The day trip to the Kumsusan North Korea or Palace of the Sun (otherwise known as the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum) in Pyongyang is the most telegraphed item on any trip itinerary to North Korea. The reason for the early, and frequent, communication is because there is a dress code, and they want to make sure that tourists pack a shirt and tie, or modest dress, as appropriate. Failing to comply would be a major loss of faith on the guide’s side and they do not want to be ashamed by disrespectful tourists.
The dress code is just one element in a visit which is as steeped in reverence and ceremony as any trip to the Sistine Chapel or the Western Wall. This is not a place for loud voices or challenging political discourse but a place to show respect to the Great Founding Leaders.
As at all times in our trip to North Korea, one of the least visited countries in the world, we took our lead from our state-sanctioned guides, Han and Pak. Both impeccably dressed, extremely obliging, and with a well-drilled line in party-approved messages.
The palace itself is a typical Stalinist giant grey box, originally built in 1976 as the official residence of the First Supreme Leader of North Korea (and now designated The Eternal President) Kim Il Sung. Following his death in 1994 it was converted into his mausoleum. In 2012, one year after the death of his son, and Second Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il, the palace was re-opened as a mausoleum for both father and son, making it home to 20% of the world’s embalmed communist leaders.
Arrival at the palace grounds is a bit of an anticlimax and consisted of sitting in a waiting room some distance from the main palace, while the different tourist parties that are in Pyongyang on that day all arrive. The dress code had been interpreted with a fairly high degree of latitude by the different tourist nationalities present (dominated by Chinese, but with a fair number of Europeans and North Americans) but I was happy with my conservative choice of flowing silk shirt, long trousers and high-heels, not least because it made Han and Pak proud “You are the best dressed here,” proclaimed Han when I asked if we were dressed up enough.
The hour-long wait gave us time to read through the colorful magazines accurately placed on the low tables – copies of ‘Korea Today’ from the previous months. The magazines had a strange mix of articles that, for the first time on our trip, raised the Orwellian stereotypes which had been largely unobserved up to that point. To take a random selection of articles:
- ‘We are the happiest in the World’. The lead article extolling the efforts of the Eternal President, Supreme Leader, and the Party in advancing the causes of children in Korea
- ‘A blessed boy’. The story of a child who is good at football, and gets a surprise motivational talk from the Supreme Leader
- ‘Maebongsan-brand shoes’. The renovation of a shoe factory, which would now make available different styles of shoes, replacing the unpopular uniform shoes they had produced up to that point
- ‘Is the US going to repeat history?’. A discussion piece on whether the US will continue its policy of provocation of North Korea, and potentially suffer a repeat of their humiliation in 1953.
Some other articles compared the American use of weapons of mass-destruction during the Korean war to “Dante’s Hell in the Divine Comedy”. Later, I bought a copy of Korea Today as a souvenir. As I re-read it, it reminds me most of school magazines of my youth, where the content was largely produced by the pupils but the editorial control of the teaching staff guaranteed a level of bland positivity about the institution. The tone was optimistic, magnanimous if always bleak and hypercritical when the US was involved. South Korea was always portrayed as the unfortunate brother held hostage by American painful practices and imperialism.
After the waiting room came the rolling walkways. Kilometers of rolling walkways that take visitors to the main palace building and, unlike at an airport, the consensus is that you stand still on the moving walkway and take in your surroundings. And they were moving at an awfully slow pace. The journey took fifteen minutes, time during which we got a chance to admire the grand stone marble tunnels with equally grand orchestral music piped-in. The walls were covered on both sides with large photographs of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, of the type that are familiar from official press releases: visiting a factory, inspecting a military installation, shaking hands with another communist leader like Mao or Putin. Providing guidance to any sector or group. The pictures were universally accompanied by enthusiastically smiling people, whether workers, soldiers or party members.
‘Why does Kim Jong Il always wear sunglasses?’ asked one of our party, half-mischievously, to the guide. Han, clearly not the first time she had been asked this, replied ‘because he had a problem with his eye, and the people would worry about him if he didn’t’. Perhaps now I got over-sensitive to the subtle use of language, but consistent use of ‘the people’ rather than ‘we’ did seem calculated. His glasses were large, fashionably by Western standards, and made him look weird in indoor photographs.
After the long series of walkways, the depositing of cameras and other electronics and the security scans, we reached the main palace building. This was the first of many times where we had to form up into a rank with our guides in order to proceed to the next room, and then to bow in unison.
In this case the bowing was to two 30ft statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, in their most common composition of standing next to each other, pointing into the distance, with benevolent beaming smiles. Classical music played on continuous loop in the background.
Then it was on to the main show: Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum. Ushered by a combination of party members all in black and soldiers in dress uniform, we joined the queue in the red darkened chamber with the elevated glass sarcophagus containing the preserved body of Kim Il Sung in the centre. The room reminded me of the Red Light District. Red marble, red dimmed lighting and dark walls and ceiling, all very macabre looking. The body was covered with a red velvet blanket and he is dressed in his military uniform.
More bowing in unison as we walked slowly around the perfectly preserved body, apparently borrowing techniques that the Russian’s pioneered with Lenin’s corpse. As a guest, you tried to imagine what kind of emotion this might elicit for the average North Korean, but it was hard to think of a good equivalent. The closest might be the outpouring of emotion sometimes seen at state funerals for popular political leaders or royals, but the atmosphere was solemn amongst the North Korean visitors, with no histrionics.
The guide told us that the Mausoleum is closed every year for two months for the bodied to undergo “maintenance”. We could not image what had to be done to the bodies every year to preserve their wax-like texture and look & feel. Reading upon it later we discovered that the Russian perfected the art of embalming with Lenin and Stalin, who was eventually buried, and that the Leader could be shipped to Moscow for the same treatment. The bodies could have as well been a wax figure and we would not have noticed. One only sees the face and only briefly, in between bows, so it is hard to stare and truly figure out what is going on inside the glass sarcophagus.
Offering some welcome levity, the next few rooms contained some of Kim Il Sung’s favorite stuff, ranging from his vast array of awards, his railway carriage and his Mercedes. The awards room started as expected, with the various military and party honors awarded by North Korea to its first Supreme Leader. The abundance of superlatives makes it impossible to remember any particular award with certainty – Supreme Commander of the Armies, Generalissimo, Hero of the Revolution etc.
After these, came the foreign awards. Mostly from the usual suspects – Soviet awards for the defeat of the Japanese, medals from China and Libya. Somewhat surprisingly, there was a long tail of awards from almost any country you cared to mention. A number of awards from France, a small medal from Derbyshire in England and even an honorary doctorate from a US university (although Wikipedia will tell you that it’s one those that you can buy on online for 50 dollars).
Kim Jong Il’s mausoleum and awards’ rooms were practically a carbon copy of his father’s, with the notable addition of a golf cart and a yacht to the rooms of transportation, and a Macbook sitting prominently in his favorite railway carriage. Plus he had a better Mercedes. We were specifically told about the small step that was sitting next to his golf cart and the guide pointed at the fact that it was “because he had a bad leg,” but we were unsure as to why she pointed this out.
The final official room on the tour was in some ways the most memorable: The Hall of Lamentation. This room was bare by the standards of what came before. Oversized portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il dominated one wall, and friezes showing the revolutionary struggle covered the two adjacent walls. The room itself contained only a large square carpet, with a young female party member standing on one side in traditional high-waisted dress, but all in black velvet with only the ubiquitous badge of two aforementioned leaders in bright shiny red giving some color. Her role was to explain about the Hall of Lamentation, and how it was the scene of spontaneous outpouring of sadness by The People (again) following the death of Kim Il Sung. Although done in Korean, and thus had to be translated for visitors, it was completely engrossing because of her well-trained voice which was a few octaves below her natural register and projected like an opera singer. On a separate occasion, Han informed us that this type of voice training for public speaking was one of the after school activities undertaken by children, along with music and dancing. Her intonation was meant to convey the sadness and deep sorrow the room housed and, had we understood Korean, I am pretty sure it would have touched us. The room was the final resting place for the bodies before they were placed in the Mausoleum. “He died of overwork,” told us Han when I asked what the Great Leader died of.
At this point we had spent two hours in the highly climate-controlled conditioned palace and we were starting to freeze, so it was a pleasant relief to end the visit with a wander in the formal gardens.
Substantial arrangements of Kimilsungia (a purple/pink orchid from Indonesia created in honor of the Great Leader) and Kimjongilia (a red begonia hybrid from Japan for his son) were complemented by fountains and immaculate lawns, all overlooked by (needless to say) two giant smiling portraits of the men for whom the flowers were named.
Professional photographers took shots of locals who do not own a camera. Everyone is appropriately dressed, with suit and ties, and sitting down on the steps provided for the photo opportunity with the Leader’s image behind.In the gardens, we overheard some unguarded comments from other tourists, colourfully expressing how weird they found the devotion of the North Koreans to their former leaders. “The people are crazy! I mean, can’t they see how crazy this whole thing is? At least in China they have opened up and have access to the outside world, they are more relaxed. These people don’t know they’re being brainwashed.”
It may be hard to disagree with the sentiment, but from this visit, and the rest of our trip in North Korea, the reverence and pride that our local guides showed for the Eternal President and the Second Supreme Leader seemed entirely genuine. Admittedly, towards the end of the trip, after 7 days hearing about their great accomplishments and how they freed the nation from oppressing and cruel Japan, even I started to understand how, not knowing anything better, one can truly and deeply believe what is engrained and embroidered into the national psyche.