Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il Mausoleum
Originally the grand final resting place of North Korea
's "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung
(in his former palace) – but since 2012 he has been joined by his successor son, the equally deceased Dear Leader Kim Jong Il
. It was already the most incredible place of its type in the world, the absolute pinnacle of the "Big 4
" (at the same time, however, the least accessible of them). Now, doubled to dual occupancy, it must be even more incredible.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
When North Korea
's "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung
suddenly died in 1994, the country was in a state of (staged) national mourning that had never been seen on such a scale before. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets bawling their eyes out and collapsing in front of the television cameras swearing their hearts were so broken they couldn't imagine how they could possibly live on … all, of course, on a par with the degree of cult-of-personality that had already surrounded the big man in his lifetime. A three-year official period of mourning was decreed – and Kim Il Sung was eventually declared "eternal president". And indeed, to this day, guides refer to him as "our president" – when it's not the usual "Great Leader".
Then, when his successor, the Great Leader's son Kim Jong Il
, the Dear Leader, suddenly snuffed it as well at the end of 2011, the almost inevitable had to happen: the scenes of public mourning even topped those in 1994. And, perhaps less predictable, but not too surprisingly, Kim Two, too, was eventually laid to eternal rest next to the Eternal President, i.e. he's been kind-of reunited with his dead dad.
The mausoleum is different from the other "Big 4
's, Ho Chi Minh's
) in that it wasn't purpose-built, but had rather served as the original presidential palace, where Kim Il Sung had lived, worked and received guests. The building was then adapted to turn it into the biggest and grandest mausoleum of them all. Officially it's not actually called a "mausoleum", but "Kumsusan Palace of the Sun".
Now that the Great Leader's Dear successor Kim Jong Il has also joined the great Juche Tower in the sky, and his lifeless body has been put on display alongside his dad's, you can argue that the mausoleum has doubled (literally) in significance.
I haven't been back to see the new arrangement with my own eyes. But a recent report by Koryo Tours
(see this blog entry
) describes some significant changes. The mausoleum had been closed for visits for about a year while it was being prepared for the double Kim package, but has re-opened as of March 2013. Some of the changes are noted in the description below.
What there is to see:
First things first, as with everything in the DPRK
, you can't just go there and visit. You're at the mercy of your tour guides and what they've been told they can show you. When our group (see North Korea
) visited in the summer of 2005, we were indeed very privileged that a visit to the Kim Il Sung
Mausoleum was built into our itinerary. According to our English guide, this was a pretty rare treat. These days, however, it appears to be a much more regular item on tourist itineraries (according to Koryo Tours
We were instructed to put our best clothes, i.e. for men: white shirt and tie, no trainers or sandals, smart long trousers. Our English guide also took great pains to point out that there would be absolutely no excuse for inappropriate behaviour at the mausoleum. The slightest giggle would be inexcusable and could have real serious consequences. Thus equipped and instructed we headed off …
Once at the mausoleum, we had to hand in our cameras – as is usually the case at such places, no photography is allowed inside. Then we proceeded inside … and the whole affair was absolutely incredible. First we had to pass through some kind of security gate – with metal detectors, mirrored glass cubicles to the side (from where we were no doubt eyed by some security personnel) and a machine with revolving brushes set into the floor – to clean the soles of our shoes! Then there were endless corridors and moving walkways. They certainly know how to build up the tension! We passed scores of extremely stern looking North Koreans going the opposite way (so probably on their way out), mostly Army groups, but not only military, civilians too.
We finally reached a large marbled hall at the far end of which stands the floodlit, white marble statue of the Great Leader. Here everyone was requested to bow ... just like at the Mansu Hill statue (see Pyongyang
). The refurbished mausoleum now features a second statue, that of Kim Jong Il, of course – also just as at Mansu Hill. But I don't know whether that means visitors now have to bow twice as well.
Eventually, after some 30 minutes, we passed through a science-fiction-like gate which was blowing cold air/steam at us from all directions (apparently to blow off any dust on visitors' clothes). And then got to enter the holy of holies: the hall with Kim Il Sung
lying in state in his glass coffin. Sombre music's piped in through hidden loudspeakers. Not a word was spoken. Guards made sure the procedures were orderly and appropriate. We had to line up in fours and bow three times, at the Great Leader's feet and both sides (but not the head – as that is regarded as disrespectful, apparently).
The whole atmosphere was so overwhelming, I almost forgot to take a good look at the man himself. But I remembered at the last minute. He looked as waxy as the other three of the "Big 4", maybe a little more plump and life-like (maybe because he's a more recent bucket-kicker in the quadriga of ex-communist leaders – see Big 4
Then we shuffled out to make room for the next set of the seemingly endless string of worshippers. In an adjoining room we were given an MP3 player with a pre-recorded English version of what the female North Korean guides were telling the local visitors in person. The English was emotionally charged, in an over-the-top way that may work in Korean, but definitely didn't in English. According to a recent report by Koryo Tours they've now stopped handing out these MP3 players, which is a bit sad, but not such a massive loss, all things considered.
After a while we lowered the volume on the player, just pretended to be listening, and instead rather savoured the bizarre atmosphere and listened in to the Korean lady guides wailing at their groups. They genuinely wailed their stories of the Great Leader's death, and even without understanding any Korean the message of what an immeasurable loss his demise was for the country and its people … it comes across clearly enough. Some of the North Korean listeners were literally moved to tears! This, such was my impression, cannot be simply dismissed as pretence. It must have been genuine – even after all those years! It was chillingly surreal!
These days, you get a reprise of the whole thing thanks to a second Memorial Hall in which Kim the Second, i.e. Kim Jong Il
, now also lies in state. So father and son are not literally
lying next to each other, though they share the same mausoleum palace. Why not, I can't say. Maybe it was simply not possible for architectural or logistic reasons, or maybe they wanted the whole show to get a full separate second act of its own. And so the regime of visitors having to bow in front of Kim II's glass coffin three times (sides and feet, but not head) is replicated here for a second time as well.
Following the meetings with Kim I and Kim II in (dead) person, you get to see some of their belongings too. Some are small but glorious – degrees, medals and such like – others are big toys. You get to see the special train carriage in which Kim Il Sung toured the country – as well as parts of the outside world. A map on the wall details all the places he went to visit in this style. Also on display is his big black Mercedes limo.
To accommodate Kim No. Two not only in body but also in the same full style, they have now added a second set of such displays. Another train carriage, another black Merc, and even the Dear Leader's private yacht is now stranded high and dry and occupies a separate huge hall! In his train carriage his typical clothes are displayed: that pot-belly-housing plain greenish-grey suit – a very a suitable bonus that!
It takes a while to get back through all those corridors and moving walkways. Outside you're were allowed to take pictures again, so everybody grabbed their cameras to get at least a few good shots of the outside of the building. And it is indeed an impressive building too. By size alone, it outdistances all the other "Big 4" mausoleums by a significant margin – due, of course, to the simple fact that it used to be Kim Il Sung's palace in life already. It's a gigantic (now) window-less temple in vaguely Korean (concrete) style, architecturally. Unlike the other communist "Big 4" competitors, Kim Il Sung has a large beaming portrait of himself in the centre of the front facade of the building – which is of course very, very DPRK. A second portrait, that of his son Kim Jong Il, who has recently moved in with him for eternal rest, has now been put up here too. The square in front has also seen some reworking with new patches of grass and sets of kitschy bronze statuary.
So, what's my verdict about visiting this mausoleum? Without any doubt it was one of the most mind-boggling experiences of my entire life. No mausoleum visit will ever be the same after this one. With all the aspects around it, it's not only the top of the "Big 4
" (easily) but also earns its place in the Top-20 of dark tourism destinations
overall. With the amplification through the doubling of its mausoleum purpose, with the dead Dear Leader next to his Great predecessor, it definitely has to be on this list. Now it's not only better and bigger than anything else of its sort, but as a double whammy it is now absolutely unique in the world!
in the north of Pyongyang
, near the Rakwon terminus of the Hyoksin metro line … but that's all irrelevant, because you'd be dependent on being driven there (or not) by your North Korean guides anyway.
Access and costs: extremely inaccessible, but if offered then at no extra cost.
in general see North Korea
– even for the DPRK, the mausoleum is extremely exotic, and also inaccessible. When I visited in August 2005 the group I was with was very fortunate indeed to have a visit to the mausoleum included in our programme. Apparently that happens only very rarely. Should you be travelling "independently" (i.e. not with a group, but have a special itinerary arranged privately – which still means you're with at least two guides all the time), then you could ask to have the "Kumsusan Palace of the Sun" (the official name of the mausoleum) included in your itinerary. It doesn't guarantee anything, but apparently interest in seeing the real Kim(s) is per se received positively by the North Korean tourism authorities. Visits are nominally only possible on Fridays or Sundays … but I wouldn't take that as gospel.
In any case, you'd only be let in if you were wearing appropriate attire: long trousers, proper smart shoes, and a white shirt and tie (for men), women usually have a little more leeway, but a longish and not too colourful dress is probably best… and no sandals or trainers. And remember you HAVE to do those bows in front of the glass coffin(s). None of these rules are negotiable.
The complete visit to the mausoleum takes a whole hour! That's including all the theatrical build-up beforehand and the wailing stories afterwards. Inside the holy chamber itself, you'll spend only a couple of minutes – but still a little longer than at the other three of the "Big 4
" – as you first have to be arranged in rows of four and wait for the batches in front of you to go through, while you can already see the glass coffin(s). Up close you also spend a tiny bit longer than is customary at the other places, as you are required to do those orchestrated bows when it's your group's turn. When doing so, don't forget (as I nearly did) to actually take a good look at the occupant(s) on display.