Kaesong is a historical city in North Korea situated near the border with South Korea, just 8km from the Korean Demilitarized Zone and 160km from Pyongyang. Once the capital of the Koryo Dynasty (918 – 1392), Kaesong is rich in history and culture, abundant with preserved UNESCO sites and cultural relics. Kaesong also played a crucial role in the Korean War for its strategic position and as host to the initial armistice negotiations which led to the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in the village of Panmunjom. Today, Kaesong remains an important hub for inter-Korean relations, serving as the gateway to the Joint Security Area within the Korean Demilitarized Zone which is the most distinct symbol of division, diplomacy and peace on the Korean peninsula.

What is the history of Kaesong?

Kaesong has a celebrated history as the capital of the Koryo Dynasty from 918 to 1392, which was the first unified Korean state and where the name ‘Korea’ is derived. After over four centuries of rule, the Koryo Dynasty was conquered by the Choson Dynasty, who moved the capital to Hanyang which is today known as Seoul in South Korea. Having lost its political status, Kaesong became a regional trading hub of lesser cultural significance.

The Choson Dynasty controlled Korea until 1910 when Japanese colonial rule took over. Korean culture was suppressed by the Japanese empire until their defeat at the end of World War II, resulting in the Korean peninsula being divided at the 38th parallel which placed Kaesong in South Korean territory.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Kaesong changed hands multiple times and peace talks began in the city during 1951 before being moved to nearby Panmunjom village later that year. North Korea was in control of Kaesong at the time the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 establishing a Military Demarcation Line based on the frontline of contact, cementing Kaesong within North Korean territory where it has remained ever since.

Kaesong is the only major city to have changed hands as a result of the Korean War. Kaesong is also the only major North Korean city to avoid destruction from aerial bombardment, leaving its historical tombs, temples and pagodas largely intact, including the old quarter, regarded as one of the finest examples of preserved Korean heritage on the peninsula.

What makes Kaesong important today?

After the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, ending the active hostilities with a ceasefire, the Joint Security Area straddling the Military Demarcation Line has been used for inter-Korean diplomacy on the world stage. From the North Korean side, the Joint Security Area is accessed through Kaesong, approximately 10km away.

In recent history, Kaesong has become known for the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where South Korean companies could employ North Korean workers. This capitalist-socialist collaboration was unprecedented, and it permitted authorised South Korean employees, typically those in managerial roles, to cross the DMZ into North Korea to oversee companies in the zone. The project was paused in 2016 as a result of escalating political tensions. It was one of two North Korean areas accessible from the South in recent history, the other being Mt. Kumgang for tourism.

An inter-Korean liaison office was later built in the Kaesong Industrial Zone in 2018 intended to serve as a de-facto embassy. However, it was controversially demolished by North Korean authorities in 2020. There are ongoing disputes regarding the use of South Korean facilities in the zone.

Given that a peace treaty has never been signed to formally end the Korean War, in present day Kaesong remains a frontline city of what is still technically an ongoing conflict.

Kaesong is also known as having the highest quality ginseng (insam) in the country, which is exported around the world!

What are the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kaesong?

In 2013, Kaesong gained UNESCO World Heritage status when 12 separate Koryo Dynasty sites were recognised for their historic and cultural value. Dated between the 10th and 14th century, sites include the remnants of the fortress walls and royal palace, imperial tombs, freestanding monuments and the remains of academy and hall complexes. The highlight is the Songgyungwan (Sungyun Academy), the highest institute of education in Korea during the Koryo Dynasty.

The 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kaesong are as follows:

Mausoleum of King Wang Kon (Wangon) – The tomb of the founder of the Koryo Dynasty, King Wangon (877-943). The mausoleum was first built in 943 and was reconstructed extensively in 1994.

Mausoleum of King Kongmin – The double tomb of the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty, King Kongmin, and his wife, Queen Noguk. The tomb was designed by the King himself after the death of his wife in 1365, and was completed by 1372. King Kongmin died in 1374. The tombs relics were ransacked in 1905, but the tomb itself has been preserved in original condition without reconstruction.

Kaesong Namdae Gate: The south gate which was part of the old Kaesong city walls. This is the only remaining gatehouse which remains intact from the original 7. The bell from Yonbok Temple is housed inside the gate and is one of the finest examples of Koryo-era workmanship.

Kaesong Walls: Sections of the fort surrounding the Manwoldae Palace are still standing. The total length was 23km, some parts made of clay and sand and others reinforced with stone. The walls were an imperial defence system and were constructed at the highest points of the hillside.

Sonjuk Bridge: An inconspicuous small stone bridge where the famous Confucian scholar and loyal statesman Jong Mong Ju (1337 – 1392) was assassinated, which marked the end of the Koryo Dynasty. The name of the bridge is drawn from legend stating a bamboo tree sprouted on the spot he was killed.

Sungyang Confucian School: A private Confucian academy built on the site that was once the home of Jong Mong Ju. The school is a well-preserved example of architecture typical of the Choson dynasty.

Phyochung Monuments: Two large, detailed monuments housed nearby the Sonjuk Bridge which are dedicated to Jong Mong Ju.

Koryo Songgyungwan (Koryo History Museum): A Confucian college covering 20,000m2 established in 992 once regarded as the highest educational institution in Korea. The complex is comprised of 18 buildings, most notably the Taesong Hall (temple and shrine) and Myongryun Hall (main teaching hall), including the largest wooden structure preserved in North Korea. Today, under the shade of 1000-year old ginkgo trees, the Koryo History Museum is located on the grounds, showcasing Kaesong’s history and the archeological treasures of the area. The Koryo Songgyungwan still technically functions through a nearby modern building (in traditional Korean style) that educates in the field of light industry.

Manwoltae: The archaeological ruins of the imperial palace of the Koryo Dynasty. Construction began at the start of Koryo Dynasty rule and once completed it occupied an area of 1,250,000 m2. The palace was damaged by fire on many occasions, and destroyed in 1361 by invaders. Excavations unearthed a trove of cultural relics which can now be viewed in museums.

Kaesong Chomsongdae Observatory: An astronomical observatory thought to be one of the oldest in the world. Made of stone and resembling a watchtower, the sides correspond to the compass points. Today, all that remains is an embankment of granite.

Seven Tombs Cluster: A group of seven royal tombs on a hillside at the foot of Mt. Mansu. These tombs are for the royal family of the later years of the Koryo Dynasty.

Myongrung Cluster: A group of three tombs, one being the mausoleum of King Chungmok, the 29th King of Koryo who ruled from 1345 to 1348.

How do you get to Kaesong?

Kaesong is included on most itineraries to North Korea as it’s part of a visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Despite Kaesong’s proximity to the border, it’s not possible to cross the DMZ and visit the city from South Korea.

By Road: Kaesong is approximately 160km south of Pyongyang, and it takes around 2.5-3 hours to reach by road via the Pyongyang-Kaesong highway. This road, otherwise known as the Reunification Highway is a direct link to the border from the capital. The road is wide and well maintained, but eerily deserted of traffic. The route is flat and straight with numerous tunnels as the terrain becomes more undulating nearing Kaesong. Travellers can expect to pass a series of military checkpoints throughout the journey. The Sohung Rest Stop is located about half way between Pyongyang and Kaesong.

What’s the weather like in Kaesong?

Kaesong is located just above the 38th parallel, the latitude where North and South Korea are divided, and just 60km from the west coast. This position provides a more temperate climate compared to cities further north, with an average annual temperature around 11℃. The coldest month is January seeing lows of -5℃ and the warmest month is August which experiences highs around 29℃. Kaesong received approximately 1200mm of annual precipitation, with 60% of this rainfall in the summer months of July and August.

How do I include Kaesong on my itinerary?

Most travellers to North Korea will spend a stopover afternoon in Kaesong en route to the DMZ. However, there’s a lot to see in Kaesong and surrounds for those with more time.

Day trip: A daytrip to Kaesong from Pyongyang is a long day, but perfect for short itineraries. After touring the DMZ, enjoy the royal tradition of pansanggi for lunch, stroll the Koryo History Museum, and visit one of the best-preserved UNESCO sites, the Tomb of King Kongmin, before returning to Pyongyang.

Overnight trip: The best way to see Kaesong! Stay at the Minsok Folk Hotel in traditional Korean dwellings with courtyards by the stream. Take a morning walk through Kaesong to the South Gate and ascend Janam Hill for an unforgettable view of the old town. Go on a fascinating countryside drive following the DMZ east to view the Concrete Wall, a physical barrier said to have been built in South Korea to further divide the nation.

Multi-night trip: It’s rare to stay multiple nights in Kaesong, but it’s possible for travellers with special interests. For history buffs there’s the tomb of King Wanggon, the ruins of Manwoldae among other UNESCO sites and the Ryongtong and Anhwa Temples. If you prefer nature, enjoy a scenic picnic at the Pakyon Waterfall, where there is hiking trails to the Taehungsan Fortress and Kwanum Temple. Tour a ginseng factory to see what products are manufactured from this wonder plant, or arrange a visit to the Kaesong Schoolchildren’s Palace for the gifted in extracurricular skills. As you return to Pyongyang, take a detour from the Reunification Highway to the Unjong Stockbreeding Farm, to the scenic area of Mt. Jongbang or city of Sariwon.