The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was described by our guides as “The Most Sacred Place in North Korea“. For them, it’s a big deal. The Palace, Kim Il-Sung’s former residence, serves now as the Mausoleum for him and his son Kim Jong Il. If you believed North Korea in general is bizarre and unusual, then this place takes it to a whole different level. Although it is only open on Sundays and Thursdays, you need to make sure you get this place on your itinerary if you’re planning to visit the country. Now, in this article, I’m going to share with you the story of when I visited the Palace in 2016. To say the least, it left many strong impressions.
On the night before we were going to the Palace, our guides told us that we would have to dress up formally. Nothing casual. Whilst I was aware of this, some of the people in our group had failed to make a note of this rule in the guidelines beforehand, meaning they didn’t have formal dress. This point was raised quickly to the guide. With little reservation, she was fuming. For them, this was hardly something that could be made flexible. Nevertheless, they were able to permit a compromise on at least “looking smart” providing they didn’t dress too shabby.
The next morning, we were up early and out the door of the Yanggakkdo Hotel very quickly. We were took to a facility on the outside of the Pyongyang. In the distance stood a large, squarish bunker like building with the two Kims portraits on it; that itself was the palace. To get in however, was going to take far more time than it did to actually drive there. We were made to wait for a while in a sort of waiting room/cloakroom facility, where other foreign tourists also gathered. During this time someone took a photo of a plane in the sky going over the city. Although the guides didn’t notice it, as usual local informants did and quickly informed them. The guides seemed to descend into somewhat of a panic. They were frantically asking everyone if they had took a photo of a “plane”. Why they were so worked up about it remains a mystery. Needless to say, nobody admitted it (although they would have only insisted they deleted it). Eventually, the time came to move on.
We were took to an area below the ground level. This was the security procedures in order to order. It was intense. To enter the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun you were first made to put every single object you were carrying in a locker. There was to be nothing permitted in your pockets. In addition to this, there was an unusual shoecleaning device that we had to walk over, with whirring spinning brushes which effectively cleaned the soles of our shoes. The Palace was so sacred, they had gone to every detail to ensure there was no scope for us to defile it with anything. After this, we were scanned (as you would at an airport) and were put onto an enormous (again airportesque) moving walkway which took an eternity. On the other side, we witnessed lots of North Koreans on their way out. The men were dressed in suits, the women in Han/Cho’boks. They seemed curious, yet were largely oblivious to our presence.
Eventually the moving walkway interchanged with another one, this one was the proper entrance to the palace itself. In the background, emotional music was playing. Both walls were decorated now with framed photographs of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Not only were they put up, but they were very specifically organised. On each side of the wall, the pictures took us through every year of the two leader’s lives from the foundation of the state up until their deaths. Kim Il Sung on the left and Kim Jong Il on the right. It created an unusual experience as you watched them picture by picture, or year by year, effectively age slowly. Familiar faces appeared concurrently, a picture of Kim Jong Il with Vladimir Putin was visible, as well as one with the former Chinese leader Hu Jintao. As we reached the end of these life chronologies, we entered into a massive hallway. There stood two gigantic marble statues of the leaders themselves in front of a pink and purple background, as the emotionally charged music continued to play. Unsurprisingly, we were requested to bow before we proceeded.
The interior of course was immaculately beautiful, lined with marble floors and enormous crystal chandeliers above. The esteem these leaders were held in was of no question. Inside, we were guided around various galleries. As is the case with most museums in North Korea, it celebrated their achievements and of course the gifts they were given, as well as their own possessions. This was took to an extensive level. Kim Jong Il’s personal train carriage was placed in the museum on the display, with an ability to look inside. Notably, there was an apple mac which belonged to him placed on the desk. Whilst this was an attempt to symbolise him as a diligent, modern and forever busy leader, it only prompted silent amusement amongst the group. Similarly, his private Yacht was also put on display. As we engaged with the various displays, the guides monitored us constantly and pushed a strict level of discipline on us. I had at one point put my hands in my pockets, they came over to me and pulled them out as if they were a parent or a schoolteacher.
But of course the biggest moment, were the Mausoleum rooms themselves. There were two, largely identical in display. As we entered them, we passed soldiers dressed in elaborate ceremonial uniforms. Through the doorway a strong air like machine blasted us from all directions. This was designed to blow any loose organic particles off our bodies, which could be a threat to the bodies lying in state. Inside, the room was in total darkness beside an eary red glow around the ceiling, and of course, the brightly led up bodies themselves positioned in the centre. There they were, the former leaders of North Korea lying in state in a glass case. The workers party of Korea flag was placed on them as if it were a blanket. But this was not a simple case of going in and “having a look”, we were lined into an orderly fashion and instructed we must walk around the display in a given clockwise direction. As we were doing this, we were made to bow three times. First at the feet, second at the left and then third at the right. Symbolically, we were told not to bow at the head. As we did this, other North Koreans were going before us. We observed some of them were even crying as they bowed.
After some more displays, that proved to be all. We were escorted outside, picked up our belongings and were allowed to take some photos of the palace building itself. One thing is for sure, for all the things I’ve seen around the world there was nothing quite like this. This made the tombs of Mao and Ho Chi Minh look casual in contrast. For all North Korea is a struggling country, the exquisitely decorated palace cost billions to create and likely a great deal to maintain it too. Yet, it shows how deeply the lives of two men have been ingrained into the political life, understandings and narratives of a single state, more so than anywhere else in the contemporary world. North Korea’s political culture draws from that of Stalinism, but it is also combined with the Confucian characteristic of emphasizing benevolent, fatherly rule as a means of political legitimacy. The Kims lead North Korea, owing their right to rule through claimed “excellence” and “righteousness”. With this in mind, the result is that if you’re heading to North Korea and you miss out on visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, then you’re missing out on something which is essential to understanding this country as a whole. You haven’t experienced “North Korea” until you’ve been here, don’t miss it.