Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
One of the most sacred and important places for the North Korean people is the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. That is because it is where the Dear Leaders President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il lie in state (note, they are never described as dead), still holding their positions of power at the head of the DPRK’s apparatus of state. How two dead communists are still in charge I don’t know, but it gives an insight into the cult of personality that allow the Kim dynasty to maintain its iron rule over the people of Korea.
We were led through the huge complex, searched and scrutinised several times before finally being led into a high ceilinged, red lit room filled with very hard looking North Korean soldiers in ceremonial dress. At the centre of this room lies the embalmed and preserved Kim Il Sung, under glass and draped in the flag of the Workers party.
After bowing to his feet, left side and then right side (not the head) we were ushered through to a room full of medals and awards that he was given throughout his life – predominantly by the North Korean Workers party (i.e. from himself) and the rest being given by such luminaries as Iosef Stalin, Nicolae Ceaușescu, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro and other well known historical nutjobs and mass murderers.
After that, and a look at the train from which he used to dispense no doubt genius level tactical advice to North Koreans in every walk of life from soldiers to farmers (a master of all trades apparently, old Mr Kim), we were led on to a matching appearance from Kim Jong Il. This one probably resonated more with me because, while Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Kim Jong Il has played the international pantomime villain for most of my lifetime so at least was recognisable.
An afternoon in Pyongyang
We spent a large part of the afternoon, after lunch, being taken through tourist shops and art galleries in what felt like an attempt to keep us distracted for as long as possible. A bizarre highlight was the marching bands on the streets, used to ‘motivate’ the workers with patriotic thoughts on their way to and from work.
The highlight of the afternoon was a trip to the ‘Children’s Palace’. This is where kids (or at least those of party members) go after school for extra curricular activities. Ballet, accordions, stringed Korean instruments, swimming, embroidery, calligraphy, maths and computer skills are all taught and we managed to arrive into all the lessons while they were ‘practicing’ what seemed very polished performance in a rather forced and actually slightly creepy atmosphere. I don’t think they were fooling too many of us…. The only spontaneous moment, as far as we could tell, was when we asked if we could play basketball against a group of local teenagers who rapidly bested us 5-0 while avoiding eye contact, handshakes and any interaction. It later turned out we were also being filmed for North Korean television so who knows how that ended up being reported!?!?!
Mr Pung’s great vision
We spent the evening at the Golden Lanes Bowling Alley and it was great to spend the down time with the Korean guides, who had started to warm up to us a little more. At the end of the day, they’re humans and as you get to know the Koreans, you realise that they are completely normal people, just with a very different upbringing, who are actually very easy to relate to. Mr Pung identified the North Korean sense of humour as very similar to British and Australian, which seems fair – a decent bit of taking the mick out of your mates and good natured competition. Lacking the sarcasm, irony and political jokes though….
Later, in the hotel, Mr Pung stayed up drinking with us for a few hours and gained our best insights into the national psyche. Naturally, the questions you really want to ask are the ones that you can’t, but we managed to skirt around some topics of variable controversy, such as gay marriage and international relations. The former, by the way, does not occur in North Korea because in the words of Mr Pung ‘we do not think about it because there are none in North Korea’ 😐😐😐 Right…… The latter usually ends up in a line about American Imperialist sanctions. Mr Pung genuinely does dream of and, I think, believe in Korean reunification and the DPRK taking its place on the world stage. His great dream is to be the leader of the UN and to be able to travel the world, after first inviting us all to his house in Pyongyang to celebrate reunification with Korean BBQ (Bulgogi). It was actually a poignant moment and it is heartbreaking that a guy who is a truly bighearted lovely man (from everything we know) will never even have the slightest opportunity to achieve his dreams.
And therein lies one of the great evils of the regime – the crushing of personal hope, the irrelevance of dreams and the impossibility of self determination….