It was the morning of day 2 of my visit to North Korea and we were all dressed up and ready to go in our smart clothes to see the Great Leader – Kim Il Sung – lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace, his former official residence. After waiting for a while in the waiting room we were told to line up (4 abreast) and set off in the direction of the Palace. The main building was cold and quiet, with only the quiet hum of the moving walkways and air conditioners breaking the silence. I was up front and started walking as soon as we stepped onto the moving walkway, only to be told to stop. We continued like that for what seemed ages. Standing still while the moving walkway transported us through the silent passages. At some point we came to a machine that scrubbed the underside of our shoes as we passed over it. We deposited our bags and camera’s before going through the metal detectors before getting back on the silent contraptions that took us further into the building. Every now and again an orderly group of Koreans – with the women dressed in their brightly coloured synthetic dresses – passed us in the oopposite direction, returning from their visit. As I watched them and wondered what they thought of us.
Finally, we arrived at the first room. We entered from the back of the room, walking directly up to a large statue of “The President for Eternity” with soft pink and blue lighting on the wall behind him. We exited that room and entered another that had bronze panels on the left showed the “grief stricken reaction of the people of Korea” and on the right that of the international community (also grief stricken) on the death of Great Leader. Ahead of us was panel with the workers party flag with the Great Leaders face in the middle. We had each received an audio device on entering the room through which a recorded voice solemnly told the story.
Before we could enter the room where Kim Il Sung’s body lay in state we needed to be purified. This involved walking through a narrow chamber and with jets of air blowing at us from one side. Apparently the other side was a bank of vacuum nozzles. The room was as large as the others, but lit by a dim red light. The ceiling was vaulted and The Great Leader was lying in a glass casket. Only his head was visible above the blanket that covered him. It was surrounded by soldiers holding polished silver kalashnikovs. We lined up at the back of the room in rows of 4 and waited for our turn. When it arrived, we walked towards the feet and at a few feet away stopped and bowed our heads. After a moment we turned to the left and lined up along the side. Bow your head, walk to the left, wait behind his head for the other people to bow. Walk to the left, bow and then exit the room.
The next series of rooms showed the Great Leaders travels, both internally and internationally. His official vehicle and train carriage were on display. Following which we entered a room that contained all the awards he had received. Nothing was too minor to be displayed. Finally we were walked into a large hall and were given the opportunity to sign one of the guest books that were laid out on ornate desks. A number of people jumped at the opportunity, but finally one combined message for the group was left.
I didn’t get to see Mao in Beijing, but I did see “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Min) in Ha Noi, which was over in about 20 mins (including handing in the bags at security). I don’t remember much about that visit and the impact was far less lasting.
*Photography is strictly forbidden in the mausoleum, so the picture above, courtesy ofwww.kremlin.ru
Kim visited the hermit kingdom of North Korea for 3 days in August 2009. It was a jam-packed trip where there was always something new and different to see. You can read more about her trip here and here.