The mausoleum containing the embalmed body of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-Il has been opened to tourists, who must follow a strict protocol.
Young Pioneer Tours, a five-year-old tour group specializing in off-the-beaten path destinations, was the first group to gain admission when the mausoleum was opened to the public on Jan. 17. Gareth Johnson, managing director and founder of the group, said the tour was planned for January because the country would just be re-opening to tourists. (According to Johnson, North Korea is essentially closed for tourism in December and early January).
“We were hopeful that if we timed it right, the mausoleum would be open and we would gain access,” he said. “It was a combination of great planning and a little luck.”
He described the experience as “surreal.” While the other mausoleums he has visited house people he has only read about in history books, this was someone he had seen regularly on the news in his lifetime.
The people on the tour, Johnson said, were “very moved. It was a very intense experience.”
And, said Johnson, Kim Jong-Il looks pretty good, considering his state. “He looks like a person,” he said. “Not waxy at all.”
All visitors are required to pass through jets of air to cleanse them of dust. Tourists are required to bow at the feet and arms of the dead father and son. However, they are not permitted to bow at the head, as it is considered disrespectful. Cameras and phones are not allowed.
Kim lies in state a few floors below his father, national founder Kim Il Sung, in the Kumsusan mausoleum, the former presidential palace.
Kim Jong-Il died Dec. 17, 2011 from a heart attack while traveling on his train.
His body was first unveiled to select visitors, including some journalists, on Dec. 17, 2012, the anniversary of his death. ABC News reported at the time that among the personal belongings featured in the mausoleum are the parka, sunglasses and pointy platform shoes he famously wore in the last decades of his life. A MacBook Pro lay open on his desk.
Kim Jong-Il joins other dictators whose bodies have become tourist attractions. The remains of Mao Tse-Tung are encased in a crystal coffin in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
In Moscow, the Lenin Mausoleum and the body of communist leader Vladimir Lenin are still an attraction for tourists, though he died in 1924. But with preservation work needed on both the body and the mausoleum, an increasing number of Russians are calling for the burial of Lenin’s body.
In Hanoi, Vietnam, the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lies in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It, too, is open to the public.