North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


It was obvious when I first looked out through the window of my room on the 27th floor of the Koryo Hotel this morning that this was a different type of day in North Korea.  The usually busy streets, lined with pedestrians and increasingly filled with cars in addition to the well established combination of trams and trolley-buses, were strangely vacant.  The reason was that 9th September is National Day holiday, or as the calendar in my hotel explained it, “on this day in 1948, the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Being National Day, we had quite a special program planned.  First stop for the day was one of the most sacred of North Korea’s ‘sacred sites’, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.  Before 1994, this was Kim Il Sung’s working office building, but after his death the building was converted into his mausoleum.  After Kim Jong Il’s passing away in 2011, the building and its grounds were extensively remodelled and it now serves as the mausoleum for both former leaders.

The scale of the mausoleum is huge, making even Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Tian An Men Square in Beijing seem miniscule by comparison.  Being National Day, the mausoleum was unusually busy, and although we had left the hotel at 8am, it was 9:30am before we actually entered the mausoleum.  As expected, we were dressed formally as befits meeting a currently serving head of state.

Even the process of entering the mausoleum was performed on a grand scale.  Having left our bags and our mobile phones turned off on the bus, we assembled in three rows of four columns as we walked in silence along a long open corridor, first to the cloakroom to leave our cameras, then through air jets to remove any insects from our bodies, followed by a pad of steriliser to disinfect the soles of our shoes.  This was followed by a long ride on several hundred metres of red moving footways, where like everyone else, we stood in silence rather than walking or talking.  The tone was very reverent, and we hadn’t even entered the mausoleum building yet.

Some members of the group had thought that nothing could top yesterday’s visit to the International Friendship Exhibition in terms of personality cult and extravagance in architecture; the mausoleum proved them wrong.  Upon entering the building, we paid our respects before two larger than life, very realistic wax statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.  We then proceeded to the huge, dimly lit room where Kim Il Sung’s body lies on display in a glass coffin.

We paid our respects by bowing at the feet and on his right and left sides, before proceeding to a room displaying the many medals, awards and honorary degrees presented to him.  Although he died in 1994, he is still North Korea’s president, having been named President for Eternity in 1997.  Indeed, he is presently the world’s longest serving head of state, as as such, continues to receive awards from around the world.  Indeed, we admired a certificate presented to him in 2002 by a university in Belarus awarding him an Honorary Degree in Information Technology.

We moved down several flights of stairs to the room where Kim Jong Il lay in an identical glass coffin, and we paid our respects in the same way.  We then entered a room displaying his medals, degrees and awards before then inspecting rooms with each leaders’s railway carriages.  The classical decor of the interior of Kim Il Sung’s railway carriage contrasted sharply with the more contemporary decor of that of Kim Jong Il, who I observed with just a little envy used a MacBook Pro in his railway carriage when he travelled.  We proceeded to other rooms where we saw each of their cars (black Mercedes Benzes in both cases), and in the case of Kim Jong Il, the medium sized boat he used when giving on-the-spot guidance at naval bases.

My description of the mausoleum fails to capture the magnificence of the building’s interior, with huge rooms, high ceilings, marble floors and walls, hundreds of photographs of the two leaders, massive purple azaleas in round pots, chandeliers, and much, much more.

Our heads spinning with the experience of what we had seen, we collected our cameras and exited the building into the manicured, landscaped grounds in front of the mausoleum.  Being a national holiday, the grounds had been opened to the general public, many of whom had arrived in the best clothes to enjoy the holiday in the presence of the mausoleum.

We left the mausoleum at about 11:30 am and headed east to our second stop for the day, the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery.  Unlike yesterday’s martyrs’ cemetery, which honoured those who had fought during the Korean War (1950-53), this cemetery honoured those who served in the Anti-Japanese War (1925 to 1945).

The cemetery was breathtaking in its dignity and sense of honour.  Each grave was marked with a bronze bust showing the likeness of the person buried there, arranged on the side of the hill overlooking Pyongyang and arranged in such a way that no bust was looking into the back of another bust; the idea was that every martyr would have an unobstructed view of the liberated city.

Pride of place in the centre of the top row, directly under a huge red granite flag, was Mother Kim Jong Suk, the wife of Kim Il Sung and the mother of Kim Jong Il.  She fought alongside Kim Il Sung during the Anti-Japanese War, and on some occasions sheltered him from bullets by throwing her own body in front of him to protect him.  She died in 1949, “her body worn out as a result of the sacrifices she made in fighting the Japanese”.

We were still wearing our formal clothes from the mausoleum visit, so we made a short stop at our hotel to change into more casual clothes and proceeded to have lunch at the KITC Restaurant No.1, one of the best in Pyongyang.  Lunch was leisurely, and at 2:30pm we set out for the 100 metre walk to the Pyongyang Circus building to attend a performance.

The Pyongyang National Circus is rightly recognised as one of the world’s best, and the special holiday performance we witnessed fulfilled our high expectations.  Highlights included the famous “Flying Woman” performance, some spectacular performances on the high trapeze, a stunning trampoline display, a surprising animal act involving two trained bears, and much more.  Several of us felt uncomfortable during the animal act with the trained bears jumping through hoops, doing somersaults, sweeping floors with brooms, and so on.  On occasions, it was hard to believe we were really seeing the things that our eyes told us we were seeing.  It was a truly special privilege to join so many local people in witnessing this great performance on the national holiday.

Just down the road from the circus was our next visit, the Kwangbok Supermarket and Department Store.  This joint venture with the Chinese is extremely popular with Pyongyang’s local population as an extensive range of food and household objects are sold at prices that are less than the state-run department stores.  I explored all three floors of the store, which was well stocked and doing a very brisk trade.

Interestingly, the store sells its stock using a different rate of exchange to everywhere else in North Korea.  Although the usual exchange rate is about 200 won to the US dollar, Kwangbok gives an exchange rate of almost 8000 won to US$1.  The other difference is that whereas foreigners’ use of the won is illegal throughout North Korea, in the Kwangbok Store it is compulsory, and there is a small exchange desk to exchange US dollars, Euros or Chinese Renminbi into DPRK won.  The visit therefore represented a rare opportunity for us to see and touch DPRK won.

We heard that mass dancing to celebrate the national holiday was scheduled between 5pm and 6pm outside the front of Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, so we made our way there to watch.  Mass dancing is one of the communal activities that often occur on national holidays, and we arrived to find a couple of thousand young people already dancing together to music booming through several huge speakers on the steps of the Stadium.  The men were wearing white shirts, red ties and dark trousers, whereas the women were all wearing traditional Korean style dresses (called the jogori).  Apparently all North Koreans know how to do these dances as every work unit has dancing as an out-of-hours activity for its employees.  It was a great sight to watch the young people so obviously enjoying themselves in the characteristically communal activity.  You can see a short video (1’30”) of the dancing at

Our national holiday experiences concluded with a wonderful dinner at the Unhasu Restaurant.  By the time we returned to the hotel at a little after 8:30pm, the extent of our experiences during the day were already making the morning’s visit to the mausoleum seem as though it had happened a long while ago.

Day 10 - National Day in Pyongyang


9 September 2015