For many people visiting North Korea for the first time, their first taste of the country comes from the refreshment carts wheeled out at Sinuiju station after completing customs and immigration. As well as the ubiquitous Taedonggang beer for those craving a less alcoholic form of refreshment the top choice is Kangso Yaksu, a sparkling mineral water sold for export in stubby dark blue plastic bottles. The mineral water itself is completely naturally carbonated, bubbling up straight out of a spring near Nam’po in South Pyongan province.
Historically the source of the water was said to have been be discovered by a local farmer, the legend goes that he saw a sickly crane resting near the spring, and after it had drunk the water it flew away seeming miraculously revitalized. Henceforth this water, Kangso (the name of the area) Yaksu (meaning ‘healing mineral water’) became famous throughout the whole Korean peninsula for its curative and detoxification properties.
Nowadays, despite having a bottling plant on site, the area still feels incredibly rural and picturesque, set in peaceful woodland away from the main road. Look out for the incredibly cute company mascot holding a bottle of the spring water tucked away to the side of the road as you drive in.
Once you’ve arrived on site, a visit to the plant typically starts first at the spring itself, now housed within a pagoda built in the traditional Koryo style, a thick glass observation window set into the floor allowing you to watch as the water gushes up through the earth’s bedrock at incredible force, naturally fizzing away.
From here it’s a short walk into the bottling plant. The plant, despite being a simple building, was majorly renovated in 2005 with some funding coming from a company within the ROK, and has somewhat the feeling of a small high tech-laboratory. Your visit will see you first don a lab-coat and go through an air filtration system to remove any dust and impurities from your clothes (similar filtration systems are in place at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.) For part of a factory, the bottling room proper is strangely aesthetically pleasing, with deep green walls echoing the colour of the glass bottles, polished steel machinery and, of course, numerous glass bottles.
The machines used for bottling at the plant were largely imported from Italy, and do not require a great number of staff to operate, on a visit as well as your guide, typically you will see just a few staff members overseeing the bottling process.
While you receive some statistics about the output of the plant, you will have the chance to enjoy a complimentary bottle of sparkling water, and even better it is the glass bottled version, which is notoriously harder to get hold of as a tourist than the ubiquitous plastic counterpart, as the bottles themselves are all recycled.
Even if you are not particularly a fan of carbonated water, I really recommend you try this as it is much mellower than some European sparkling waters, and has a delicious light mineral taste. There is also something to be said about the experience of drinking from a glass bottle, for the full eco-friendly hipster experience, I swear it tastes even better.
There are of course the plastic bottled variety available to purchase, and I always think one of these makes a nice quirky non-political gift if you know someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.
Just a short drive out of Nampo itself on the way back to Pyongyang, YPT Tours to Nampo stop in at the Kangso plant when possible, and the factory can also be added to individual itineraries on private tours to the DPRK.