It’s yet another early morning in Pyongyang and our tour group is in one of our hotel’s incredibly large banquet halls, picking at the remains of our breakfasts. It’s the same thing every day: kimchi, undercooked omelets, instant coffee, and the most incredibly dense donuts I have ever encountered. One of our guides is scurrying around from table to table, quickly looking over our attire to ensure we are dressed properly. She spies my flip-flops.
“Lindsay, do you have other shoes?”
I pick up the brown dress shoes I carried downstairs with me. I hate wearing dress shoes, so try and minimize the time I have to clumsily walk around in them.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, got my dress shoes here.”
Our first stop on today’s itinerary is the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the former residence and office of the “Great Leader” and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. I guess it’s like the North Korean equivalent of the White House, with one minor difference. When an American President dies, we bury him and give him a nice headstone. The lucky ones might get a crypt or an eternal flame. When the North Korean leader dies, they embalm his corpse, put it on display inside his home, and declare it one of North Korea’s most sacred sites. Very few foreigners, and even fewer U.S. Imperialists, are allowed into Kim’s mausoleum.
Prior to our trip, we were informed that we would have to bring a set of dress clothes for our visit to Kumsusan, as it is a site of great importance to the North Korean people. So, that morning, we were all dressed in our finest, or what passes for your finest when you have to stuff nine days worth of clothes, toiletries, and Snickers bars in a backpack. I was wearing a semi-wrinkled white dress shirt, brown slacks, and brown shoes. I basically looked like I was going to work that morning and had neglected to iron my shirt.
Our bus takes us through deserted streets to the northeastern outskirts of Pyongyang where the palace is surrounded by massive gates guarded by soldiers in dress uniform. We enter a building off to the side of the palace and encounter a bizarre contraption featuring rotating spools of astroturf. After stepping onto a damp pad in front of the machine, we then proceed to walk on the rotating spools, which cleanse the bottom of our shoes. There will be no mud tracked into the Great Leader’s palace.
After depositing our cameras and bags in the coat check room, we were instructed to line up in rows of four and walk to the security checkpoint. I’m not really sure why we have to line up in rows of four, because we were quickly forced back into a single line in order to get through the metal detector and subsequent patdown by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army. But then again, this is North Korea, and if you’re told to get in a row of four, you get in a row of four.
Having been checked for explosives, weapons, and cameras, we then encounter an incredibly long moving walkway. I was a bit surprised to see a standard airport feature in a somber mausoleum. We began walking on the moving walkway, as most people, save the exceptionally lazy, usually do, until we were quickly instructed by our guide that we were supposed to stand still and let the walkway slowly take us to our destination. So we stood there, quietly, and patiently, as the walkway delivered us to…yet another walkway. It seemed like we had traveled for a mile on these things. In fact, I’m willing to bet that, as with everything in the DPRK, it’s the longest moving walkway in the world.
We reach the end of the final segment of the moving walkway and once again line up in rows of four. We’re led into a dimly lit room where we stand in a sloppy formation and wait for our row’s turn to step forward and stand before the the large white statue of Kim Il-Sung, which was bathed in a beautiful pink and blue lighting. We don’t bow here, just quietly stare at the statue looming in front of us while music plays in the background. God, this place is so weird. And we haven’t even gotten to the actual corpse yet.
Before entering the next room, we are each handed a miniature audio device similar to the ones you can rent at museums. This room contains yet another large statue of Kim Il-Sung, and the walls are decorated with bas reliefs of mourning soldiers, farmers, workers, and intellectuals. We march around the room in our rows of four, each of us clutching the audio device which contains a track of an over dramatic man with a British accent telling us how the death of Kim Il-Sung was basically the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind.
Finally, it was time to see the Great Leader himself. First, however, we had to be purified, and were led through a chamber with powerful jets of air that blew any specks of dirt off of us American Imperialists. Thoroughly cleansed, we entered a dimly lit room with high ceilings. In the center of the room was a glass coffin containing the body of Kim Il-Sung, which was draped with a blanket so that only the head was visible. In front of us, rows of somber North Koreans bowed before the coffin, under the vigilant gaze of ramrod straight white gloved soldiers clutching their polished Kalashnikovs. My row of four quietly stepped forward and stood at the feet of the Great Leader. We glanced at our guide, who was standing furthest to the left in our row, and followed her lead as she bowed. We then walked to the left, stood at the Great Leader’s side, and bowed again. For whatever reason, you don’t bow at his head, so we just stood there for a moment and then walked over to his other side, where we bowed for the last time. As we left the room I took one last glance over my shoulder to take in the bizarre spectacle. Lenin’s Mausoleum truly has nothing on this place.
The next rooms contain a giant map showing all the places Kim managed to visit during his tenure, as well as his personal rail car and official vehicle. The Great Leader rolled through the streets of Pyongyang in a Mercedes, by the way. Man of the people indeed.
We were then led into yet another room which was filled with all of the “awards” bestowed upon Kim Il-Sung by foreign governments and political parties. Most of them aren’t real awards, but rather trinkets with little value that have been put on display to give North Koreans the impression that their Great Leader was highly respected all over the world. I spy a few Soviet medals that were awarded to millions of citizens and can now be picked up for a few dollars at any souvenir market in Russia. I was quite amused to come across an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California. I had never heard of this university, so Googled it when I returned to the United States. Turns out it’s nothing more than a diploma mill. I wonder if some North Korean apparatchik saw a Kensington University advertisement in Reader’s Digest and sent away for it.
Having acquainted ourselves with the numerous accomplishments and accolades of Kim Il-Sung, we were then ushered into an extremely large room with several large desks, each adorned with a thick book. Our guide explained that these were guestbooks and that it was customary for visitors to sign them. Since we were such a large group, he suggested that perhaps just one person could sign for the entire group. We all hesitated, hoping someone else would be the first to volunteer. A member of our group finally stepped forward and was led to one of the desks while the rest of us plopped down on the couches lining the perimeter of the room. I wondered what I would write in the guestbook if we were all required to sign. “Dear Kim Il-Sung…love what you’ve done with the place. Your mausoleum is a million times more impressive than Lenin’s. Cheers, Lindsay.” I’m not sure if that would pass muster with the guides. Luckily I didn’t have to find out.
We leave the mausoleum the same way we’ve entered – via the extremely long and slow moving walkways. This time, though, the moving walkway opposite ours is filled with hundreds of North Koreans, most of them in military uniforms, on their way to pay homage to the Great Leader. Some of them stare at us with puzzled looks while others quickly glance away, as if they’ve just seen something utterly revolting. I suppress the urge to smile and wave. We’re not at the funfair anymore, comrades.
After collecting our cameras from the coat check, we head outside to explore the outside of the mausoleum, which is fronted by a massive, deserted square. Off to one side, members of army platoons and work units wait patiently for their turn to climb a set of bleachers and have their group photo snapped in front of the Great Leader’s final resting place. At least now they are smiling.
More photos here.