In a Nutshell: The Mausoleum, otherwise known to locals as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is the final resting place of North Korean leaders Eternal President Kim Il-Sung and Chairman Kim Jong-Il. Their bodies are displayed inside for public viewing within climate-controlled clear glass sarcophagi. Here’s what it’s like to visit.
About: I’m Elliott. I’m the tour director at North Korea tour operator Uri Tours. I travel a lot myself, sometimes to the unusual, weird and wacky. Earth Nutshell is where I share my experiences. Interested in visiting North Korea for yourself? Shoot me an email at [email protected]
Afront the hotel room’s wall mirror I straighten my tie, tuck in my cotton shirt and give my dress shoes one final shine. It was early morning in Pyongyang and my daily ritual was today accompanied by the background drone of North Korean State Television — militaristic musical odes to Kim Il-Sung, censored news broadcasts and aged footage of Kim Jong-Il nodding his head towards corn plantations. This was all part of a healthy North Korean breakfast, I was now ready to tackle my day motivated and inspired. Moments later, I was nudged onto a bus headed towards the capital’s outskirts with five state-sanctioned guides on one of the most ‘important’ visitations of my life. Oddly enough, to visit these two aforementioned gentlemen in the flesh. Whom may I add, also died four and twenty-one years ago respectively. Welcome to another day in North Korea.
It had all the hallmarks of a job interview, only it wasn’t. I had a specific timeslot, I felt somewhat nervous, formal attire was mandatory, and most importantly, there was an expectation that I’d be knowledgeable and passionate about a topic that in reality, I knew relatively little about. Yep, certainly felt like a job interview. Either way, this was shaping up to be quite the task after a regrettably late night sinking marinated Snake Soju in the Yangakkdo’s karaoke bar. One slip up or sign of disrespect today, intentional or otherwise, even so much as not bowing when required and I’d be detained and dragged off kicking and screaming to a cell to play cards with Kenneth Bae. Something I paid good money for, by the way.
Goodness, writing that out indeed puts it into perspective.
The destination, known simply as ‘The Mausoleum’ to outsiders is the holiest building in North Korea, an otherwise atheist nation. Inside, the embalmed bodies of Eternal President Kim Il-Sung and since 2011, his son Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, lie in state inside climate-controlled clear glass sarcophagi for your viewing pleasure. They’re surrounded by mazing marble hallways, each a trove of their lifelong treasures and accomplishments. Eyes peer at you from every corner whether it be via camera or the abundance of guards. Access is from an underground tunnel hundreds of metres away — in many ways, a leaf has been taken from Egypt’s book of pyramid interior design. The unmistakeable stock portraits of each, representative of what feels like every street corner of Pyongyang hang defiantly on the restricted walls outside, where each visitor must bow to their likeness.
Really, this building is no joke. One of biblical proportions fenced in by State laws ironically denouncing religion as punishable by death. Juche, a political ideology of ‘self-reliance’ with religious undertones is the flavour of North Korea’s belief system and is practised by all North Korean citizens. Not by choice. Kim Il-Sung coined the ideology, initially as ‘Kimilsung-ism’ (seriously) and hence, retains the throne as the demi-god to all ‘believers’. The Jerusalem, Mecca, Temple Mount – whatever, this building is North Korea’s equivalent, romanticised to locals only as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
Our guides lined us up single file prior to entry, offering a rundown on proceedings ahead and etiquette required. No speaking, stand straight with hands to your sides, remain in line and always bow when required. So, together we marched forwards into this misplaced extravagance like baby chicks behind mother hen in a way that took me back to childhood scouts camp.
First came the ‘cloakroom’, all belongings aside from the shirt on my back was handed across in place of a numbered ticket for collection when we were to leave. Unfortunately, here is where I must break the news to you that this included our cameras, hence neither I nor anybody else has photos from inside these secretive walls. To ensure we weren’t wacky enough to pull a swift one in Kim Il-Sung’s old-age facility, a metal detector was conveniently placed ahead to uncover any paraphernalia. A tough place for a selfie, sorry guys, it just wasn’t possible.
Curiously, local North Korean visitors had further security screening including having their photos taken and an iris scan before being whisked out a different door. Why, or where this led, I don’t know. We then encountered a fancy automated shoe cleaner before being released into a spotlessly polished white marble hall stretching as far as the eye could see.
Here, we begin our journey into the palace. Let me set the scene for you:
One kilometre of travelator. Movement speed: Snail. No walking allowed. Glorious, orchestral music of Great Korea. Lining the walls were hundreds upon hundreds of large, gold-framed photographs straight out of Bowser’s Castle on Super Mario 64. Each photograph was either a press-release snap of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il accomplishing the world within North Korea or an illustration of warm foreign relations with other world-power heavyweights. Think Castro, Ghadaffi, Mao, Stalin, Putin, Ho Chi Minh…and U.S president Jimmy Carter. They’re all there. One big happy family. Handshakes and ear-to-ear grins were focal points to every photo. The atmosphere was surreal. This is the North Korea I expected to see.
This travelator took at least twenty minutes, if not more. Of course, this was no accident, this was our time to mourn and reflect upon the lives of two men who made the North Korean Dream a reality for all. Meanwhile, a glance outside the adjacent window nearing the palace revealed at least fifteen ‘privileged’ Pyongyang women gardening a single grass patch simultaneously using makeshift brooms constructed from sticks.
Ushers direct our path into the palace, where ceremonial flowers are presented at the feet of two giant white marble statues of both leaders. The room was dim, tall, and spacious, like a church hall, where even the silence would echo. Dramatic red light presented each sculpture, a representation of North Korea’s national shade. Korean People’s Army officials stand to each side, separated by Korean Worker’s Party flags and brandishing silver AK47’s. We synchronously bow at the designated line.
Originally, this building was Kim Il-Sung’s official residence, in many ways The White House. Eventually, it was transformed into his final resting place by Kim Jong-Il after his father’s death in 1994. It was estimated at a staggering $500-$900 million USD renovation. It was no cheap venture. Coincidently during this year until 1998, North Korea endured its worst famine in history where up to 3.5 million died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses as state allocated rations dropped to 20% of what the Worlds Food Program describes as a ‘survival ration’. Read into that what you wish, but there’s no denying the allocation of State resources during this time was irresponsible.
A lavish, golden regally decored lift you’d sooner expect in a 5-star deluxe hotel then ascended us to the waiting room preceding Kim Il-Sung’s Mausoleum.
Men dressed in black, the North Korean equivalent of the United States Secret Service were on every corner and doorway to the tall, open space room. Each had concealed pistols in holsters — the only time I saw officials like this in the entire country. It was quite loud on this floor and we swiftly discovered why; enormous air blowers had been installed to take every speck of dust from our attire before we’d be blessed with the Shining Sun’s presence. For a moment there, I almost felt like a plastic bag…drifting through the wind. Sorry, mistimed The Interview reference. But by any measure, gone was my perfectly styled buzz cut.
We regrouped and on our guides’ direction were eventually allowed inside.
The room was dark, a curtained space of marble floor and wall dimmed in red lighting with the spotlight to the centre in the chamber.
And there he was. The man himself. Eternal President Kim Il-Sung.
Lying on a tabletop inside the crystal glass sarcophagus as promised lay his lifeless body of the last 21 years. That’s a long time, dead and preserved long enough to be of legal drinking age in Arizona. Perspective. His body was draped in the red flag of the Workers’ Party of Korea, upper torso visible in a dark suit jacket and his shiny, almost waxy head angled upwards by a pillow. Madame Tussauds would be proud. To be honest, he looked a little too well-preserved – although one of my guides did mention the Mausoleum undergoes closure some months of the year for, well, corpse maintenance. Surrounding his casing were downward sloping beds of flowers. Not just any flower mind you, but the fabled pink Kimilsungia. I’m not making this up.
Our line, now filled with local visitors, all with Kim Il-Sung’s head pinned upon their heart, advance forward melding into groups of four at the front. This was in preparation for a bow, the most important one in North Korea — a bow to the Nation’s wise, respected, brilliant and unique father. The source of North Korea’s undying prosperity.
Now, this here is one of those times that as a tourist in North Korea, your social-justice warrior act of defiance by refusing to bow would lead to your arrest for political crimes. Korean People’s Army officials breathe down your neck from the room’s outskirts, watching intently as each group approaches Kim Il-Sung to bow. Not once, but three times, may I add. Once at the feet, once on the left and once on the right – but absolutely not at the head. As of course, that would allude to looking down upon the man representative of the peak of greatness.
As I completed the formality, I felt quite relieved such a simple requirement was done and dusted. It was quite tense. As we exited, another tourist and I exchanged gazes as if to say ‘Well, yep, he’s certainly dead…I don’t know what else we were expecting’. It was a strange visit.
But, of course, this is North Korea, and it got stranger.
The following number of rooms were laid out as shrines, linear walk-throughs with hundreds, if not thousands of Kim Il-Sung’s ‘achievements’ — medals, certifications, plaques, and trophies. I use quotes here because the legitimacy of these could be questioned at best and were straight up fraudulent at worst. Most were from within North Korea, however, there were display cabinets sectioned for each continent. Every democratic country was represented, as were international private enterprises (tsk tsk). To expand, there was a Ph.D. certification from Kensington University in California, upon closer inspection, a for-profit unaccredited diploma mill since closed by authorities. ‘Keys to the City’ were given and displayed proudly for an obscure district within a small province of the Cusco region of Peru’s Southern Highlands. The ‘Peace Award’ of Africa was showcased, a large golden trophy, as was the ‘Honorary Citizenship of Ecuador’. There was even an award for ‘peace, justice and humanity’ exhibited with pride from an Indonesian foundation. Scholarly robes were hung, encased in glass aside all his educational accreditations.
It was utterly bizarre. The focus on perceived international importance was certainly evident here, which I found most ironic considering North Korea’s enforced boycott of the outside world.
Countless medals sat inside open velvet casings laden in silk, illuminated by bright light — Hero of the Republic, Hero of Labour, Medal of Agriculture Merits, Military Service Honour and commemorative items of the Great Fatherland Liberation War. The list went on. The medal ‘For The Victory Over Japan’ lay next to the Japanese Peace Medal. Poetic. Alike the robes, military uniforms were also encased in glass cabinets beside these medals.
Kim Jong-Il’s achievement room was similar, he notably received the International Kim Il-Sung Prize Certificate, awarded for (and this is the exact wording): …the distinguished contribution to the sacred cause of independence and peace on the globe through application of the great Juche idea. Round of applause, Kim.
Kim Jong-Il’s mausoleum was likewise almost exactly as his fathers’, with the same formal entry process including another air blower – I’ll save you the detail. However I will mention that he wasn’t wearing his signature sunglasses (I was genuinely surprised), he was outfitted in that darn olive zip-up suit he wore literally everywhere, and he also looked as if he’d just had a fresh haircut. He didn’t look more or less dead than his father. Well, that was a weird sentence to type. Anyway, oh, and, of course, he wasn’t surrounded by Kimilsungilia’s. Don’t be silly. It was the red Kimjongilia instead. Once again, not making this up.
At this point, we expected that to be a wrap. We’d paid our respects and been reminded of all the fascinating accomplishments. But wait, there’s more. Just like a 4am infomercial.
North Korea have an unhealthy obsession with preserving sentimental items. Items used or even touched by the leaders become in many ways holy. Chairs Kim Il-Sung sat upon and the stationary he used have been encased in glass viewing boxes and even areas Kim Jong-Il has walked upon are regularly engraved with a red ‘X’. So, what happens to a demi-god’s significant belongings after death?
How about, for example, his yacht?
Yep, it’s here. In the building. They had to temporarily knock down a wall, but they got it inside. It’s surrounded by framed photographs of Kim Jong-Il enjoying life aboard, the room’s walls are even engraved in gold Korean Hangul of the boat’s history. Both great men owned a Mercedes too which are on display, as is Kim Jong-Il’s golf cart used in his later years, all of which are propped up on marble blocks and roped off like a Maserati sales showroom.
But Kim Jong-Il’s private train takes the cake. The very carriage he died inside of a suspected heart attack sits within a custom built room, interactive boards on the walls show in intricate detail all the locations worldwide the train had visited. He was afraid of flying.
One of the guides explained – “Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il died of overwork, he was under great mental and physical strain, it was sudden, and the train here is exactly as he left it.”
Peering through the train window, a porthole into his private life, there was a 17” MacBook Pro on his desk. I can’t say I expected that. Well, this settles it ladies and gents, Macs are better than PC. Papers were sprawled over his final workspace without overlap, his boots perfectly straightened and his seat faced us photogenically as if for a real-estate shoot. His living space sure was clean. Immaculate, in fact. No man other than Dear Leader is this tidy.
It’s worth noting that South Korean intelligence confirmed that Kim Jong-Il’s train did not move in the days leading up to, or on the alleged day of Kim Jong-Il’s death.
We began to exit the palace the same way we entered, passing hundreds of North Korean civilians arriving for their mandatory visitation. Every person, whether man, woman or child, old, young or disabled must visit their Beloved Father at least once in their lifetime, by law. Those visiting from rural areas were obvious, their faces showing distinct signs of malnourishment and were dressed in silk suit jackets on their bare sun-blazoned skin. Many smiled at us as they shuffled past. Most were indifferent and seemingly numb to the experience. All were noticeably short, only as tall as my shoulder, and I’m not a large bloke.
Our last stop was one that appropriately summed up the visit, an impact statement to us on the effect of the Eternal President’s death worldwide. This room was the Hall of Lamentation. An empty room with a single red rug and beautiful low hanging chandeliers, the walls containing framed depictions of North Korean and, strikingly, international outpourings of grief during the 10-day state endorsed ‘mourning period’ following that unforgettable news. It’s almost as if they’ve something to prove. I don’t remember seeing this on the news in Australia. But, I may have slept in that day.
Then, we line up and bow one last time and finally, we left the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
That was my reaction. I don’t think any other word could sum it up. I wanted North Korea and well, I got North Korea in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was certainly confronting to see that in this country infamous for decades of human rights violations, those responsible are indeed still held up as demi-gods by most, serving not as the embodiments of repression, but instead as inspiration to a population oblivious to their very misfortune. This was evident, and, it was real. The endearment and heartache for these fallen men appeared disturbingly authentic. The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is by all accounts a perfectly choreographed propaganda art piece of indoctrinated North Korean faith, it’s what to believe, how to believe and when to believe it. In North Korea, there is no freedom of knowledge, the citizens know no other, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il have long been their only providers. They’ve put the food on their tables, built their homes, arranged their jobs and led the fatherland to patriotic ‘victory’ against invaders.
Here, in this palace, they give their thanks.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that in societies governed by religion, secular (or non-believer) cells will always exist. North Korea is no different. Those that fit into this category, no small number by any means, will also visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. They will do so with their mouths shut. That’s the beauty of a totalitarian regime. For those of you left wondering the million dollar question:”Do they actually believe in it, though?” I’d say the answer is yes and the answer is no. North Korean’s are led down the garden path since birth but no, they’re not the blank canvasses of naivety we like to pretend. In their world, critical thinking is an invention and not taught, and the entire population is forcefully left in a condition of infantilism by a repressive regime where death is given to dissenters — all I’m saying is that the light at the end of the tunnel is further for them than it is for us, but many still see it. Defectors aren’t leaving North Korea because they’ve full faith in the Juche idea.
We strolled through the Mausoleum grounds afterwards, swans resting peacefully in the surrounding moat. There was a pervasive feeling of confusion among us with the atmosphere similar to that of a post-funeral reception. We were hesitant to bring cheer back into the situation so soon around our passionate guides.
As we left, others began to arrive destined for the same exhausting induction. Lines of school children march past us in formation, wide-eyed and entrusting in their school teacher, leading them similar to that of the pied piper. They were innocent, still learning the ropes of life, only yet a basic grasp of expectations and values, responsibilities and purpose, rights and wrongs — no different to young children anywhere else in the world.
Seconds later I look back to see these children stopped and assembling for a professional photograph to a backdrop unlike anywhere else in this world.
The next generation.
P.S – What are your thoughts on the Mausoleum? Are North Korean people truly indoctrinated, or governed primarily by fear? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below! Cheers, Elliott.