A new twist on an old theme
In the centre of Kaesong, just north of its ancient South Gate, is the city’s old district. Here one finds the largest concentration of pre-1945 structures in the DPRK, many dating back to the latter centuries of the Choson Ri Dynasty (1392-1910), Korea’s last feudal dynasty.
Following the division of the country in 1945, Kaesong was located in South Korea, just south of the 38th parallel dividing the peninsula. American planners had chosen this parallel specifically to divided US and Soviet areas of influence so as to put the two last historic capitals, Seoul and Kaesong, in South Korea. Kaesong only just so. In the first days of the war, the city fell in summer, was recaptured in fall, and then lost again in winter. Unlike the majority of cities in North Korea, the US air force refrained from bombing Kaesong. The intention until the armistice was to try to retake the city more or less intact.
After the war efforts were made to preserve parts of the old city for their cultural heritage. In 1957, two French filmmakers choose the old city’s crowded courtyards and narrow alleyways as the setting for the first part of the joint French-North Korean production Moranbong. Chris Marker, who was along for the trip, wrote of the Kaesong streets in 1957:
At the end of Kaesong market, where the canal divides the last shops from the oldest district of the city, six children watched me watching them. A mirror game that goes on and one, where the loser is the one who looks down, who lets the other’s gaze pass through, like a ball. The long volley of smiles…For the Korean street has its cycles, its waves, its rails…the soldier who (foresightedly) buys a civilian’s sun hat, the worker leaving the construction site, the bureaucrat with his briefcase, the woman in traditional dress and the woman in modern dress, the porter carrying a brand new allegory to the museum of the Revolution with a woman in black following step by step to decipher it – all have their route and precise place, like constellations…If they stop, it’s to learn something.
Today the feeling is much the same.
In 1989, a portion of Kaesong’s old city was converted to a hotel for domestic and foreign travellers. Made up of 15 traditional villas, each a series of rooms encircling a small courtyard, the hotel allows visitors to experience an approximation of aristocratic high society in days of yore, plus the added wonders of electricity, indoor plumbing, television, and plastic flooring.
Nevertheless, each villa is equipped with built-in floor heating, called ondol. Visitors thus sleep thick quilts on the floor, in all but villa No.12, in the Korean traditional fashion. During the day, bedding can be stored in ornate Korean chests.
Recently one of the villas, No. 10, was remolded by a foreign investor employing interior designers from the Philippines. The designers have maintained the traditional bedroom décor, while giving the bathrooms a massive overhaul. These washrooms now look like something out of a glossy suburban home magazine. No. 10 Minsok Folk Hotel also now has 24-hour hot water.
For now, if you are looking to claim most modern rooms on the tour, you’ll need to arrive at the hotel early and have a bit of luck. No. 10 only has four rooms out of the fifty at the hotel. No one ever said that feudal society was fair.
Hotels of the DPRK is a blog posting dedicated to the fascinating world of accommodations in North Korea.