By the end of my visit to this palace, I knew I had to make a dedicated post as this was such a very special experience to me.
I did not do thorough research on places to visit in North Korea, as the whole trip was arranged by the tour. Although we were allowed to make our own itinerary since I joined a private tour, but I just somehow trusted the tour has arranged the best one. Besides too much digging on the destination will eliminate the element of surprise – that I clearly did not want to.
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun or also known as Kim Il Sung mausoleum, is the largest mausoleum built to respect a communist leader. This is where they embalmed the dead bodies of the deceased leaders in a crystal glass coffin so that the Korean people can come and visit to pay respect to their Supreme Leaders. Okay, by dead bodies here I mean the real dead bodies of Kim Il Sung (the founding father) and Kim Jong Il (the 2nd president – the father of current President, Kim Jong Un). When my guides talked about the embalmed bodies, I never thought that it will be the real one. I thought it will be a wax replica of the leaders that put in a coffin as a symbol of the tomb. I was totally wrong!
Next question popped, WHY would they keep the bodies of their Supreme Leaders and display it to the public like that? Apparently, this practice is quite common in communist country around the world. Let’s say Vladimir Lenin – Russia and Mao Zedong – China, they are the Great Leaders whose bodies also embalmed to be displayed publicly so that people across generation can always visit and pay respect to them.
That’s why we need to dress as delicate as we can to come here. The man need to wear white sleeves with ties, long trousers with closed toes shoes. While the woman has to wear closed shoulder blouse, over the knee skirt or long trousers (jeans is prohibited). But I also saw many local men wear suit and tie, while local women wear Hanbok – the traditional dress of Korea. Our guide themselves wore blazer and trousers, looking so firm and professional. I think it share the same idea like if we want to visit places of worship like mosque, church, or temple where we need to wear proper clothes to pay respect to God and being polite with others.
We arrived at the mausoleum early in the morning and followed our guides walking into the side building that I believed where they proceed the registration. A male officer came out from the office, introduced himself and guided us to the main building that connected with open corridor.
After entering the entrance door of the palace, we arrived in the cloaking room where we need to deposit our belongings such coats, bags, phone and camera.
Miss Yo and Miss Ri, our guide, gave us a brief explanation on what to do and what not to do. Taking picture or video are not allowed, When we walk we need to keep our arms on the side, there will be spots where we required to do a bow, we also have to remain quite or talk in low voice, no run, no jump, and not to do something offensive or disrespectful.
We walked side by side with the guide in 2 rows, passing the security screening that followed with a series of (never ending) travelators. As I mentioned before, the palace is super huge we need to ride a bunch of long travelators that runs so slow it took forever to reach the end. As we were not wearing anymore coat, the hallway was so cold made the ride felt even longer. And yes, we were not allowed to walk on the travelators, we had to stay put while listening to the guide explaining the story behind pictures on the wall alongside the travelator.
After 1st travelator ends, we made a turn where there was another travelator waiting ahead. What made it different, there were rows of armies on that travelators! Our tiny group walked onto the 2nd travelators just behind those armies. And, by chance I turned my head looking at my back, guess what! another rows of armies. Shoot! My stomach slided a little. I asked my guide beside me, why there are a lot of armies around. Thankfully, she said, it’s common to see armies come to the Mausoleum as they want to pay respect to their leaders. Hundreds and thousands of people come to the Mausoleum everyday including the armies to see their leaders. Oh such a relieved! Maybe we were just too lucky (or not?!) to walk sandwiched by the armies.
I mean, isn’t it scary to be in a long and cold hallways surrounded by North Korean armies lining in front of and behind me, where at that point, I had not see any tourist around other than me and my friend! A slight of negativity tingled in my head, is this a trap?! are we gonna get detained?! LoL. I am sorry for having that creepy thought, but.. you know what I mean right!
So, we finally arrived in the main hall that has huge statue of the leaders where we required to give a bow. After that the guide led us to a big hall with a dim light and solemn atmosphere, I could see a glass coffin with the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung – the founder or the 1st President of North Korea lies in the middle. He is the sun of the country, as he liberated Northern Korea from the Japanese and won the Korean War against the USA back in 1950.
We took a queue behind the armies that went row of 5 by row of 5 to take 3x bows on the 3 sides of the coffin. While waiting for our turn, my eyes caught a group of locals that just finished their turn to bow, walking out of the hall, crying!! Later I asked my guide, why were they crying?! And my guide simply said because the leaders are extremely loved by the people, although Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il passed away many years ago, they always be remembered, loved and close to the Korean people’s heart. I was struck! I mean, Never I pictured myself crying if I visited my first president’s tomb. If what my guide said were true, isn’t it amazing?!
When it was my group’s turn to take a bow, I focused my sight to the clear glass coffin in front of me while my guide made a sign to start bowing together. Honestly I was a bit nervous, afraid I would make a wrong move as all eyes in the hall was on us. It was such a surreal that I stood in front of a dead body of a world’s figure dictator that died 26 years ago yet I presented 3x bows for him who lied on a Korean-styled pillow, looking just like he died yesterday. What a feeling.
After the 3rd bow done, we then entered the next hall that contains Kim Il Sung’s honours and awards from many countries, including mine. My guide, Miss Ri, excitingly pointed out a picture of my first President – Soekarno and Kim Il Sung together. It had been mentioned many times by her, that Soekarno was one of closest foreign friend of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. An orchid-family flower from Bogor Botanical Garden named after Kim Il Sung to honor the Great Leader – a gift from Soekarno.
Moving to the following hall, is where the preserved remains of Kim Jong Il lies, we took a line after the armies and made the same sequence to respect him just like we did to his father in the first room. Bowing 3x in 3 different sides of the transparent glass coffin called Sarcophagus and then off to the room that contains honours and awards for Kim Jong Il during his lifetime.
Kim Jong Il died in 2003, just 7 years after his father’s death. The 2nd Supereme Leader of North Korea known by the North Korean people as a very low profile and hard working man. During his lifetime, he never wanted his statue to be erected or his picture being displayed everywhere, although the people wanted to do so as an act of love and respect. Also, despite being seriously ill, he kept forcing himself to travel across the country to work for his people, which he died on the train during his work trip. A heart-moving story that being released regarding to his demise, the last document he signed was him wanted to distribute fresh fish to every single family in Pyongyang in the new year as a form of his concern of the wealth of his people, amid the transportation constraint as they had limited source of petrol due to world’s economic sanction. Miss Ri’s eyes was a bit teary when sharing this story, made me even more fascinated by the genuine love of the Korean people to their leaders.
The next room contains vehicles of the Supreme Leaders – cars, train carriage, even a boat! complete with the log of the journeys both outbound and inbound they made in their entire life for work purpose.
We then led to the outside part of the building where Kim Jong Un decided to build a proper park for the visitor to take a walk and enjoy the pretentious look of the palace from outside, this is also the only spot around the palace where we allowed to take a picture.
It was such a great experience to witness the remains of the Supreme Leaders of North Korea with my own eyes, along with the bowing practice. I never ever imagined I would met them in person.
This excursion left me in question, whether the people of North Korea truly love their leaders? Was the story of the Leaders who concerned about the people even real? Or it was just a PR made up story to build a propaganda on how great their Leaders were. I personally hate myself to have this kind of doubt, but well.. let the truth remains mystery. Because that what makes North Korea, North Korea.