in Kaesong

Kaesong is unusual among North Korean cities in having not been largely destroyed during the Korean War. It is also noteworthy as the only city to have changed hands as a result of the armistice agreement, having been part of South Korea from 1945 to 1950 until the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement brought it under North Korean control.

These two facts are connected. Because it didn’t become part of the DPRK until after the war, it was spared the heavy bombing inflicted on the country by US and South Korean forces; thus more of its historical sites survived. This is in contrast to Pyongyang, for instance, which was so badly destroyed that today’s city was almost entirely built after 1953.

The Sonjuk Bridge

The Sonjuk Bridge is one of those historical sites. Built in 1290 (or possibly 1216 – sources disagree on this point), it is famous as the place where a renowned Confucian scholar and statesman, Jong Mong Ju, was assassinated. Jong was a loyal advisor to the Koryo Dynasty. He was murdered by the orders of Ri Song Gye, who was striving to usher in a new rival dynasty. This he succeeded in doing that same year: the Choson Ri Dynasty. Jong’s death came to symbolise unwavering loyalty.

Old stone bridge over a canal
Sonjuk Bridge

Stone markers by the Sonjuk Bridge

Nearby is the Pyochung Pavilion. It was built to protect the two stone turtles that were erected here to commemorate the assassination; one in 1740 and the other in 1872. It is clear from these that later rulers prized Jong Mong Ju’s loyalty too.

Our guide told us that rubbing the nose of a turtle is thought by Koreans to guarantee a long life; so of course we all had a go!

Both Sonjuk Bridge and Pyochung Pavilion are included in the group of historic sites and monuments in Kaesong that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2013. The citation says that:

‘The site testifies to the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.’

The Koryo History Museum

I found the Koryo History Museum (also known as Songgyungwan) worth visiting as much for its atmospheric and photogenic location and architecture as for its artefacts. It is housed in a group of buildings that once formed the Sungyun Academy. This was the highest institute of Confucian learning during the Koryo and Choson Ri dynasties. Here the children of the higher echelons of society studied to enter the civil service.

It was largely destroyed during the late 16th century invasion by Japan; and was rebuilt in 1602-10 in the original Koryo style. Most of the structures which stand today date from that period, having (like much of Kaesong) come through the Korean War unscathed. Koryo buildings are distinguished by having gently sloping roofs with fairly minimal decoration, supported by squat pillars which bulge slightly in the centre. I found the whole place very appealing, and (in the parts where weren’t caught up in a large Chinese tour group) rather peaceful.

Stone steps leading to timber gate with stone roof
The entrance to the museum

We went through the attractive outer gate, its wood painted in places but quite faded, into an open area with some beautiful old trees. These we were told included two 500-year-old ginkgo trees and a 900-year-old Keyaki or Japanese Zelkova.

Path between old trees and buildings
The main courtyard with ginkgo trees
Pink bud among glossy leaves

I asked about another tree and was told it was a magnolia, the Korean national tree, although it seemed rather different from the magnolias we have at home in England.

There were buildings to either side, one of which was having its roof repaired with traditional tiles.

Three men on an old stone roof
Mending a roof

Ahead of us, along a path shiny with recent rain, were the Myongrun Hall and Inner Gate. The Myongrun Hall was where students traditionally received lectures. Today, appropriately, a group of Chinese visitors were sitting there being addressed at some length by their guide.

Beyond these we came to the buildings which house the museum’s artefacts; the Memorial Services rooms on either side and the Taesong Hall (the former Confucian shrine) facing the gate.

The artefacts

The buildings themselves were very attractive and for me, as I said, were the main draw of the museum. But I also found many of the objects on display very interesting. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

Model of oriental palace with green roofs

A model of the Royal Palace that we were to visit later in the day, Manwoldae (see below).

Chart with oriental writing and graph columns

A Japanese chart from the early 1900s. This illustrates the monetary value placed by them on Korean men, women, children and oxen. It was interesting because, while oxen were more valuable than any human, women were worth more than men. Why? Because they would have babies who would grow up to also serve as slaves to the occupiers.

Grey pottery vase with white crane decoration

A beautiful Koryo Celadon vase decorated with cranes and dating from the 13th century. Our UK guide Carl told us that a friend of his, an expert in ceramics, had estimated its value at c £2M; yet here it was in a simple display case with no apparent security in place!

Pottery duck

And a pair of ducks in the same style and even older, dated to the 11th or 12th century.

Figures painted on a stone wall

The reconstruction of the interior of King Kongmin’s tomb which we had visited the previous day.

Gold seated Buddha

And some lovely items from a former Buddhist temple, including this Buddha.

Outside in the grounds we saw a number of monuments and pagodas, relocated from elsewhere. They included a seven-storeyed stone pagoda from Hyonhwa Temple, dating back to 1020; and the pagoda of Hungguk Temple from 1021.

Stone column with projections
Stone pagoda from Hyonhwa Temple
Stone column with projections
The pagoda of Hungguk Temple
Stone pillar with two turtles at base

There was also a stela mounted on the back of a turtle. Again we were told how the turtle is considered lucky in Korea, symbolising longevity; and were invited to rub its nose. But having already rubbed one turtle nose today, at the Pyochung Pavilion, I decided not to seem too greedy to the ‘turtle gods’ by having a second go in one day!

Manwoldae

We had seen the model of the former royal palace of Manwoldae at the museum; and towards the end of the same day (after our visit to the DMZ, more of which in a future post), we were taken to see the palace itself. One thing you soon realise on a visit to North Korea is that the guides love to pack as much into each day as they possibly can; by the time we got here I think we were all tiring a bit!

This palace was established in 918/9 when Wang Kon (877-943), founder of the Koryo dynasty, established his capital at his hometown of Kaesong. It was destroyed in 1361 by a group that the Koreans call the ‘Red Kerchiefed Rebel Army’. This group is better known elsewhere as the Red Turban Army. They originated in part of China and invaded Koryo in the 14th century, when it had already lost its power, becoming a vassal state of Mongolia under Kublai Khan and his successors.

Stone slabs on sandy ground
Outer palace remains on the lowest level

We were faced with quite a climb to reach the top of the site. Two people in the group dropped out; I noticed that our young male guide was deputed to stay with them, rather than trust them to wait for the rest of us on their own. But I managed to make it up to the top level!

I am not sure my resting companions missed a lot; this is one of those places where you have to make heavy use of your imagination to visualise what once stood where now there are only lines of stone in the grass. Having seen the model at the museum this morning did help a bit; but the best thing for me about the palace was the setting, with the view of Mount Songak beyond. This mountain influenced the location of the palace; the beliefs of geomancy determined that a ruler should face south and should have a mountain at his back to the north.

Mist covered mountain with archaeological remains in front
Manwoldae remains and Mount Songak

Our guide to the palace did do his best to bring the site to life, describing how the various rooms would have been used; living quarters for the king and queen, audience rooms, shrines etc.

I understand that Manwoldae isn’t usually on the tourist trail, and I can sort of see why, as there’s relatively little to see there. On the other hand, the setting is attractive, and the stories associated with the palace interesting. So on balance I would say that we were fortunate that our guide added it to our tour in her keenness to show us as much as possible of Kaesong.

I visited North Korea in 2019

17 Comments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Teresa – I know not everyone would want to visit North Korea, but I hope it’s interesting for people to discover more about a country that we know so little about!

      • margaret21

        I hadn’t realised how much of North Korea had been decimated in the most recent war. It seems to be the story of Korea’s history throughout – most of South Korea’s more historic buildings are actually reconstructions. But isn’t Korea’s ceramic tradition wonderful? The things I saw from earlier centuries in the National Museum made a huge impression on me. I loved this post Sarah – thanks.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Thanks Margaret. I hadn’t realised that either until I read the friend’s blog that in part inspired us to visit. But when you understand that you can start to also understand their very real paranoia that it could happen again, which is one reason they are so determined to develop nuclear weapons (mainly as a deterrent, I tend to believe). It also explains the hold the Kims have on the people, keeping them in fear and hatred of the US and therefore looking to the Leaders for protection. The young work experience guide on our tour just couldn’t accept or understand Chris’s point that most Americans are just regular nice people, he’s been so conditioned to believe otherwise – although his older and much more experienced colleague understood that.

          And yes, the ceramics are beautiful. I bought a little dish in a similar style to this vase (but modern, not an antique!) as a souvenir of our trip.

          • margaret21

            Just finished Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a fascinating if horrifying account of the famine in NK during the early 2000s, put together from the accounts of escapees. Have you read it?

          • Sarah Wilkie

            Yes, I read it after our visit. When we went to Chongjin, the city where much of the accounts were set, our North Korean guide, who usually liked to present everything in the most positive light, did say that things had been very tough there at that time and even said that people had dropped dead in the street from starvation.

  • Ayuri Yuasa

    It’s always very interesting to see inside North Korea through your blog!
    North Korea isn’t that far from Japan, but few people have been there (me neither).

        • Sarah Wilkie

          We had people in our group very used to independent travel and they coped OK. One was overlanding from the UK to New Zealand but detoured from Beijing to take the tour! You can go privately, just as a couple, but you still have to have two North Korean guides with you at all times, which I think would be worse than doing so in a group in some ways. Plus, the costs of flying internally become prohibitive (because you’re paying for the two guides split between two of you rather than 10-16) so you don’t get to see nearly as much.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: