This place is the most sacred place in all of Korea, according to our guides, whether they be Korean or Western. This is the place where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state. Many Koreans don’t want foreigners here at all, so our guides were on tenterhooks lest we do something wrong, whether from youthful high spirits or just simple ignorance, so we had lots of talks about how to behave while we were there.
Un Ha arrived in her traditional dress. She obviously comes from a privileged family, seeing as how she has grown up in Pyongyang with her family. However, privilege is still very different here than it is back home. She only has the one traditional dress and she has owned it for 8 years.
“When I get another one I’d like it to be blue,” she said. She’ll get another one when she gets married, no doubt.
We were told that we had to dress in a formal manner as if we were going to a funeral. Remember these shoes? I bought them a few days before in Beijing because I stupidly took my black flat shoes out of my suitcase the night before we left. They finally saw the light of day. I took my runners with me on the bus because it was raining and we were going to see a farm after this, and I didn’t think these embroidered shoes would stand up to much mud.
This place was definitely one that showcased how upside-down the values of this country are and how blindly the people worship their leaders.
This building was originally built ‘by the people’ in the 1970’s to give Kim Il Sung a place to work. It’s huge… marble walls and floors, ceilings way-way-way high, massive rooms and corridors that go on forever. When his father died in 1994, Kim Jong Il didn’t want to work there, so he gave it back to the people as a mausoleum for his father. When he died, his body was laid to rest here too.
The photo of the swans was taken out of a window as we travelled along a 1.5km travelator from the entrance to where the palace viewings begin. But that wasn’t the first thing we had to get through.
- The first thing we went through was a machine that wiped our feet and blew air over our shoes.
- The next thing was the cloakroom. EVERYTHING had to be left there. No handbags, no cameras, no phones, no chewing gum, no drink bottles… no nothing. This is a sacred place and your mouths and your hands must be empty. We’d had to leave things in cloakrooms before, but these white-gloved ladies placing our belongings on the shelves with great care were insistent that we leave everything.
- Next came the security check. We walked through a normal detector gate, then we had a thorough search. The underwire in my bra had to be looked at, (by a female guard, so no drama), while anyone with a digital/electric watch had to submit it to a thorough inspection.
- The first travelator moved at a sedate clip, with
eye-heighttip-toe height windows looking at the moat/river outside, with the majestic swans sailing past. We were on it for 6 or 7 minutes before transferring off to another one, this time inside the building, with huge photos of the leaders on either side, glad-handing the locals and overseas dignitaries. The travelators moved at a slow pace so you could take in the photos – Kim Il Sung on the left and Kim Jong Il on the right.
- After many minutes and many pictures, the travelator ended and we were in the reception rooms.
(Helen borrowed Niall’s dress for the occasion, but she was too short, so she passed it on to Maria from Finland. That tricky front bow needed assistance from Un Ha before photos.)
Like in the International Friendship Exhibition, there were larger-than-life-size statues that we had to bow to. We had to walk up to them in rows and bow for a prescribed period of time. All of us had our eyes slid sideways watching the guides at the end of each row, taking our cues from them. This is seriously not a place to muck around and risk offending the locals.
When we were milling around in the entry foyer waiting to go in, one of the other guides from our tour company, a rollicking boy from Australia called Ben, was going over how to approach and bow to the embalmed bodies of the Leaders. When he got to the part about NOT bowing behind the head, as it’s very disrespectful, I said to tease him, “OK, challenge accepted!”
He actually went pale. “Anywhere else, Frogdancer, but not here!!”
(Maria and Marjo from Finland, with Un Ha.)
So yeah, funny story about that…
I don’t know if you remember the hurried experience going to see Chairman Mao’s body was in Beijing? This experience was by far more dignified. The Koreans absolutely worship their leaders, particularly the first one, Kim Il Sung, and so going to see their bodies is a hugely significant occasion in their lives. Un Ha said that before she became a tour guide, she’d only been here once in her life, when she turned 16.
We entered the first room in rows of 5, with Un Ha leading, then 4 of us following. We waited in line, then when it was our turn we walked to Kim Il Sung’s feet and bowed. Then we walked to the left, still in a straight line, and bowed again. Then we moved to the back of the body, behind his head and stood. Without a word of a lie, I started bowing. I was in the rhythm of the lining up, the walking, the bowing… I maybe moved a fraction of an inch when I realised no one else in the line beside me was moving. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! Usually I’m first in line for anything, but thank goodness I was fourth in line for this! This is one place on Earth where you seriously do NOT want to be noticed as being different from the crowd.
We then walked to the right side of his body – me starting to feel a clammy sweat from almost causing an international incident – then bowed. We repeated the same thing for Kim Jong Il’s body next door, then we were out of there.
Along the way we also saw a few exhibits of planes, boats and train carriages that the Leaders used. We were looking at the boat that Kim Jong Il, (not an enthusiastic flyer), used to take to Russia. Pierre leaned in and said to James and me, “This was the boat that he used to bring his Russian whores to.” Meanwhile the guides were saying about how he only used the boat for negotiations for the good of the people.
The most amazing exhibit, I think, was the train carriage that was set up like an office, where Kim Jong Il supposedly died, at his desk, while working on a report on how to improve the living conditions of the people. They had it set up as if he’d only just stepped out, with his reading glasses and papers there, as if at any moment he’d come back and resume work for the betterment of their nation.
After we’d seen a few more exhibits, including the rooms full of gold medals that countries and universities had given them, we went back the other way along the travelators.
There was a stream of people coming the other way, all Korean, all solemn and all dressed in their best. The women were all, without fail, dressed in their traditional dresses and the men were in their best suits. I felt so desperately sad for them.
They were all so deeply convinced that the leaders were working tirelessly their whole lives to free the people from the shackles of oppression. You could see in their faces that this excursion was a Really Big Thing for them. Of course they had absolutely no idea about the corruption and lies that the regime has been feeding them, along with the incompetence with farming techniques that led to millions starving to death in the famines.
Once we were back on the bus I felt free to discard the chewing gum that I’d had in my mouth the whole time we were going through the Palace. I have a hypersensitive nerve in my throat that makes me cough a lot and chewing gum is one way to suppress it. I thought that coughing in front of the leaders would be less preferable than hiding the gum and staying respectfully silent, so every time we passed soldiers, (which was a lot of the time), I’d keep my jaws still.
Wot a rebel I am.
The toilets were an interesting contrast. Before we went in, at the entry foyer they were European-style thrones with actual toilet paper provided, beautiful, dazzlingly clean stalls and washroom…. everything schmick. After we came out, before we went outside, the toilets were squatty potties, no toilet paper and VERY drab and dingy.
The photos in this post were taken outside once we’d emerged. We were still expected to behave in a decorous, sedate way. Maria and Marjo started to pose to take a selfie with arms up in the air and the guides raced over to them. They hastily straightened up.
A woman was mopping the already wet concrete. Everything had to look immaculate. Especially because tomorrow was the biggest day of celebration of the year – the birthday of Kim Il Sung, so there’d be people dancing outside on the large square and there’d be tv cameras broadcasting across the whole country.
It was about 11AM and we were going out into the countryside to see some more sights, along with eating the most memorable seafood dish I’m likely to ever consume in my life…