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'Great Leader' still demands worship at his strange shrine

18 September 2022
The Times

The embalmed body of Kim Il Sung still oppresses the country nearly ten years after his death, Oliver August reports from Pyongyang

INVITATIONS to visit North Korea are rare enough, but even the few Westerners who make it are not often granted access to see the waxen body of the man they call the "Great Leader".

Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, is still the head of state as "president in eternity". His followers continue to shower him with gifts and worship his embalmed body at a mausoleum bigger than Buckingham Palace.

Having visited the fascinating, and publicly accessible, mausoleums of Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, I was delighted and disconcerted to be asked by Pyongyang to pay my respects to the late Mr Kim on the 55th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.

Parking at a vast plaza a mile away from the grey sandstone mausoleum surrounded by a moat and guarded by soldiers with bayonets fixed, we stepped on to a moving walkway and levitated slowly towards a portrait of the "Great Leader" hung above the palace entrance. Walking was prohibited on the conveyor belt to the netherworld.

Misty, cavernous halls led to a 2ft-wide passage that appeared to be a full body hairdryer. A dozen little jets brushed off dust or insects before we entered the inner sanctum, a cathedral-like space with high ceilings and hymns in the air.

In groups of four we approached the man who had started the murderous Korean War and we were expected to bow deeply. I tried to get away with a nod that was more sideways than forwards. I wondered, too late, if I should have mumbled an archaic curse at the same time to offset any reverence shown. We then walked around the shiny body, lit up by red spotlights; similar to Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, but in better shape than the other communist founding fathers.

On the way out we passed a quivering Korean woman standing next to the last Mercedes owned by the "Great Leader", an armoured 600SL with a 12-cyclinder injection engine. She listed his achievements and, in floods of tears, recounted how he had lain in state for ten days here in his old palace.

Later my minders took me to an underground museum that shows off the gifts that Kim Il Sung received in his lifetime and beyond. About 70 miles outside Pyongyang in the mountains, 200 caves had been dug, guarded by soldiers with silver Kalashnikovs.

To see all 217,444 gifts from 178 countries given to the "Great Leader" since 1945 and the 51,518 gifts from 161 countries for the "Dear Leader," his son who is now minding the shop, would take more than a year if restricted to a quick peek. That, however, would not really do justice to the world's greatest collection of kitsch.

And by the time we had finished there had to be a whole lot more: a digital counter by the entrance keeps tally of gifts still flooding in.

The world's left-wing revolutionaries are among the most and the least generous givers. Stalin donated an entire train, which now rests in its own cave. Mao sent two hats. Arthur Scargill and some Labour MPs gave a brass plate. In the UK section, there are also gifts from Abbey Publishing, Deepwood Mining and several smaller insurance companies, as well as a House of Commons glass from "Global Connection Consultancy". A cheeky German writer sent a piece of the Berlin Wall. A Korean-American businessman offered a mug from the Abba-based musical Mamma Mia.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, gave a basketball on her historic 2000 visit, Jimmy Carter, the former US President, a bowl that looks like an ashtray. The Chinese Government thoughtfully sent a life-size wax figure of Kim Il Sung lest future generations forget what the museum's landlord looks like. An unnamed permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office donated a book about Britain in 2001. He probably knew how embarrassing gifts to dictators can turn out to be.

The piece de resistance, displayed alongside a statue of the "Great Leader", came from Nicaragua's Sandinistas: a stuffed 4ft crocodile standing on its hind legs and holding a drinks tray of glasses.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2022

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Oliver August ©