Following an evening of Mass Games, drinking North Korean beer, and exploring our bizarre hotel, we were up bright and early for our first full day of touring Pyongyang. The first stop on our itinerary was the obligatory visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument, a 65 foot bronze statue of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung. Of all things you will do in North Korea, visiting this monument is perhaps one of the most controversial. While planning a trip North Korea, one must keep the following things in mind:
1. A visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung is obligatory. This is one of the holiest sites in Pyongyang, with thousands of North Koreans paying their respects to the Great Leader each day.
2. Your group is expected to purchase bouquets of flowers, lay them at the feet of Kim Il-Sung, and then bow in accordance with local customs.
3. When taking photos of the Great Leader, do nothing “cute” like mimicking his pose. Ensure that all photos contain the entire statue of the Great Leader. Do not take any photos that would crop the Great Leader (i.e., showing only his feet).
Since we had received all of this information in our tour packets, and it was further reinforced in the pre-tour briefing in Beijing, we were all well aware of how we were expected to act at the Grand Monument. Obviously, bowing to a statue of a ruthless dictator is not something you want to do, but if you are set on visiting North Korea, this bizarre gesture is a requirement that many simply accept as the price of admission.
The monument was erected in 1972 to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s 60th birthday. Rumor has it that the statue was originally coated in gold, but this was removed on the insistence of the Chinese government, which was heavily subsidizing the regime.
Flowers in hand, we hopped off our tour bus and walked a short distance to the monument. Spread out before us was a vast open space with a huge bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung front and center and two large socialist-realism sculptures to the left and right of the statue. Music blared from large speakers as groups of soldiers, schoolchildren, and families lined up before the statue and solemnly bowed. Our guide pointed out a man carrying a large video camera. “He is from the news channel, and here to film you.” Oh great. Our visit was being turned into propaganda for the masses. I could just imagine the evening news anchor announcing: “And here are the U.S. Imperialists bowing before the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung…” Well, there goes my future political career.
He’s from the North Korean version of CNN.
Our guide led us to the front of the statue. Members of the group who had purchased flowers stepped forward and laid them at the feet of the Great Leader. Once they had returned and taken their place in line, we followed the lead of our guide and bowed. Compared to the North Koreans, who were bowing in perfect unison, we were all quite disorganized. Some members of our group had a long bow, some had a quick bow, others bowed twice. I’m sure the Koreans watching the news that evening got quite a laugh at the clumsy U.S. Imperialists. What can I say, we just aren’t accustomed to bowing before statues (or preserved corpses, as I will detail in a later entry).
Our obligation to the cult of personality fulfilled, we were then free to wander around the area and take an excessive amount of photos.
Unfortunately, no American pose here.
This kid has his own military uniform.