The Ancient Capital: Kaesong, North Korea

Situated in the southern mountains of the DPRK, Kaesong is a treasure trove of culture and history. This ancient royal capital is known for its export of medicinal Korean ginseng, for its countless temples and tombs, and for the rich natural beauty of the surrounding area. Kaesong makes a fascinating destination for tourism – and this attractive mountain citadel offers a real change of atmosphere after a visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.


Kaesong City

With a population just over 300,000 inhabitants, Kaesong City is a far cry from the nation’s capital; in 1952 Pyongyang was targeted by the largest bombing raid of the Korean War, a total of 1,400 UN aircraft releasing their warheads over the city. After the war Pyongyang was rebuilt largely with Soviet aid… the result was a modern, minimalist city displaying rich architectural themes of socialist classicism, of constructivism bordering on the brutalist.

Kaesong on the other hand is a small, and exceedingly green city.

This ancient settlement served as the capital of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392 AD), a kingdom which gave its name to modern day ‘Korea’. During this time the city was known as Songdo [1].

Nowadays Kaesong is the regional capital of the North Hwanghae Province, and one of a handful of destinations that have been approved for foreign visitors. Tourism here feels much more relaxed than it does in the capital; and while in Pyongyang you’re surrounded by perpetual reminders of the nation’s politics (in the form of propaganda posters, ideological monuments or vast statues of its leaders), in Kaesong it’s easy to loose yourself in a much larger history.

Nearby you’ll find the ruins of the ancient Manwoldae Palace, and the Kaesong Namdaemun Gate; the picturesque Pakyon Falls can be visited a little way to the north, while the surrounding mountains hold such sites as the tomb of King Wanggon and the 14th century tomb of King Kongmin. Not far from Kaesong lies the Taehungsan Fortress with its elaborate temples, while a more recent discovery is the Koryo-dynasty Buddha found carved into the rock of Mt. Chonma.

One of the most striking buildings in Kaesong is the Songgyungwan Confucian Academy, now serving as the ‘Koryo Museum’.

This quaint museum features archaeological finds from across the region, as well as items charting the history and evolution of Kaesong itself; the focus here is refreshingly broad, and the museum makes for a fascinating visit. One room inside the old academy serves as a replica of the stone chamber beneath the burial mound of King Kongmin – ruler of the Koryo Kingdom from 1351 until 1374.

Elsewhere, a chart dating back to the Japanese occupation of Korea shows the relative rates for buying and selling Korean men, women, children and oxen.

The wide, open streets of Kaesong, populated by cyclists and just the occasional motorised vehicle, give the impression of a much smaller town… and you would never guess that this peaceful city is located only 10km north of the most heavily militarised border in the world!

Nevertheless, Kaesong city does serve as a convenient stopover for tourists on their way to visit the notorious Korean Demilitarized Zone. There are a couple of hotels in the city which cater specifically for these visitors, but perhaps the most popular amongst these is the traditionally-styled Folk Custom Hotel.

The Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel

The Folk Custom Hotel features richly traditional architecture, with a series of Hanok-style accommodations arranged around a central stream.

In true Korean fashion, these buildings are positioned carefully in relation to their surroundings; the ancient principle of ‘Baesanimsu’ states that a home should feature mountains behind, with running water at the front.

The main courtyard of the hotel opens onto one of the sleepy streets of Kaesong, where men and women cycle to work beneath the gaudy designs of colourful propaganda posters.

It was a strange contrast to notice the occasional rifle barrel, poking out of the wicker basket of a bicycle. Apparently gun ownership becomes more prevalent in North Korea, the closer you get to the DMZ: the most immediate source of perceived threat to national security.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere here is entirely at odds with that of Pyongyang. While in the capital you’ll find yourself under observation at almost every given moment, here in Kaesong it feels as though you could easily drift off and lose yourself in the green streets and tree-shaded avenues. It’s an illusion, but it’s a pleasant one.

Another tradition observed at the Folk Custom Hotel is the absence of beds – guests sleep instead on padded floor mats, beneath insect nets suspended from walls and ceiling on taut strings. I personally found the accommodation here to be the most comfortable I had enjoyed in a while; though my deep sleep was perhaps aided in part by a hearty dinner and lashings of rich Korean ale.

Kaesong is known for its highly developed cuisine, which evolved over the course of almost 500 years serving as a royal capital. Traditional meals here are often served in the form of many smaller dishes, presented in a series of metal-lidded bowls.

Our meal at the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel consisted of no less than a dozen different dishes; these included fried eggs and a beansprout salad, pyeonsu dumplings, kimchi, pickles and bean curd jelly, spiced yoghurt, cold mushrooms and stewed beef, accompanied by the Korean rice wine known as Soju.

We also had the opportunity to try a seasonal specialty, traditionally served only on the three hottest days of the year – and believed to protect the recipient from sunstroke or dizziness caused by the heat. This rich soup known as ‘Gaejangguk’ is stewed from a list of carefully selected ingredients including dog flesh and dandelions.

Pakyon Falls

Located roughly 25km north of Kaesong are the Pakyon Falls, one of three famous waterfalls dotted across the country. The narrow waterfall drops 37m down, into the scenic rockpool of the same name.

We visited the falls on our way out of Kaesong, as we were heading back north towards Pyongyang. Leaving our small tour bus at the car park provided, we had to walk the rest of the way to the falls; a steep climb through a wooded crease between two neighbouring mountains.

As it turned out though, we weren’t the only people who had decided to enjoy the falls today. The large wooded clearing that overlooks the Pakyon Pool was filled with children when we arrived, a noisy throng who ran and laughed around the water’s edge.

The children seemed to be fascinated by the appearance of foreigners, though hesitant to do more than wave or shout ‘hello’. Eventually one of their teachers approached us, and asked if the nine of us would be happy posing for a class photos – and then, another photograph with each of the three different school classes present.

It was a heart-warming experience to stumble across this hoard of gleeful children at play in the national park. Children tend to make poor actors, and I find it hard to believe that the apparent happiness of this group could have been engineered in any way, for the benefit of us visitors.

However, it should perhaps be noted that school holidays in North Korea run from June 29th until September 4th. This was the last week of July, and so it was a little odd for such a large number of school children to be arranged according to class, and accompanied by their teachers, in exactly the destination our tour was expected to visit.

The children left not long after we arrived; each holding hands with a partner as they poured in chaotic double-file, back down the path towards the car park. We weren’t the only group left to enjoy the falls, however. Nearby a family had set up camp on a rocky outcrop overlooking the water, bringing with them a karaoke machine and a barbeque. They seemed to be having a wonderful time singing and dancing by the falls, and I managed to capture a little of it on camera.

Ever the skeptic however, there were a couple of details that struck me as odd. Questions which would never have entered my mind, had I been in any other country in the world; yet as I have observed before, North Korea instills a certain kind of paranoia in the attentive visitor.

The DPRK operates a six-day working week, from Monday through to Saturday. This being a Monday, it seemed strange to find a large family group drinking and dancing in the park. Furthermore, when we eventually left Pakyon Falls the only other vehicle in the car park was a full-size coach… a somewhat unusual way for one family to travel.

Tourism in North Korea

One of the most fascinating things about a trip to Kaesong, is just how quickly you can forget that you’re in North Korea. This is a fascinating destination by anybody’s standards… and the presence of your state-approved tour guides becomes so relaxed and convivial, as to feel almost insignificant.

Nevertheless, the astute and analytic tourist will find that certain issues still pose difficult questions… and the imposing statue of Kim Il-sung which stands on Mount Janam in the centre of Kaesong is just one of many reminders that all may not be as it appears.

Guests at the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel are informed that this is an authentic taste of traditional Korean culture; however, even the guest suites were subject to regular power cuts, and I found no hot water available to wash with. It seems fair to assume that whatever standards are presented to tourists here, are likely to be significantly superior to those readily available in other places.

Obviously though, given how little we actually know about the DPRK, the key word here is ‘assume’.

Again at Pakyon Falls, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that a coachload of giggling children had been imported purely for our benefit; or that a local family had been taken out of work, given a barbeque, a karaoke machine and a bottle of Soju, and told to go and enjoy themselves.

However, it must be remembered that Korean culture is very different to our own; North Korean communist culture even more so. It should therefore be equally possible to believe that a school outing could take place during the summer holidays, or that an extended family group might have access to a coach.

North Korea seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the news, for such a relatively small nation. However, while international media tends to focus on their controversial satellite launches, their aggressive foreign policy, the private life of their leader or on ridiculous and unsubstantiated rumours about the nation in general [2], one aspect of this country seems to get grossly overlooked;

The sheer, breathtaking natural beauty of North Korea.

This becomes more notable in the south around Kaesong, than anywhere else; here the Han River is formed from a network of springs and tributaries, and creates a series of lakes that cluster around the foothills of the Ahobiryong Mountains. Meanwhile the architecture of Kaesong is far more typified by classical Hanok and pagoda designs, than by the stark concrete Constructivism which so defines Pyongyang.

It took us the best part of the afternoon to drive the 135km back to the capital.

The majority of roads in the DPRK were built under Kim Il-sung, in the industrious years that immediately followed the Korean War; as a result these modern highways run in perfectly straight lines from one point to another, with frequent tunnels cut through the dividing mountain ranges. During our journey we saw three, perhaps four other vehicles on the road.

There is no denying that North Korea is a very strange place; and a great number of the tourists who come here do so for the politics, the propaganda, and the chance to witness a culture which is absolutely unique in the world. However, while these same elements may at least in part shape all tourism to North Korea, the city of Kaesong and its surrounding area really do deserve note, as an incredibly rich and well-preserved source of Korean culture and heritage.

If and as and when a day comes that sees North Korea relax its stringent border controls, it is not hard to imagine Kaesong fast becoming one of Asia’s most popular cultural destinations.


[1] The name ‘Songdo’ translates as ‘City of Pines’… as opposed to Pyongyang’s ancient name of ‘Ryugyong‘, or ‘Capital of Willows’.

[2] The “North Korea Claims Existence of Unicorns” story had been a popular one of late, leading to extensive online ridicule of the DPRK. Few news agencies have shown any interest in discovering the truth of the ‘claim’… but the mistake comes from a Western mistranslation of a Korean news report celebrating the discovery of an ancient cave believed to be associated with a famous legend. An equivalent might be to declare that all Scottish people believe there to be a monster living in Loch Ness, and to ridicule them accordingly; although for the comparison to be complete, the Scottish would need to have no access to the Internet and no way of defending themselves.


  1. Hmmm, dog and dandelion soup, not sure about that. Another fact-packed travelogue, thanks.

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