I nod. My guide licks her lips anxiously. “Not-the-head,” she reiterates, pointing a perfectly-manicured finger at her temple. “Very disrespectful.” I nod the same nod, and she replies with an uncertain smile. “Then let’s go meet him.”
It’s my third day in North Korea and we’re outside Kumsusan Memorial Palace: the once-residence and now mausoleum of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung. A colossal white-brick cathedral to the revolutionary leader, its reputation as the country’s most important pilgrimage site is cemented by the long queue of personally-invited, immaculately-turned-out Koreans eagerly awaiting a glimpse of their Great Leader.
As we arrive at the front of the line we are met by two austere military types, who proceed to march us over a patented ‘shoe sanitiser’ – a platform of revolving, disinfectant-soaked sponges – and into a deafening air chamber, designed to cleanse us of every last imperial germ. Then, after a quick pat-down and the inevitable surrender of my digital camera, we are waved on through to Kim’s inner sanctum.
Kim Il-sung was one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic figures. A socialist revolutionary who founded the ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ in 1948, he ruled over the country unopposed until his death in 1994, outliving Stalin, Mao and all his other communist contemporaries in the process – yet little is really known about him. By creating an extensive personal mythology – a cult of personality – he rewrote his life with a distinctly divine flavour. Even to this day, in his own country, Kim Il-sung is revered as a god.
Without warning, the intricately-carved golden gates ahead of us are ceremoniously flung open, and the bobbing ocean of black-haired heads – military-suited men clutching delicate pink flowers, women gently weeping in their finest frocks – flows into the pristine white room ahead of us. They stop at the far wall, solemnly stooping to reveal a life-size marble statue of Kim, before vanishing through a distant doorway. As I follow suit, my guide surreptitiously leans in to me: “No bow at head, remember?” I remembered.
As I adjust to the half-light of the second room, the clear-glass display cabinet in the middle catches me unawares. It’s the coffin. Kalashnikov-wielding guards divert the crowd around the fringes of the room, where they prostrate themselves at the first three sides of the see-through sarcophagus, and I hesitantly do the same. It’s only as we get to the fourth side, to the top of the coffin, that I clearly see Kim’s head.
It’s a surreal moment. Here I am, looking into the embalmed face – scrutinising the forever-fixed features – of Kim Il-sung. The romantic philosopher, who became a heroic revolutionary, who became a clandestine dictator. The loved leader of millions and despised despot of millions more. Lying on a slab before me.
I don’t bow.
Suddenly, my guide grabs my arm and sweeps me out of the crypt into the adjacent room, ushering me towards a solitary desk with a leather-bound guestbook. But I refuse to sign. For one fleeting, unforgettable moment I had come face-to-face with God. How could I possibly put that into words?