The Story Behind The Photo: Pyongyang, North Korea

Great Leader statue on Mansu Hill - Pyongyang, North Korea

Great Leader statue on Mansu Hill – Pyongyang, North Korea

“The first important site we visited was the gargantuan bronze statue of the Great Leader (Kim Ill Sung – the founder of North Korea) at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, which we were required to honour with flowers. Backed by a huge mural of Mount Paektu (the symbolic birthplace of the Korean nation) we approached the statue and added our flowers to the already abundant collection of red, yellow and purple blossoms. We marched back a few steps and gave a deep bow before retiring to watch a constant stream of North Koreans perform the same ritual.

Examples of reverence for the Great Leader were everywhere. His pictures adorned the inside of every hotel and public building we entered, in addition to his ubiquitous visage appearing on billboards and statues across the land. Whenever you visited any site – whether that be a school, farm, education institution, historical site or a construction project – the local guide would tell us with a breathless awe how many times the Great Leader had toured the site, when was the occasion of the last visit, and the enlightened ideas he contributed to the success of the project. According to reports, people were so moved by the selflessness, generosity, love and revolutionary ideals of the Great Leader during these visits that their eyes were often “swimming with tears.” Any visit would be marked by a display of photos and a map of his walking route through the building in question. As an added reminder of this auspicious occasion, plaques were placed at the rooms he had graced with his presence.

Though gazing wistfully at images of the Great Leader is respectful enough, the greatest homage is the pilgrimage to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, his former residence where he permanently lies in state. It is a requirement that all men should wear a shirt, tie, trousers and dark shoes, but in keeping with my aim of being a “model tourist” I brought a whole suit, complete with fetching cufflinks – which impressed the Guide and Official to no end. This was important, for it was an easier time for all concerned if our hosts could trust us to respect their customs and ideals.

Upon arrival, we needed to remove all bulging objects from our pockets. There was some consternation about bringing my asthma medication (in case of overwhelming excitement) and it was only allowed to pass when the Guide agreed to carry it. After leaving my hat and camera in the cloak room, we needed to stand four abreast before entering – which suited our small group (Guide, Official, my friend Fi, and me) perfectly.

We were subjected to a full metal detector scan – men and women had separate queues, an appropriate decorum given has closely pressed and prodded I was by the male guard. After this intrusion, we boarded a series of travelators that conveyed us more than 200 metres down a massive corridor. We had to stand (and not walk) as it slowly carried us forward. On the opposite side of the hallway (only two metres away) and coming towards us, were clusters of tightly packed and well dressed North Koreans on travelators leaving the Mausoleum. All were sombre and downcast, and they silently stared at us as we silently stared at them. It was like two extremely long fish-tanks quietly passing each other – most bizarre.

Upon finally reaching the end of the hallway of travelators – and after washing and scrubbing our shoes on a conveniently placed floor facility, we turned right and boarded an escalator to enter the Mausoleum. This was a resplendent building smothered in marble, with the natural cream and grey patterns covering every centimetre of step, pillar, floor, wall and ceiling. We again stood four abreast as we entered a capacious room, where at the far end, and in front of a wall illuminated by a red and white light, stood a gold statue of the Great Leader. Celestial music wafted around the airy interior and I audibly drew my breath at this sublime sight. We halted at a red line before the statue and bowed devotedly before exiting the room.

We were then given an audio guide for our walk through an area with images of grieving people. The small device pressed against my ear delivered a panegyric dripping with biblical prose. It revealed the “shattering bereavement” of the nation upon the Great Leader’s passing, and that this “Hall of Lamentation” shall forever mourn his demise. Totalitarian regimes sure do have a way with words. The conclusion pronounced that the Great Leader was a gift from the universe who will save all mankind through his Juche philosophy. For any person who doubted that North Korea had deified the Kim Il Sung, this two minutes of flowery prose settled the issue as North Korea’s religion is an unyielding devotion to the Great Leader.

After returning our audio guides we crouched slightly to pass through a purification chamber whose blasting air tussled our clothing and grooming. As everyone readjusted their hair, I felt a tingling sensation as we entered the final room, a towering columned enclosure bathed in a vermillion light. We stood four abreast as we approached the preserved Great Leader laying serenely within a glass case. Our small group approached the case, and in a meditative silence, we bowed at the feet of the Heavenly Leader. We moved clockwise to bow at his left side, and at this close angle, I could see he looked weighty, as one would expect from a person who had lain motionless for many years, and was attired in an immaculate dark suit. We proceeded around the head of the Great Leader (but did not bow) and gave our final bow to his right side. I watched the North Koreans in the room – the men looked positively distraught as they paid homage, and the women, all adorned in their finest traditional Korean clothes – held handkerchiefs to their faces to wipe away their tears. The only discernible sounds were of footsteps and the sniffling of mourners.

After leaving this room, we were shown a display on the Great Leader’s extensive travels, including the train carriages donated by the Soviet Union and China that transported him around the country. After another travelator-related staring contest with more North Koreans when leaving the Mausoleum, the homage was concluded.

A visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace is one of the great pilgrimages of the world. I have visited many religious sites and this is one of the most powerful; it was easy to be swept along by the grief and devotion that permeates this place. To fully understand the emotions that are nurtured deep within the hearts and minds of the North Korean people, one must understand the enduring love they have for their Great Leader.”

September 2009

My blogs about North Korea:

Taking the Night Train to Pyongyang DRPK 1
Bowing Before the Feet of the Heavenly Leader DRPK 2
Eternal Vigilance Against Imperialist Aggressors DRPK 3
The Art of Isolation DRPK 4
Anxious Times at the Border DRPK 5