KUMSUSAN MEMORIAL PALACE
We awoke on the third day, more comfortable than after our first night. When we returned to our rooms the previous evening, we found the hotel’s heat running high & electric blankets on the beds already plugged-in & warm. In the morning, there was a brief period of hot water, which we took full advantage of. Upon greeting our guides, one member of our group let it slip that our rooms were ‘too hot’. Our guides’ faces dropped for a moment. The rest of the hotel was unheated. The lobby, restaurant, bar, lounge, & hallways were all left without heat. It’s my suspicion, (partly verified by walking around the other floors) that the floor that our group slept on was the only floor with heat in the rooms. Our guides likely slept in a cold room & awoke to cold showers. Though I think they later understood that the member of our group made the comment out of humility —they didn’t need to go to so much trouble for us— I imagine that it must have seemed bizarre and even insulting at first. How can it be too hot in your room when it is deathly cold everywhere else?
By this point, we’d been in the country for 2 days, but had barely seen anything of Pyongyang. To start off our tour of the city we were going to see the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il. A lot has already been written about the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, so I’ll try to keep it short. Entering the viewing area is highly ceremonial. The pace of movement is intentionally slowed to increase the sense of grandeur & add to the contemplative atmosphere. Here, the statues are statelier: seeing the massive effigies in the cavernous halls of the palace makes you feel the scale of the art differently. Fortunately, we arrived at the palace first thing in the morning, so the process was a little faster than what it must be for most Koreans visiting the palace. At one point, we jumped ahead in the queue past a group of soldiers. After seeing the embalmed corpses of the two leaders, we were led through two rooms containing the trophies of the Kims. More interesting than the nature of these prizes (some were clearly unrelated to either Kim), were the reactions of the soldiers who were also viewing the rooms with us. They looked bored. Maybe they’d been here a bunch of times before. Maybe they’d seen the big ticket item (the bodies) & were by comparison unimpressed by the placards & medallions written in languages they couldn’t understand. Or maybe they were on little sleep. Whatever the reason was, the group of foreigners seemed more interesting to them. Most of the members of our group reported catching furtive glances from the soldiers.
Despite its lacklustre denouement, it was easy to see the appeal of the place. The visual arts, music, & ceremony all contributed to the sense of encountering something greatly meaningful. From first-hand experience, I can only compare the experience to seeing Mao in Beijing. By comparison, the bodies of DPRK leaders were presented much more significantly. It’s a different kind of splendour.