Grateful to the Dead

He’s much smaller than I thought he would be. The preserved remains of Kim Jong-il lie in a glass case on a bed of red flowers. We’re instructed to approach the platform and bow, which we do.

It’s National Day in North Korea, which commemorates the founding of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” on 9 September 1948, and we’re being taken to view the two Kims, who lie preserved in North Korea’s holiest shrine, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Built in 1976 as the official residence of Kim il-Sung, it was turned into a mausoleum upon his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, joined him there in 2011.

The tourists are gathered in the reception hall at the palace. Men are required to wear a collared shirt and long trousers, preferably a tie as well. Some arrive in suits. Women must also be formally attired, in dresses. A Nordic tour group walks in, looking like they’ve dressed in a charity store, with dyed-red hairdos, tattoos, earrings. The locals arrive in their number ones: dark suits or military uniforms for men and traditional bright floral dresses for women. As we gather, there’s a commotion as an old soldier draped in medals and held up by a younger soldier arrives and is given free way into the building.

Entry to the mausoleum is through an underpass. You must leave your cameras and phones at the cloakroom, the guides inform us. We’re steered through a metal detector followed by a manual pat-down. We pass over a bed of rolling brushes to clean the dust off shoes and step onto a moving walkway like those in airports. However, no walking is allowed and we glide in silent formation for about 20 minutes. There are photographs of the Leaders along the walls; looking at things, with arms pointing, in factories, in schools, on farms, with visiting dignitaries, military personnel.

Inside the mausoleum itself, officials in dark suits stand along the walls. There are painted statues of the Kims at the end of the long reception hall, and the men in suits direct us to line up abreast, walk forward to a line marked on the floor, stop and bow.

There’s an air of deep solemnity about the place. The foreigners adopt an obedient and somewhat bemused manner, like a group of 12-year-olds being seated at a grown-ups’ dinner. This is one of those places in the DPRK when one needs to abandon personal perspective and try to see things from the other side. Including the obligatory bow to the Kims. Having come this far, no one gives it much thought, or at least they don’t express it in words. There’s no sense of being captured by or beholden to the bizarre fable created by the Kim dynasty. Rather, the overriding emotion is incredulity at what has been created and how it is sustained.

As we get nearer to the figures, they appear much larger, about twice the size of an ordinary human. The statues are impressive, beautifully sculpted and skillfully illuminated against a mural depicting Mount Paektu, North Korea’s mystical mountain. We stop and bow. A man in a suit approaches. Move to the right now, he says.

The tour continues up an elevator and through a short passage lined with blowers (“32 in total”, we’re told), like those used to remove dust in bakeries.

The Eternal Leader, Kim il-Sung, lies in a grey uniform in a glass crystal case. The lights reflect off the carpet and walls, creating a dim red aura, and my eyes take a moment to adjust. Kim, though, is well lit and stands out in surprisingly decent and seemingly natural colour. He looks as if he might get up at any moment and come to greet us. Is it really him or another clever sculpture, I wonder. I’m again impressed by the perfection of the lighting; it’s subtly, tastefully done. There are beds of Kim’s eponymous flower, a hybrid orchid named Kimilsungia, surrounding the glass case. Visitors have to approach the exhibit four abreast and bow. Then move to the left and bow. No bowing to the back of the head. Bow again on the right. No lingering afterwards.

The only sound is the hum of the air conditioners, which is interrupted by the sudden arrival through a side door of the old soldier we’d seen at reception, his medals clinking like the tags on a guide dog.

Next stop is Kim Jong-il’s chamber. The Nordic tour group is leaving as we enter and the red light augments and silhouettes their spiky hair and piercings, making them look like the cast of the Rocky Horror Show coming off stage. Kim Junior also looks in robustly good health. Gone is his frizzy bouffant hairstyle; gone are the blotchy marks on his face. Instead, he looks like a 40-something fitness enthusiast, skin sparkling, hair combed back like Kevin Spacey. He’s embedded in his flower, (yes!) the Kimjongilia, a red begonia. Again, we bow by the rules, to the feet, left side, right side.

We’re shuttled on to rooms containing the Kims’ relics and shown their train carriages, the black Mercedes cars (modest by modern standards), illuminated maps of where each of them travelled (seldom out of Asia and, for the younger Kim, almost never by air). Kim Jong-il’s yacht and golf cart are installed in the mausoleum. He died in his railway carriage, apparently, and his final workplace has been preserved; the chair askance as he left it (and us). His trademark beige parka coat is there, along with his furry hat, the big puffy gloves and the oversized sunglasses. “The people begged him not to go to work that day; he was exhausted from working on an important plan to supply fish to Pyongyang,” we’re informed. The document is open at the last page he looked at. Next to it is the item everyone remembers: his computer, a MacBook Pro.

It’s the thought that counts. We continue to rooms filled with awards and decorations from places like Libya, Bulgaria, Venezuela and Romania. There’s a “Wish for Peace” award from Japan alongside a decoration for “Victory over Japan”. There are honorary chieftainships from Nigeria and the “Freedom of the City” award from Kampala. The displays go on and on, the equivalent of a dictator’s fridge magnet collection.

Always with us. We exit as we entered, on the moving walkways. The visit has been managed in a characteristically Asian manner: subtly, tastefully and respectfully. The visitors assemble for photographs on specially tiered benches in the palace’s front gardens. No one says much. There’s a sense of exhilaration, like after the first jump off the high board at the swimming pool. The locals seem genuinely elated and deeply respectful for the opportunity to visit the mausoleum. Again, as throughout the trip, there’s no way to say what they might really be thinking. This is the only system they know and everyone understands the rules and their place in it.

We get back on our bus and head up the hill to another round of synchronized bowing at our next stop, the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. On the way across the city, we pass the Tower of Immortality inscribed in gold lettering. “The inscription says that the Great Leader Comrade Kim il-Sung will always be with us,” the guide informs us. No doubt about that.