The primary reason for our visiting Kaesong was that it provided a suitable overnight stop for visiting Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone which is not (given road conditions, transport options and other restrictions) feasible as a day trip from Pyongyang. Having said that there are quite a few attractions in and around Kaesong worthy of time in themselves, though as you will see below, time was not on our side.
If you have not already done so, I recommend that you read my North Korea – General Reviews blog entries prior to this one as it contains a lot of useful background and not location specific information which you might find useful.
Kaesong was the imperial capital of Korea from 992 to 1392 and many of the attractions worthy a look date from this Koryo Dynasty period and the subsequent Ri/Joseon Dynasty period which lasted into the 1890s prior to Japan occupying the country and formally annexing it in 1910.
Kaesong is North Korea’s southern most city and lies around 10kms north of the border with South Korea. It has a population of around 200,000 but, like all other cities in North Korea, the number appeared grossly exaggerated as we moved around the relatively deserted city streets.
In most recent times Kaesong’s main claim to fame is that it hosts (albeit a few kilometres outside the city) the Kaesong Industrial Region.
This is an industrial park employing over 50,000 North Koreans in the over 100 South Korean factories which have opened there since the park was set up in 2005 as, what has become, a most successful joint venture between the DPRK and South Korea. That said, there is the little (or is it, the big) Choco Pie issue which continues to upset the authorities in Pyongyang. You can read more about this in a review entitled ‘Have a Coke and Choco Pie’ on my North Korea page.
Why wasn’t Kaesong bombed during the Korean War?
Perhaps the thing that most surprises people visiting Kaesong is that it managed to survive, almost unscathed, the US lead bombing campaigns of northern cities during the 1950-53 Korean War (or as the North Koreans call it – the Fatherland Liberation War) while most other cities and towns were almost obliterated.
This seems especially surprising given its location close to the then border between the two Koreas. The reason it wasn’t bombed is actually quite simple. When the peninsula was divided by the US and the USSR post WWII the border was the 38th parallel north. Kaesong lies just south of this line and was thus part of South Korea and as such was not bombed by the South/US during the war even though it changed hands on a number of occasions between 1950 and 1953.
Following the Korean War there was a slight realignment of the border such that South Korea lost Kaesong. In fact, this slight border realignment (Kaesong was the only city to change hands) was the only material outcome of hostilities which lasted three years and cost between two and three million lives. Kaesong thus became North Korea’s win from the Korean War.
The sights of Kaesong
As Kaesong was not obliterated like most other North Korean cities during the Korean War it has retained, within the city and in the surrounding area, many items of historical significance and interest to the visitor and we were able to see a few of these including the Kaesong old town area, the Koryo Museum and the Tomb of King Kongmin (UNESCO listed). We overnighted in the Kaesong Custom Folk Hotel, a traditional Korean hotel comprising a block of the old town converted into tourist accommodation.
While we saw a few things, as mentioned, the sights we saw are vastly out numbered by those we didn’t see and perhaps the most frustrating thing was that while we could look down into the old town from the Kwandok Pavilion on Mount Janam we were not permitted to visit it. This was the most annoying part of my visit to Kaesong (and indeed North Korea) because having seen it from afar I just wanted to explore it on foot.
The reason we didn’t visit a number of other sights was merely a lack of time as opposed to them being off limits to tourists. As I indicated, the primary reason we were in Kaesong was the visit Panmunjom and the DMZ after which we returned to Pyongyang, with an overnight stop en-route outside Nampo, for the 102nd anniversary celebrations of the birth of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. We couldn’t dare not arrive back late for that!
Let me, via a series of reviews, take you on our journey to, in and around Kaesong.
This blog entry is the first of a group (loop) of entries based on my visit to Kaesong, North Korea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Enjoy your bus trip to Kaesong.