Journey to North Korea, Part II: The Packrat Dictatorship

Journey to North Korea, Part II: The Packrat Dictatorship

In 2007 and 2008, photojournalist Tomas Van Houtryve visited North Korea by infiltrating a communist solidarity delegation. In the second story in his three-part series, Van Houtryve describes the surveillance he was subjected to and the bizarre majesty of the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung.

After dinner at the end of my second day, I was pulled aside by my guides. The interrogation lasted for four hours. The most grim-looking of our minders, Mr. Chung , was bad cop. “We Koreans are very open and hospitable people — look how we open our home and our hearts to you,” said Chung. “But if ever we are betrayed, we take revenge on you and on your family.”

Naturally, they were most curious about my pictures. Chung explained that I had been taking pictures from the bus when we passed a “secret military installation” disguised as a normal building. “A soldier saw your camera in the window and called in to report it.” I was made to fetch all of my memory cards and show them every frame. Some were deleted. Unknown to my interrogators, anticipating such an eventuality, I had developed a system to copy and hide the contents of my memory cards. Somehow, I was given the benefit of the doubt, and eventually I was released. For the next few days, I managed to remain firmly “in character” as a compliant pilgrim to the last “socialist paradise.” But I began to feel a mounting paranoia from the constant surveillance. I suspected that my hotel room was being watched. The atmosphere certainly didn’t encourage relaxation. Located in Pyongyang’s Sports District, the Sosan Hotel is a three-sided brick skyscraper with 24 floors. The hotel was empty except for our nine-person delegation on the 14th floor. The power was off on all other floors, and there was only running water for two hours a day.

After a few days, we moved to more modern hotel. I searched the room for bugs, not really knowing what I was looking for, and to my horror discovered a nickel-sized black disk with two protruding wires stuck to the back of a mirror overlooking the bed. The North Koreans were listening to me in my sleep.

On a few of our trips around the city, photography was banned altogether, something that almost came as a relief. The most impressive of these un-photographed excursions was to the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung. After his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung was declared President for Eternity. The windows of his mammoth presidential palace were sealed with white marble, and the entire complex turned into a monumental tomb that dwarfed the mausoleums of Lenin and Mao. We had been told to wear our best formal clothes and arrived in the first great hall of the palace to the sounds of the “Song of General Kim Jong Il,” a composition featuring crashing symbols and military horns. Towering above us was a Lincoln Memorial sized white statue of the Eternal President. Next was a room commemorating how the masses reacted to the loss of the Great Leader. Bronze relief panels showed a sea of mourners, their faces twisted in agony. Over the wail of mourners, a somber voice narrated how “the tears of the people fell to the earth and turned into diamonds.”

Before we could enter the room where Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body lies in state, we had to be purified. One by one we stepped through a narrow chamber. On one side was a head-to-toe bank of vacuum nozzles. On the opposite side a bank of evenly spaced jets shot out air. The inner crypt was bathed only in dim red light. Soldiers with polished silver Kalishnikovs, bayonets fixed, stood at attention around the body, which glowed faintly under a thick glass casket. We were instructed to approach Kim in rows of three, bow once at his feet, and then bow again on the right and left sides of the body. The next room held a collection of all of the medals and distinctions that Kim Il Sung was awarded during his rule. Most, like the Order of Lenin, were from the Soviet Union and its former vassal states. But Kim also held on to a coin made to commemorate the 15th anniversary of an agricultural university in Bangkok and a gift plate sent from the communist mayor of a Paris suburb. This wasn’t the only time I was to witness the Kims’ packrat tendencies. Half a day’s drive from Pyongyang is the International Friendship Exhibition, where a vast bronze door leads to an underground cavern stuffed with 60,000 pieces of totalitarian tack. An ivory ashtray from Robert Mugabe, a jewel encrusted saber from Yasser Arafat, a stuffed crocodile twisted into a human pose and holding a drink tray from the Sandanistas.

Back in the mausoleum, our tour finally came to an end when we were shown into a room where ornate guest-books were laid out on huge desks. Only delegations held in the highest esteem were allowed to sign, said our excited guide. That wasn’t to say we could do so unsupervised: our minders shuttled between the desks, reading as we wrote. Suddenly, the electricity cut out. With all the windows blocked up, we were plunged into darkness. For 10 minutes, nobody said a word. And when the lights returned, there was no acknowledgment, no apology and no explanation.
Read part 1 of Tomas Van Houtryve’s “Journey to North Korea.”
See pictures of Bill Clinton’s North Korea rescue mission.
See TIME’s North Korea covers.