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Kumgangsan - A view from our expert author


Kumgangsan or Mount Kumgang means ‘diamond mountain’, so called as the granite peaks and hillsides glitter in the sunlight, but they have had different names in each season.

Mount Kumgang is situated in the northern part of the Thaebaek mountain range on Korea’s central-eastern coast, and covers an area of some 40km east–west and 60km north–south. Kumgangsan in Korean, or Mount Kumgang, means ‘diamond mountain’, so called as the granite peaks and hillsides glitter in the sunlight, but they have had different names in each season, being the Pongnae Mountains (‘spirits enjoy visiting’) in summer, Phungak (‘variety of views’) in autumn and Kaegol Mountains (‘snow sided’) in winter. The highest is Piro Peak at 1,639m and another dozen touch over 1,500m, with a hundred or so over 1,000m and peaks as sharp as ‘the tips of paint brushes’ – although there may be fewer than the commonly cited 12,000 peaks.

Kumgang’s been considered sacred for millennia. ‘Buddhism,’ wrote Isabella Bishop in Korea and Her Neighbours, ‘which possesses itself of the fairest spots of nature, fixed itself in this romantic seclusion as early as the 6th century.’ Access was through Tan Pa Ryong (since renamed) that means ‘cropped hair pass’, a Rubicon for anyone seeking a life of Buddhist solace. In feudal Korea, bachelors had heavy braids of hair, married men’s hair was coiled into a top-knot, but monks, unencumbered by considerations of marital status, shaved all their hair off.

The town of Choanjri once housed a great concentration of 16 temples and halls dating from the 6th century. Even by the late 19th century, when Buddhism had long fallen from official (and therefore financial) favour and most Koreans were succumbing to Christianity, 45 monasteries, nunneries and shrines were counted in the area. Thirty-two remained pre-World War II, but today fewer than a handful remain in use.

However, tourists have long been filling out the space left by thinning pilgrims. Cavendish observed in 1887 that ‘the Koreans are great lovers of nature and admirers of scenery, and are also great pedestrians; they – that is, the men, who always seem to have plenty of time to kill – often make pilgrimages to places whence a fine view may be obtained … annually they [Diamond Mountains] are visited by hundreds of Koreans.’

The Japanese turned the area into a park, and today Kumgang’s spiritual splendour has allowed it to be the only place in the DPRK that South Koreans could visit, until this was restricted in 2008. Kumgang is divided into three areas, Inner, Outer and the Sea of Kumgang, with 22 subdivisions within it and so many different routes of peaks, pools, lakes, waterfalls and temples to follow that a serious walker would need a week to cover the place.

Even by the late 19th century, when Buddhism had long fallen from official (and therefore financial) favour and most Koreans were succumbing to Christianity, 45 monasteries, nunneries and shrines were counted in the area.

Kumgang’s proximity to the border with the ROK led to the area to being closed off for most of the Cold War, with its tourists and Buddhist pilgrims replaced with soldiers. The area has only become accessible to tourists since the late 1990s, and initially this was restricted to Outer Kumgang and the Sea of Kumgang. Inner Kumgang was even more restricted. The gates to Inner Kumgang creaked open to Westerners for the first time in decades in the early noughties.

Access to Inner Kumgang from the DPRK side remains intermittent while Outer Kumgang and Sea of Kumgang are as open as the Hyundai resort that occupies them. The resort was to absorb Inner Kumgang, but the plan went south along with the Hyundai's plans to expand the resort all the way up to Wonsan.

However, with the DPRK having confiscated and reopened the resort, there are now land and, in theory, sea routes from the DPRK into Kumgangsan.

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