For months, tours of this historic city — famed for its Buddhist temples, royal tombs and ancient relics — have given South Koreans a glimpse of life in the hidden communist North.
But North Korea officials announced Monday that these visits were being suspended starting Dec. 1 because of tensions with Seoul — not that they were that truly welcoming anyway: On a weekend visit, cell phones, laptops and cameras with telephoto lenses were locked away even before the tour bus left South Korean territory.
Travelers were warned not to speak to ordinary North Koreans, not to criticize the government or to ask about the health of Kim Jong Il. And no souvenirs depicting the Dear Leader, a South Korean guide warned.
"Don't bring back red items or any of that North Korean propaganda — I know foreigners love to buy propaganda," she said.
The moment the bus passed from South to North on Saturday, South Korean tourists broke out in applause. At immigration, North Korea's de facto theme song for reconciliation — "Nice to Meet You" — played over and over on a loudspeaker as travelers endured yet another security check.
As the bus ambled into Kaesong with two new North Korean guides aboard, soldiers stood guard at intervals along the route, a lone figure in a brown field or on an empty dirt road, red flag at the ready to wave at an errant tourist snapping a photo from the bus window with a small camera.
If the flag had been raised, the entire convoy would have stopped and the illicit photo ordered deleted from the camera.
For many on board, it was their first trip to reclusive North Korea, a country that is run with absolute authority by the autocratic Kim.
And for many, it was their first meeting with North Koreans. The guide, a Kaesong native, was witty and warm as he told tourists about the history of the capital known as Songdo, "the City of Pine Trees," at one point serenading them with Korea's most famous folk song, "Arirang" and teasing them with jokes — a scene perhaps unthinkable a decade ago.
He also displayed a keen interest in President-elect Barack Obama, inquiring about the Democrat's stance on U.S.-North Korea relations.
"I see no reason why the two countries should be so far apart if the U.S. policy changes," he said. "It would be better if the two countries were friendly in the future."
Though restrictive, the tours have been immensely popular among South Koreans since they began a year ago, with more than 110,000 tourists piling onto buses for the daylong visit to a city just 40 miles from Seoul but inaccessible for nearly 60 years.
North Korea's announcement Monday that the tours will be suspended has heightened fears that 10 years of progress in improving ties between the wartime rivals may be in danger of unraveling.
Another joint project, tours to Diamond Mountain on North Korea's east coast, have been suspended since July following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist. And the communist country, in detailing plans to restrict cross-border traffic next week amid deteriorating ties with Seoul's conservative government, said it would also suspend inter-Korean rail lines.
Kaesong, Korea's cultural and religious centerpiece before power shifted to Seoul in the 14th century, has a rich heritage and military history. During the three-year Korean War, control of Kaesong — located in the heart of the peninsula — was traded back and forth as the front shifted. When fighting stopped in 1953, Kaesong fell just north of the border.
Among those born in the north who longed to return home was the late founder of the conglomerate Hyundai Asan Corp. In 1998, Chung Ju-yung ceremoniously crossed the border with hundreds of cattle — repayment, he said, for stealing money from selling the family cow to pay his way to Seoul so many decades earlier.
His firm struck an agreement to start tours to Diamond Mountain, a resort just north of the border that later grew to include a golf course, spa, hotels and a theater featuring North Korean acrobats.
Nearly 2 million tourists flocked to Diamond Mountain before the July shooting by a North Korean soldier brought the tours to a halt amid a stalemate over the investigation.
In December 2007, Hyundai Asan unveiled the Kaesong tour to see the famed Bakyeon waterfall, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 11th century, and a stone bridge where a bloody murder led to the fall of Koryo Dynasty in 1392.
The tour focuses on the heritage of a city with deep Buddhist roots and a royal history, as well as a sophisticated metropolis that produced brassware and porcelain and was famous for wine and ginseng.
Tourists were allowed no interaction with locals, apart from those working at tourist sites, and guides kept an eagle eye on any visitors who strayed from the group or tried to photograph the city center.
Downtown Kaesong — visible from the bus window — was abuzz Saturday with people of all ages on bicycles and on foot, many with packages tucked into baskets, and scarves around their necks to ward off an early chill. Children scampered along a tree-lined canal, some swinging their mothers' hands, others linked arm in arm with friends as they waved at sightseers.
A billboard in a central plaza depicted Kim Jong Il and his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Down the street, a massive statue of the elder Kim looked down on Kaesong from atop a hill, but the tour bus sped past.
Pharmacies, salons, motels and shops were housed in concrete buildings with faded, peeling paint. Cables hung limply on telephone poles but there were no phones in sight, and unlike Seoul, where even some 5-year-olds have their own cell phones, there was never the sound of a phone ringing.
A fish market appeared closed and a noodle restaurant was boarded up. There was no running water in the toilets or sinks, even at tourist spots.
"Kaesong seems like it is a nice place to live, but the living situation seems like it's more difficult than when I was young," said Oh Tae-jin, 49, a South Korean on the tour with his family.
Snacks sold at tourist sites included a bag of crackers for $3 — U.S. dollars are the currency of choice in Kaesong — a North Korean cola for $2 and a box of tea for $10, roughly 10 times the average monthly wage in North Korea.
Lunch is included in the tour's 198,000-won cost — about $130 — with roughly half going to North Korea, according to Hyundai Asan. The 13-course feast in a traditional house in Kaesong's elegantly restored old town includes fish, beef, lamb and ginseng-infused whiskey for an extra $20 a bottle.
Back in downtown Kaesong, a lone warden stood in an intersection directing traffic: bicycles, modern buses and the rare car. A patriotic sign declared: "As long as the Dear Leader is alive, we will win!"
But as the tour buses rumbled past fields lying fallow and toward a gleaming new industrial park with its banks, convenience stores and imported traffic signals, it was clear the price Kaesong may pay for being caught in the political crossfire of deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and Seoul.
"If even the Kaesong tour stops now, it would be unfortunate," the tourist Oh said. "It would seem like the North-South relationship — which has been moving forward for 10 years — is moving backward."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.