In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.
Nobody needs an alarm clock in Pyongyang. Every morning around 6:30, streets come alive with a cacophony of loudspeakers blaring patriotic music. They were clearly audible even from my suite at the Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island hundreds of metres away from the city centre. Rising from my bed on Sunday morning and peering across the river, I could just barely make out a crowd of workers taking orders from another one of these loudspeakers. So much for their weekly day of rest.
It was our group's first full day in North Korea, but we wouldn't be spending it all in Pyongyang. We had a full slate of sites in the city to visit, including the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, the Arch of Triumph, Kim Il Sung Square, and the Foreign Languages Bookshop, after which we would be driving all the way to the west coast to see an enormous tidal barrage. We would then spend the night at the Ryonggang Hot Spa Houses, a luxury spa hotel near the coastal city of Nampo.
Our first stop, however, was Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the holiest site in all of Korea. Like Mecca for the Muslims, Kumsusan is a place that all North Koreans are expected to visit at least once in their lives (and preferably annually if they can afford the pilgrimage). This is because it is a mausoleum and shrine for their eternal god-kings, Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
The tradition of state capitalists exhibiting the preserved bodies of their dead leaders may have begun in the USSR, but the Bolsheviks actually co-opted the practice from the Church. It's the ultimate realization of the cult of personality; among those for whom idolatry is so pervasive and so institutionalized, there can be no higher object of veneration than a corporeal manifestation of divinity itself. And when it comes to these public spectacles of devotion, no one does it better than the North Koreans. In Rome, for example, the embalmed body of John XXIII lies in an elaborate glass coffin in the Papal Basilica, but it's unusual to see anyone paying much attention to it, dwarfed as it is by the magnificence of the church and its other treasures. Lenin's mausoleum, on the other hand, was purpose-built to exhibit him, but it's a small and unimposing structure with a dark, nondescript interior. The corpse may be the only thing that commands attention, but nothing about its surroundings really puts you in awe of the man or his achievements. An unceremonious one-minute shuffle around the sarcophagus and the visit is over. A visit to Kumsusan, however, is a mind-blowing half-day event, fully stage-managed to instill maximum awe and devotion in the hearts and minds of its visitors.
Our visit to Kumsusan began early in the morning. The tour bus dropped us off at a small reception centre about half a kilometre from the palace, our view of which was obscured by trees and a long colonnade. Our tour guides checked us in, and the palace staff checked us over to ensure we complied with the dress code (button-up shirt and tie for men, no jeans or open-toed shoes). After a few minutes in the lobby, we were led outside and made to line up, four abreast, inside the colonnade. We then walked solemnly in formation through the colonnade, resisting the urge to peek through the columns for a glimpse at the palace itself. After a hundred metres, we came to the door to yet another reception building. Here we were given a final chance to use the lavatories, and then ushered into a garderobe where we were obliged to surrender the contents of our pockets. No bottles, cameras, cell phones, or foreign objects of any kind are permitted in Kumsusan. The staff even take pains to relieve you of the tiniest specks of dirt: the garderobe's only exit is through an automatic shoe-washing device. (And several times during the palace tour, we would pass through full-body blow-drying chambers to cleanse us any last traces of dust.)
|Confiscating our cameras||Automatic shoe washer|
We emerged from the garderobe into a long, bright hallway with large windows running down both walls. We were not permitted to walk, but rather stood on a slow-moving, three-hundred-metre-long moving sidewalk. Through the windows on the left we could see the palace moat, and beyond it an elaborate wall with relief sculptures of cranes. To our right we had a view of the palace itself: a massive grey edifice looking out over an equally large, beautifully landscaped park. The building has no windows, but is adorned with two enormous portraits of the two leaders.
After several minutes, we came to the end of the moving sidewalk, took an escalator down to a basement level, and turned right onto the moving sidewalk of yet another long hallway. Instead of windows, this one was decorated with dozens of enormous framed photographs of the two leaders: Kim Il Sung on the left, and Kim Jong Il on the right. I was standing next to Mok Ran, our lead tour guide, who proudly explained to me the stories behind many of the photographs: here is Kim Il Sung delivering a speech upon his homecoming to Pyongyang in 1945, and there he is again consulting with Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1970s, and there he is again with Yakov Novichenko, the Soviet soldier who heroically saved him from an assassination attempt on 1 March 1946. Mok Ran asked me with genuine concern whether people outside of Korea knew about all this history, and I had to admit to her that most people in the West probably didn't know much about Kim Il Sung. "And what about Kim Jong Un?" she asked. "Do they report on him in the news?"
Of course, the Great Successor pops up from time to time in the Western media, but almost always in an entirely negative context. I decided that the shrine to the man's immediate ancestors probably wasn't the best place for a frank discussion of Western attitudes to the Kim dynasty, so I wracked by brain for memories of any non-negative coverage I could report to her. "Well," I said, "a lot of people seem very interested in Kim Jong Un's wife, Ri Sol Ju. The Western papers report that she was a pop singer. Is that true?"
Mok Ran was delighted that I was able to name a North Korean other than the three Kims. "People abroad know of the Great Marshal's wife, Ri Sol Ju? That is wonderful!" she exclaimed.
Hoping to keep the conversation going, I asked, "So, do Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju have any children?"
"I, uh—actually, nobody knows."
In light of the near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things Kim she had just been demonstrating, I wanted to press her for an explanation of this bizarre admission of ignorance, but we had come to the end of the moving sidewalk. We had finally reached the palace itself!
Our tour group got back in formation and we were quietly led through lofty, beautifully decorated passageways until we reached the doors to a large hall. This hall, it was explained to us, contained two large statues of the Kims. We were to walk up to the statues, one row at a time, and pause at a line marked at the floor. We were then to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation, bow respectfully, and file out a door to the right. I had seen photographs of this hall online, which showed the statues to be made of white stone, so on entering the chamber I was surprised to see that they had been replaced with full-colour effigies. The grey-suited Kim Il Sung stood on the left, a stern but confident expression on his face. Next to him was a beaming Kim Jong Il, sporting his trademark beige uniform and permed bouffant. Except for the fact that they were at least eight metres tall, the statues were realistic down to the tiniest detail. Unfortunately, we didn't have very long to admire them, and in any case it probably would have been taken as disrespectful to stand there gawking. We all made a bow deep enough to satisfy the immaculated uniformed honour guards and hastened to the exit.
The next part of the visit is a bit hazy for me, though I do remember us passing through spectacular marble-clad rooms with polished granite floors, and at one point climbing a majestic carpeted staircase patrolled by more armed guards. We eventually arrived at one of the aforementioned blow-drying stations, which was situated just outside the room where Kim Il Sung's preserved body lies in state. By now we were sandwiched between two groups of locals, most of the men in suits and ties and the women in colourful traditional dresses known locally as joseon-ot. Again, there was a pause while the choreography of this room was explained to us: before entering the room, we needed to get into formation, and then walk in one row at a time. We were to bow once at Kim's feet, then move clockwise around the sarcophagus, pausing at his left and right sides to bow again. We were warned to maintain dignity and solemnity at all times, and above all not to stare at the man's head (perhaps to discourage us from gaping at the baseball-sized tumour on his neck).
Except for the bright crystal sarcophagus which forms its centrepiece, Kim Il Sung's resting chamber is dimly lit. Unlike Lenin's claustrophobic tomb, Kim's room is several stories tall, and spacious enough to require the support of four stout columns. Soft orchestral music emanates from well-concealed loudspeakers, providing an atmosphere that is at once sorrowful, peaceful, and awe-inspiring. Some of the female Koreans who entered the room after us immediately broke down in tears; luckily for them they had a few moments to compose themselves while we all awaited our turns to step forward and bow. Once we began, however, there was no time to linger—one brief circumnavigation of the Great Leader's earthly vessel and we were ushered away to continue our tour.
We next found ourselves in a hall of awards. Lining the walls, and running down the centre of the room, were a series of illuminated glass cabinets containing hundreds of medals, trophies, badges, diplomas, and other decorations bestowed upon Kim Il Sung during his life. Predictably, most of the awards came from governments associated with the Eastern Bloc, such as the USSR's Order of Lenin and East Germany's Order of Karl Marx. However, there were also plenty of obscure examples from non-ruling political parties of the First World and post–Cold War Europe. (Kim seems to have been particularly beloved by the Leninists of Poland, who continued to heap medals and certificates upon him long after they were deposed.)
After this, we visited a succession of rooms documenting Kim's world travels. First there was a large chamber containing a car which we were told was the leader's, though we noted it differed in many details from the one Kim was posing next to in the room's many photos. Next was an even larger room, maybe six or eight metres high and twenty or thirty metres long, one of whose walls was covered with an electronic map of the world. Animated, colour-coded lines formed by LEDs showed Kim's official travels by train and plane. And facing the map was Kim's original private rail car, looking exactly the way it appeared in the photos which adorned the walls.
We were then led to another blow-drying room, and the entire tour was then repeated, this time for Dear Leader Kim Jong Il: another sarcophagal chamber, identical in every respect to the last except for the deceased occupant; another hall of awards; another auto garage with an expensive-looking bullet-proof Mercedes; and another lofty chamber containing a huge self-illuminating wall map and a full-size luxury rail carriage. The last room, however, contained a surprise: Kim's 25-metre-long armoured yacht. We were dumbfounded as to how they managed to get two rail cars and a full-sized yacht into the palace. The vehicles didn't appear to have been cut down and reassembled inside, so the walls or ceiling of the palace must have at some point been dismantled to move them in.
The ship marked the end of the inside portion of our tour. We were taken back to the moving sidewalks and stood in motion for what seemed like an eternity. As we'd already seen all the portraits and windows on the way in, we looked instead at the local Koreans coming towards us on the opposite sidewalk. I smiled politely a few times, but it seems they were trying assiduously to ignore us. I suppose when you come to Kumsusan, you're expected to devote your full attention to the Kim memorabilia, not the exotic foreign tourists who happen to be there too.
After a quick stop at the garderobe to collect our belongings, we were set loose on the palace grounds. This was our only opportunity for photography. The local visitors were at it as well, posing for group pictures on risers which were set up for that purpose in front of the palace. From a distance I managed to snap a few pictures of joseon-ot-clad ladies, but the large number of soldiers milling about made it too risky to get anything more. I contented myself with a few snaps of a beautiful but unpopulated fountain before we all headed back to the bus.
Our entire visit to Kumsusan had taken up most of the morning that Sunday. As the bus pulled away, I reminded myself that Kim Il Sung is still, constitutionally speaking, the country's president. It then dawned on me that, for the first time in my life, I had had an audience with a sitting head of state. Though I had often wondered what such an experience would be like, I never once imagined that it would involve paying homage to a dead man.