Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - part 5

I’m settled into my university, into my new dorm now. I’m itching to write about it (because it’s wonderful) but I’m acutely aware that this whole DPRK saga is still continuing… So I thought it was about time to cover what I thought was the highlight of the trip – the mausoleum.

Kim Il Sung’s burial place is pretty damn high on the do-not-photograph list. When I was there I was under the impression that there were no publicly available pictures or videos of the mausoleum, but upon googling it, I found two links with slightly illuminating images. If you can make your way through this painfully clichéd video, you’ll get a little bit of an idea of what the place looks like, although it does not show any of the inner-most rooms, nor does it show what kind of crazy stuff you have to do to get in. If you skim through this strange online report, you’ll get a pretty clear idea of the kinds of statistics and scale that this structure was built from. It says:
“In 1995, while 3 million starved to death, the construction began. Reconstruction of the Assembly Hall to Palace cost 8.9 billion dollars. 8.9 billion dollars could have saved 23 million lives since the money is enough to purchase 60 million tons of corn.”
That’s a nice little insight into the importance that the DPRK government places upon the tomb of their Great Comrade Leader. You can't say that the same thing doesn't happen all over the world though, I guess. But I suppose just not to this scale or to this level of detriment-to-human-life in a long time.

When I think about it myself I almost laugh out loud, I honestly do. If I think about it for a while, then yes, it makes me quite irritable and more than a touch sad, but the whole thing was simply an unprecedented level of ridiculousness. It was like somebody with the blackest sense of humor in the world sat down and made a tomb. It was like Dylan Moran and Ricky Gervais got wasted together and drunk-called a communist architect. I had to read back through the diary I kept to remember all the juicy details from when they were fresh in my mind. I was laughing as I wrote this entry, and talking about it with my tour friends over beers that night only made it funnier.

So when you arrive at the site of the Mausoleum, the first thing you notice is that the entire thing is grey. All of it. Every single resource used in everything around you is grey. The cement, the stone, and the fixtures. All grey. This is literally the epitome of communist-era architecture. You get out of your tour bus and several North Korean ladies in traditional dress organise you into lines of four. Once you’re in your lined properly, you are escorted (read: there are official guides in front of you, to both sides of you and behind you) for a five minute walk until you reach a building, then you all stop. The guards – sorry, the guides – move you into lines of two, surround you on all sides again, and then you enter into this air-conditioned hallway that runs for more than a kilometer. The interesting thing, is that this long, winding hallway is actually more than one kilometer of travellator which takes you from the entrance point to the security checks. Yeah. A travellator. Like the ones in the airport. Except there are hundreds of meters of this one, and it’s slow. Like, really slow. I think perhaps it is supposed to get you into a lulled mood of somberness, but with each corner we turned, and each new strip of travellator in front of us… well I certainly found it difficult to be respectful of something so obviously silly.

After what seems like eons, you step off the final travellator onto the slippery marble floor, and begin a lengthy process of security checks. Males to the left, females to the right. You may not carry anything with you, and there is not only a metal scanner, then detector, but also a very very thorough pat-down. This was the point when I noticed an interesting gender disparity in the visitors to the mausoleum. I think that the males outnumbered the females at least five to one. You can draw your own (relatively obvious) conclusions from that, but I just thought I’d mention it. Also, you have to walk over this kooky machine with mats and scrubby rollers and doodads that cleans your shoes. It looks like something Wallace made for Gromit.

So now that they know we aren’t gonna try any funny business with the embalmed corpse of their beloved comrade leader, we can move on. Now, if you watched that video, then you will understand what I say when I say that this is the big hall with the big white statue of Kim. Two gigantic doors open up into this gigantic space made entirely of shiny marble. The ceiling is high, our lines of four are straight, and the stereotypical revolutionary music is playing loudly. At the far end of this gigantic space, there is a gigantic statue of The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung made, again, entirely of marble, but this time completely in white. The wall behind the statue was spotless white too, and the whole scene could have been quite impacting, if it were not for the strange red-and-pink lighting effects coming from the back wall and shining onto the statue. Again, it was silly. It could have been nice, guys, but then you just went that step too far, and once again, I’m giggling. My stifled laughter (read: it manifested in a quiet kind of snort) was not appreciated, so I tried to get serious. But then we moved through to the most ridiculous room of all. Boy oh boy…

We moved through two doorways now, return to classic formation (that’s my new word to describe us being in lines of four) and are each handed an audio-guide. Like the kind you get in foreign museums? Yes, that kind. You put the buds in the ears, press play, and a booming, extremely British, male voice bursts into your ears, accompanied by that same damn revolutionary instrumental music. A guide leads you to different sections of this big chamber and the track is perfectly times so that as you walk and arrive at a new part of the exhibit, it describes what you see in front of you. There are huge bronze reliefs on the walls depicting scenes from around the time of Kim Il Sung’s death, there is a gigantic painted flag with his face on it on another wall, and on the floor are big shiny depictions of people crying and wailing. The best part? The dialogue on the tape. As you are led to one particular place, you hear that “all the people of Korea came to cry at the bosom of their great comrade leader”, and at another place you are illuminated about facts such as “the whole world mourning and suffering from the loss of the shining red sun, the great leader comrade” and also that “the men and women and children did nothing but cry and mourn for ten days and ten nights”. His voice was so dramatic! Imagine the most dramatic narration you have ever heard, and then imagine Dylan Moran and Ricky Gervais getting drunk and doing it even worse. That’s about half as dramatic as this tape was. No doubt about it, this narrator thought that Kim Il Sung’s death was the worst thing in the world ever at all and he wished he was dead to escape the horror and sorrow of it all. For sure. I noticed that the group directly in front of us were actually Koreans, and I say that they were being told the story by a real guide. That woman could have won a Logie for that performance. Yeah. A Logie. That’s how bad it was.

So after you reluctantly gave them back their audio-guide, you get into single file lines and move into a room where you know things are getting serious. A loud humming machine noise fills the echoing space and as you round the corner, another tall-cielinged room appears, and is split in half by a giant silver machine with three passages. Air is rushing all around you and it looks like something straight from the North Korean space program (yes, they claim to have one). Guess what it is? Come on, guess. It’s a machine designed to suck the dust off of you.

BOOM!
BLOWING YOUR MIND!

Yep. You walk into the machine dirty and full of imperialist dust mites determined to get their shiny fangs into His Preserved Holiness, and you emerge on the other side (having been buffeted and suctioned with alarming force) apparently dust free. Me and one of the German guys were having a laugh about it, but apparently it isn’t supposed to be funny. I think Moran and Gervais would disagree.

So anyway, now we’re clean we can finally see the actual dude that this massive place was built for. The room is perfectly square, dimly lit by red lights, and do I need to mention that it’s massive? Kim Il Sung is perfectly preserved, lying down in a glass box on top of a high plinth. His head is resting on a red pillow, he is covered in a red blanket, and he looks like the latest attraction at Madam Tussauds. The red light and music doesn’t help him to look less creepy. In classic formation, we move slowly in sections, and bow on each side of him, then file out. Honestly? It was a bit of an anticlimax. I don’t know why he would want to be that well preserved, seeing as how he wasn’t much of a looker. Did they have to embalm him with such a bad combover? I was about to sigh, when I saw the group behind us, and saw a lady weeping. I searched her face and could only see genuine sadness. She was crying in the most fundamental of human ways, of the loss of a loved one. Suddenly things were pulled back into perspective. I became sad too, now, not knowing how a woman so biologically similar to me, in the same location as me, could be experiencing something so profoundly different to me.

My focus was pulled from her as our classic formation continued on to the medals room. Which again, is ridiculous and silly. My diary says:
“On first glance, the big room is quite impressive, filled wall to wall with glass cabinets showing awards and medals and honorary robes and stuff. As you walk around and read them all (as you are encouraged to do) you realise that the first third of them are from Kim Il Sung and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to Kim Il Sung and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He just gave himself a bunch of shit. The next third show a little more potential, but an honorary PhD in ‘Politics and Honour’ from a university I have never heard of is not really that endearing. Nor is an honorary citizenship from a city I have never heard of. The last third could be truly magnificent, and example Kim’s intellect, bravery and hard work through all kinds of awards and tributes and stuff-that-one-government-gives-another-dude, but every single one is from a country that begins with one or more of the following words: Democratic or Republic or People’s. So you know what kinds of countries are giving this dude their chunks of embossed bronze – only the kinds of countries that like him in the first place – i.e. crappy kinds of countries. A good example was a beautiful medal and robe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nice one.”
That just about sums up that room.

After the medals room there isn’t really that much more. You take the painstaking ride back along the travellators, and when you try and walk as well to go a bit faster, you are told you can’t. Once you’re outside, you get to go to the big cement area in front of the big cement building which is used for all kinds of scary things. If you replaced the portrait of Kim with that of Hitler, you could have been in Nazi Germany. No shit. That’s not even exaggerating at all. It was totally the same.

 In this post (second last paragraph) I feel I talked sufficiently about the dangers of treating a political leader as a God, without acknowledging the act as religious in nature. The Mausoleum is the manifestation of this problem. I am told religious people weep at the site of Vatican or the pope. I know that people weep when the pope dies, but I still cannot believe I saw that woman weep at the site of the dead Kim Il Sung. I am not sure why I feel like the label of ‘religion’ excuses ridiculous behaviour. If somebody does something which I think is illogical, selfish, stupid or silly in the name of ‘religion’ then I know that that person is simply a ‘religious’ person. But that weeping woman did not consider her worship of Kim Il Sung to be her religion. If you asked her, she would tell you that she is not religious (because she is not allowed to be) and yet she weeps. It all makes such little sense to me. Very devout people seem to exist in a world where there are no clear lines between their religion and their life. As if their beliefs were truly real. It is called faith? Many Catholics I know would laugh at that weeping lady, saying she was delusional. What is the difference between delusion and faith, then?

Who knows? Not me! That’s for sure. What I do know, is that I want to be there if Moran or Gervais ever go to the mausoleum.


John Paul II

Kim Il Sung's Mausoleum Building

Nuremberg Rally Point, Germany

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