Kamsusan Palace of the Sun is the name given to the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il.
If you already know a bit about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea then you’ll be aware that they basically worship the two deceased leaders like Gods- especially Kim Il Sung who the Korean people still consider their official President. So when they passed away, a simple burial was not enough and they transformed the presidential palace in Pyongyang into a mausoleum.
Inside the palace, the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lay in glass coffins on display for people to come and pay their respects. I had the chance to visit the mausoleum during my time in DPRK and needless to say, it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. Tourists can only visit on Thursdays and Sundays so if you definitely want to see the mausoleum make sure your trip dates coincide with at least one of these days.*
*In this post I am simply stating what I saw during my visit to the mausoleum. I do not agree with the regime in North Korea and the subject of tourism in this country is a tricky one. I went in 2015 but since then tensions have gotten even worse-I currently wouldn’t recommend you visit. If you want to know more about my reasoning for visiting the country back in 2015 please see my other post here.
We arrive early in the morning – around 8:30am. We had been informed in advance that there was a dress code so Josh wore his smart work shoes, tailored trousers and a polo top (a shirt would just have creased in his backpack) and I wore a black dress with tights and smart black shoes. As we arrive we spot a few other tourists -they’re wearing jeans and T shirts! I guess they didn’t get the dress code memo but they are still allowed to enter.
The entrance is actually via a side building that connects to the main palace. Upon arrival, we leave our coats at the cloakroom and put our phones and valuables in a locker. Men are allowed to keep their wallets on them. We then pass through a metal detector and security check and the guards pat you over. It’s all starting to seem pretty serious now.
Then the travelators begin! (Yes, I do mean the flat moving platforms that you get at airports and stations). Apparently you’re not allowed to walk on these travelators and they are the slowest things ever! I always thought the point of them was to get you to your destination faster but perhaps in this case it was to add more of a dramatic build up upon entering the palace.
This gives our guide some time to explain some of the history of the palace- it was built in 1976 as the Kumsusan Assembly Hall and served as Kim Il-sung’s official residence until his death in 1994.
After walking over some strange floor brushes that clean the soles of your shoes we turn a corner – only to find yet another travelator!
Again, this moves so slowly that you could walk it faster. This time we have some pictures of Kim Il Sung to look at- it’s kind of like a dictator version of ‘This Is Your Life’.
The Main Entrance Hall:
By now, I feel like I’ve spent an hour on a travelator. But finally we make it into the main hall/entrance. We are greeted by two huge wax models of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The rest of the hall is grand with marble floors and pillars but it feels a little empty.
Once inside the main palace our guide goes very quiet and only talks if there is something she wants to explain to us. Me and Josh are very aware that from this point on it could be seen as offensive to smile or laugh so we remain neutral and I avoid all eye contact with Josh through fear of nervous giggling!
It is eerily quiet in there and we walk around in single file with our guides. Everything is spotless- the palace must be cleaned thoroughly everyday- but there is also a lot of dead space. Huge halls but very little furnishings and not as many pictures on the walls as I thought there’d be. I guess the building is a spectacle in itself and they want you to be impressed by it.
It really hits you how much money must’ve been spent. According to Wikipedia it is believed that the palace conversion cost at least $100 million. Some sources put the figure as high as $900 million. Even if you place the figure at somewhere in between- that’s a hell of a lot of money. Keep in mind that at the time Kamsusan Palace of the Sun was being renovated, North Korea was going through a terrible famine.
The Glass Coffins:
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s bodies lay in two separate rooms but the process you go through is the same for each. We visit Kim Il Sung first. Before entering the room we walk through a doorway which blows air onto us like a huge dryer you get after going on the log flume at a theme park. I assume this must be to blow off any dust before you enter the room.
The glass coffin lays in the centre of a large, dramatically lit room. Four armed guards watch over us as we approach the coffin.
The bodies are embalmed so they just look like they’re asleep. It is quite hard to get your head around the fact this this is actually them and not a wax model like many others we had seen on our trip.
As soon as I enter it dawns on me just how special and important this place is for the people of North Korea*. I no longer feel like I might laugh and I actually get a little nervous that I might do something wrong.
We stand in a line with our guides and bow at the feet and then either side of the body (bowing a total of 3 times for each leader) then walk out in single file.
*I am aware that it is questionable whether or not the people of North Korea really do love the leaders to the extent that we are led to believe. I think for many – especially with Kim Il Sung- this admiration is genuine. For some it may just be an act they put on so not to step out of line or be seen as an enemy of the regime (which has dire consequences).
The Medals & Awards Rooms:
Each leader has his own medal room. This is just another way to ‘show off’ the leaders ‘achievements’ and tell everyone how ‘wonderful’ they were.
There are lots of awards presented to them from North Korea itself but also many from other countries. I was surprised to see random things like, ‘The Key To Cuzco’ from Peru. There were quite a lot from South American and African countries and then a fair amount from Russia and China too.
A lot were simply gifts from countries rather than actual awards. But I could tell our guide wanted us to be so impressed by it all.
We only saw one award from England and that was for Kim Il Sung-it was a small silver medal/plaque that just said it was from Derbyshire. Our guide didn’t know what is was for and we found nothing on Google about this afterwards- so I still have no idea!
The room also has large paintings and photographs of Kim Il Sung meeting world leaders including Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro.
This is where it gets even more ridiculous. We enter rooms for each leader that display various vehicles they had used during their lives.
Even a train carriage is displayed, inside which is Kim Jong Il’s trademark green tracksuit and glasses. On the walls there are maps which display all of the train routes taken during their lifetime. Another map shows every plane journey taken.
A golf buggy that Kim Jong Il used once to tour a factory is another highlight- along with both of the leaders cars.
I couldn’t believe it when we walked into another huge room and there was Kim Jong Il’s boat! They even noted exactly how many times he had used it during his life.
The ‘Mourning’ Room:
Our last stop on the palace tour is the ‘mourning room’. This is where Kim Jong Il’s body was placed for a few months after he died so the North Korean people could come and mourn his death.
The room is now empty apart from two engravings on opposite walls that depict people crying. Our guide explained to us that it shows the Korean people (North and South) mourning his death as well as people from around the world who were saddened by the news of his passing.
The engravings included people of various ethnicities and nationalities all looking very upset.
”When they died- the whole world heard about the news and was very sad” -our guide explained. I didn’t break it to her that nobody in the UK was particularly upset.
We exit the same way we came in- so it was back on the slow travelators ! As we leave we cross paths with locals coming in. It was really cool to see everyone dressed smartly and the ladies wore these beautiful, colourful traditional dresses.
You are only allowed to take photos outside so we use this opportunity to get a couple of pictures. Sadly, the lighting isn’t great but here they are anyway:
I cannot properly put into words just how bizarre this morning at the palace was. I have tried to explain my experience the best I can (although I have to admit that I need to improve my storytelling skills) but I feel I will come back to this blog a number of times to edit and improve it.
For more on my visit to North Korea please see my other blogs here.