Where does one begin?
Today was the day when shirts and ties were required for men with appropriately modest attire required for the ladies. We were headed for the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, final resting place for both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Both leaders have been embalmed and lie in state for loyal subjects and tourists to visit. Clearly this is a site of very great importance to the North Korean people and one, quite reasonably, requiring a level of reverence and discretion from all those who visit.
Even when we arrived in the Palace grounds we were still not sure if we would get to see the embalmed bodies of one or both of the Leaders. As we were visiting during Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebrations there were rumours that Kim Jong-il’s body may not be on display. As it happened we got to see both. On my return to Beijing I finally relented and stood for an hour and a half in line to see Chairman Mao. Having done so, I can now say I have seen all five embalmed leaders currently on display worldwide (or I have seen what the International Business Times referred to as the “exclusive club of pickled dictators on display for all eternity”).
The size and grandeur of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – albeit that it now houses two bodies – leaves for dead (pardon the pun) the mausoleums of Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. This one is much bigger and decadent than the three others put together and, irrespective of ones political thoughts, is a magnificent monument to the immortality of the two Kims.
The building started out life in 1976 as the Kumsusan Assembly Hall and served as Kim Il-sung’s office and residence during his lifetime. On Kim Il-sung’s death (8 July 1994), Kim Jong-il had the building converted to his father’s mausoleum and renamed as the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Post Kim Jong-il’s own death on 17 December 2011 he was also embalmed and now also lies in state here – in a separate room – in what is now called the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
In addition to being a mausoleum for the two leaders the building has two large rooms, one for each leader, displaying the awards and accolades bestowed upon them during and indeed after their life on earth. Accordingly, we were guided by display case after display case of medals, trophies and degree certificates including an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California (since closed). Also preserved here, in separate rooms, are cars, boats and train carriages given to, or used by, the leaders. It was here that I learned that Kim Jong-il used an Apple Mac! I also learned that his trademark dark glasses were worn such that his people would not be upset or saddened if they saw his tired and bloated eyes, brought about by his endless work, love and concern for his people.
I have got ahead of myself. The main reason for visiting here was to view the embalmed bodies of the leaders.
Having arrived at the Palace or rather at a building some distance from the Palace we had to wait a short time for an allotted viewing time. From this point on, until we came out of the Palace, all photography was strictly prohibited – and they meant it this time!
On leaving our holding area we began our long walk (some say 2 kms) to see the Leader’s lying in state. Our first stop was a cloakroom where basically everything other than our clothes and wallets had to be deposited. Our attire was checked at this point – those wearing jackets had to have them properly buttoned, zip up tops had to be zipped up, etc, etc. Having got through here the next stop was a typical airport style security.
From here it took maybe 20 minutes (no queues) of walking and standing on moving walkways to get to the star attractions.
Walking on the slow moving walkways was not permitted – perhaps to make up for this we got to listen to lamenting revolutionary background orchestral music and got to fully admire pictures of the Leaders (serving the people) which lined either side of the walk. I would be exaggerating if I said there were thousands of these but there certainly were lots spaced around five metres apart. I wonder if one of the walkways we walked on was the longest in the world – I guess not though, as the opportunity to highlight this would not have been missed by our guide.
Having passed massive white marble statues (picture below courtesy of the Korean Central News Agency) of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il bathed in delicate pink and blue lighting – no bowing required – our first stop was the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung but before that there were some cleansing issues to be taken care of.
The first of these was a shoe cleansing device built into a moving walkway which essentially buffeted our shoes. This done we had to individually walk through a wind tunnel designed to blow away any cobwebs and other nasties we might be carrying. The wind in here was gale-force and certainly gave rise to a need for the ladies, and the men of us who still had hair, to readjust it on exit. A similar wind blast cleansing was again required prior to entering Kim Jong-il’s resting place. As I recall, our shoes just required one cleansing.
The process for visiting each of the Leaders embalmed bodies was identical. We entered each chamber in groups of four, positioned ourselves at the leaders feet and bowed from the waist. We them moved round to our left to one side of the body and bowed again. We then passed the head – no stopping or bowing here – before a final bow at the bodies other side prior to departing the room.
Both leaders display chambers were identical – large, square, high ceilinged rooms with low lighting containing the embalmed body in a clear glass sarcophagus on a slightly elevated platform in the centre of the room with four ceremonial (though armed) guards in attendance and standing to attention.
The whole building, and it is massive, is decked out in marble and chandeliers – I can only speculate as to how much this ostentatious display might have cost. Certainly no expense was spared and it made me think that surely Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh must have died as paupers and unloved.
Having visited the two Kim’s, their medals, awards and other decorations and seen their cars, train carriages and boats and enough pictures of both to last me a while it was time to retrace our steps along corridors and walkways and leave the Palace building for a short, though ample, stroll in the front gardens. The gardens have been opened up to the people who can come here to meditate and pay their respects without necessarily visiting the leaders on each visit. Given the importance of this location a group photograph was called for – a tiered stand was available for this purpose. This duly taken we had a short time for individual meditation and photo-taking before it was time to move on with memories of what is truly one of the most amazing places in the world.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to Pyongyang. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Mangyongdae – Birthplace of Kim Il-sung – or to start the loop at the beginning go to – Pyongyang – A Capital City Unlike any Other