Thursday, August 2, 2007


I have just completed reading Andrei Lankov’s North of the DMZ. One chapter discussed the history of preserving communist leaders in mausoleums so their remains can be venerated for years to come.

I initially posted on this topic here when my friend at Knife Tricks pointed me to an LA Times article in which the author insinuated that Kim il Sung’s remains were actaully wax. Naturally, Professor Lankov knows quite a bit more about this topic than the general public and I wanted to excerpt from his writings here to update readers on some little known information:

Kim Il Sung’s body has been embalmed and left on public display in a special glass-covered coffin. Actually, in this regard, Korea follows an established — if bizarre — Communist tradition. Like many other Communist traditions, this one originated from the USSR.

In 1924, the body of Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, was laid in a specially constructed mausoleum where it was kept in a glass-covered coffin. This mausoleum became a place of mass pilgrimage. Initially most visitors may have been driven by sincere devotion, but in later decades the major impulse bringing visitors was, more likely than not, just bizarre curiosity. Nonetheless, passions sometimes ran high. In the Soviet times, there were two known attempts to damage Lenin’s mummy in an act of symbolic resistance against the regime. On the other hand, the post—Communist Russian government has not dared to close the mausoleum, being aware that such an act is certain to spark large-scale protests and riots of the Russian Left.

In the Soviet times, a special and highly secretive research institute with a generous budget was responsible for the maintenance of Lenin’s body. Over the decades, its research staff gained unique expertise. In due time this expertise was in demand for new generations of the venerable dead.

In 1949, the Bulgarian Communist leader Dmitrov became the first person to be embalmed by the personnel of Lenin’s mausoleum. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the body of the Soviet dictator was also treated with this proven technique and put alongside Lenin’s mummy. However, in 1961 Stalin’s corpse was hastily removed from the mausoleum, to be buried below the Kremlin wall.

Meanwhile, Soviet experts were sent to take care of a number of politically important corpses across the world. They embalmed the bodies of a number of other Communist rulers: Choibalsan of Mongolia, Gottwald of Czechoslovakia, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Netto of Angola (Mao’s body was treated by the Chinese themselves).

Thus, when in 1994 Kim Ii Sung died, few people doubted that his body would be put on display as well. The Russians confirmed that they had taken part in treating Kim Ii Sung’s body. According to unconfirmed reports a group of Russian biologists and chemists worked in Pyongyang for almost a year.

In the l950s and 1960s Moscow did not charge its clients and allies for treating the bodies of their deceased rulers. But this is not the case any more. After the collapse of the Communist system in Russia, the research center has had to survive on a very tight budget, and it is not willing to provide its unique know-how for free. Incidentally, these laboratories’ major income source is now the bodies of Mafia bosses or new Russian capitalists (it was not really easy to distinguish between the former and the latter in the Russia of the 1990s).

The fees for treating the earthly remains of the Great Leader, the Sun of the Nation, were never disclosed, but the Russians reportedly charged North Korea one million dollars. Frankly, this was a steal: Kim II Sung died at the time when the former USSR was in the middle of its severest crisis, and ex—Soviet scientists were ready to accept meager rewards for their work.

Nonetheless, this deal was made at the time when North Korea was on the eve of the worst famine in Korea’s history. The final result of the scientists’ efforts was the mummy of Kim II Sung which, incidentally, cannot be referred to as a “mummy” but only “the eternal image of the Great Leader.”

However, the million-dollar fee is only a fraction of the ongoing cost of keeping Kim Il Sung’s body well preserved. A few years ago a high-level North Korean bureaucrat mentioned to visiting Indonesians that North Korea paid about 800,000 dollars annually for these expenses. On might surmise that at least a part of this money goes to the budget of the same Soviet research centre which once did the embalming.

In one respect the North Koreans did not emulate other Communist countries. The bodies of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh were laid in mausoleums specially constructed for that purpose. The North Koreans did not erect a new structure but renovated a pre-existing building, the Kümsusan Palace. This large structure was erected on the outskirts of Pyongyang in the mid—1970s. In subsequent decades it served as the residence and office of Kim Il Sung. Now this building’s huge central hall became the Great Leader’s resting place.

Unlike the USSR, where visits to Lenin’s tomb are essentially voluntary acts, the North Koreans are picked by their party secretaries to visit the Kümsusan Palace. Most of them, admittedly, do not mind going—partially out of curiosity and partially out of sincere reverence to the deceased strong- man.

For the past few years, crowds of North Koreans have passed by the body of the Great Leader who, for better or worse, ran their country for almost half a century. The visItors are required to stop for a while and bow to the glass- covered coffin containing the embalmed body. The dim lights and quiet music emphasize the quasi-religious nature of the entire scene. The visitors pay their tribute to a person who once started the worst war in Korean history, killed at least a quarter of a million people in prisons and ran what even in the Communist world was seen as an exceptionally repressive state.

Indeed, many (I would say, most) North Koreans more or less believed in what the official propaganda told them about the Great Man. All Koreans younger than 70 have spent their entire life listening to stories about Kim II Sung’s greatness. He is supposed to be the person who defeated the Japanese in 1945, then repelled U.S. aggression in 1950 and, by keeping the cunning imperialists at bay for decades, saved North Koreans from the sorry fate of their enslaved Southern brethren. Of course, outside the North it is common knowledge that Kim II Sung did not fire a single shot during the liberation of Korea, that the Korean war was started by him and nearly lost due to his miscalculations, that South Korea had one of the fastest growing economies of the 20th century while the North became an international basket case. But these things remain largely or completely unknown inside the North, where many people still believe in the deceased Great Fatherly Leader.


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