Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #2 North Korea September 1995

(continued) Pyongyang, North Korea: September, 1995: Before going to our rooms Wednesday night, Mr. Rim informed us that we should wear our black suits the next morning. But we didn’t know where we were going until after breakfast, when our entourage of black Mercedes picked us up, and we drove across town and pulled in where there were several hundred military officers in full dress uniforms standing around waiting for something. There were also a few civilians in black suits mixed into the crowd.

It had started to rain, so we stayed sitting in the car. I could feel at least a thousand eyes on us as we got out of the car and took our place in a single line. You have to remember that most of the military had never seen an American man except in training films, where they were taught the best and fastest ways to kill us in hand-to-hand combat. They had no outside TV coverage, no outside newspapers, no contact with what was happening outside their borders. So when they encountered a real live, fair-skinned American man within reach of where they were standing, it was no wonder they at least stared.

While standing in line, Jay and I were temporarily given back our passports. We eventually made it up to the front of the line and stepped under a couple of big blue umbrellas. There, our overseers showed the others their passports and explained who we were and showed our passports. The officials nodded and motioned us through. Jay and I still did not know where we were going. We were queued up in front of a trolley station with a group of about one hundred military and civilians.

Soon a trolley, nicer than any other I had ever seen in Pyongyang and nicely painted a green color, pulled alongside the platform, and military women directed us on board. About three miles away, our trolley pulled alongside another platform, and we exited and began a walk for about another mile. In the meantime the men had asked for our passports back. The pedestrian road led us to a huge new marble complex. We later found out it was called the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. I doubt that a hundred million dollars would have covered the new construction … and it was still being built.

Soon we guessed where we were going. We had been chosen to be some of the first individuals to ever personally view the body of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung lying in state. But we were not through with the ceremony yet. As we approached the new white marble walkway (literally acres of white marble patio), we walked over an area that washed our shoes—too bad if your socks got wet.

After waiting in a single-file line for a long while, we were eventually led inside through a very big set of hand-carved, double-wooden doors, twenty feet tall, through the entry rooms, and eventually into a very large marble room, where at one end was a pure-white alabaster statue about thirty feet tall of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung in a standing position. Three by three, the military marched up within fifteen feet of the statue, saluted, turned, and marched out. The experience made me shiver. Here was a pure-white statue with backlighting of blended red, pink, blue, and white colors graduating from the bottom up in an all-marble room in an all-marble building.

When it was our time to approach the statue, we were lined up side by side about seven in a straight line. We all walked up together, took a bow, turned right, and exited through another set of tall, hand-carved doors. From there the single-file line headed up three flights of marble stairs cordoned off by bright-gold ropes. Coming down the other corresponding stairway was another single-file line—mostly military officers. All the women officers were crying.

As I approached the top of the third landing, there was a sound of huge air blowers. Before we were allowed entrance into the next room, we had to pass through a short hallway where there were high-powered air jets blowing from both sides. Little did they care if it nearly blew the hair off our heads. There was no loose dust on us when we entered the room.

Jay and I had been afforded a great honor that day. We had been placed near the front of the line to view the body of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung. We had been put in a visible place of privilege at the head of many of the military generals and heads of the North Korean government. We were the only Americans to be there and be so honored.

The room was another large marble, black-and-gray, highly polished room, and in the very center was a glass-covered marble display shelf and table with Kim Il-Sung lying in state. Soft organ music was playing some of the Korean patriotic songs, which I recognized from the Friendship Arts Festival. The lighting techniques were extremely effective, and there were four stations around the coffin where we were to stop and bow in respect. I looked to see if the large growth on the back of his head, which I had seen in person in 1993, was still there, or if it had been removed for the viewing. I concluded that it had been removed.

After making a full circle of the body, we exited out the rear and back down the long marble stairways. I won’t take time to discuss my feelings about Kim Il-Sung, but it was a privilege—and I guess kinda fun—being part of world political history. And I really was glad that Jay had a chance to be part of an unusual bit of history.

We walked the mile back to the trolley station and rode the three miles back to the car. I glanced down at my watch as the driver opened the door for me: Over three hours for that homage ordeal.

We drove out of the parking area, with all the military folks still staring at us, and headed on out toward the outskirts of Pyongyang city.  

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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