In the history of the post-modern world, there have been very few transfers of power from father to son in a ruling dictatorship. One of them occurred, twice, in the most closed and isolated society on Earth - North Korea.
North Korea: a land where information almost never escapes to the outside world.
When the Kim Il Sung died, the people of North Korea went into mass hysteria. North Koreans were shown on CNN screaming, crying, yelling, beating their chests, tearing their hair and clothes. It made the death of Princess Diana look like a joyous Bar Mitzvah.
I wanted to witness this as closely as possible. For an American to go to North Korea, it is virtually impossible. There is a state of war between our nations. Since I was always searching for more opportunities of strange experiences, I decided to visit the Embassy to sign the condolence book.
The transition began when Kim Il Sung died in August 1994. He was known domestically as the ‘Great Leader’ and little was known about his son, and future head of state Kim Jong Il, who was known as the ‘Dear Leader’ when his father was alive.
Kim Il Sung is the Great Leader, because he is better than a President or King. According to every North Korean source, he is the embodiment of all good in the nation. He is credited to everything from bumper harvests of rice; to the changing of light bulbs in your apartment hallway; His incredible foundation of the glorious North Korean nuclear program; to helping your mate get a multiple orgasm. This is all due to the great work of Kim Il Sung. He was the living god of the North Korean people. About 3 years after his death, he was voted to the office of Eternal President. North Korea is the only nation to now officially employ the deceased.
Contact between the US and North Korea is extremely rare. The average American has never met anyone from North Korea. Their country and government remain a huge mystery to the average American and unfortunately, the United States Government. Who is this evil enemy? What are the people like? And most important, what do these people do to get down with their bad-assed selves? I wanted answers.
After Kim Il Sung helped kick out the Japanese and established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1945, he instituted an incredible cult of personality. With the help of the Soviets, Kim was elevated from mere mortal to Korean Super God. He was touted to even take on Godzilla if he was ever to invade from Japan. And now, the Great Leader is dead.
A God is eternal, and the death of old man Kim certainly proved either a) the theory is wrong or b) Kim was no deity. According to all North Korean sources this proves that the theory is wrong.
I read many interesting articles and anecdotes about North Korea.
There is the story of a woman being imprisoned in a labor camp for years – the charge was ‘excessive smoking in public.’ There is also the story of the scion of the leader of a South American Communist Party, who told his North Korean handlers while on a fraternal visit to Pyongyang, that it is rather unbelievable that the Korean government always reports 100 percent voter turnout. The young man asked if there was no one so ill that they could not vote. This young insurgent of good Communist parents was immediately imprisoned for such blasphemous talk.
It took intervention by the very open-minded and free speech loving leader of Rumania, Nicolae Ceausescu, to get this poor boy freed. Remember Ceausescu? He was the only communist leader that was shot to death and then beaten — along with his wife — after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. This South American communist youth reported meeting the smoking woman while in prison. This is a country that blames every problem on their nation on imperialism, capitalism, and the United States.
The North Korean’s have a giant embassy compound that overlooks the Moscow skyline.
This would be a great opportunity to witness firsthand these enigmatic people that are so anti-American and anti-tobacco. I grabbed my American friend Jim to visit their embassy to snoop around and see their people during this historic time of transition. He was game.
The Embassy consisted of about half-a-dozen ugly white boxy buildings. Nothing Asian about them, they were pure urban eyesores. I did not even see a convenience store or dry cleaner. This is far from the Korea-Town of Los Angeles that I knew and fondly remembered.
Jim and I told the Embassy staff that we are American students from Moscow State University (which was across the street). We said we were deeply sorry for the loss of their Great Leader. We wanted to pay our respects. I did all the talking, as I spoke better Russian than Jim. I was also more able to feign any sincerity at a moment like this. The Embassy staff was visibly impressed to receive Americans at the main gate. Citizen Ambassadors of the largest and most imperialist nation are here to pay homage to the Great Leader and the nation in this dark hour.
We were pointed to the main building. It was a block away, and it was very hot and humid, so I began to sweat on the walk. Then the sweat really began to flow from my pores when I realized what I was doing and leading Jim and I into a serious quagmire. I am on the territory of the North Korean Embassy in Moscow. There is still a state of war between North Korea, South Korea and the United States. These people still strongly consider us the Imperialist Running Dogs of Capitalism. Every few years they randomly shoot U.S. soldiers on patrol at the demilitarized zone in Panmunjon. There was even a case where two US soldiers at the Korean Demilitarized Zone were hacked to death with axes by North Korean soldiers. The North Korean reputation towards Americans preceded us.
It is important to note that Jim has the best sense of humor of anyone I have ever met. He can keep the quips coming, and he always keeps everyone in stitches. Forget about keeping a straight face. My biggest fear was that he would say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And Jim would not let me down.
Jim starts talking and wouldn’t stop. He was hungry — after all, this was our lunch break. He kept asking if there was a buffet at the funeral. He told me how he didn’t want to try dog. Nor did he want pickled cabbage, as he was deathly afraid of embarrassing himself from flatulence either at the Embassy, or later at work. I understood his concerns, but was too nervous to fully comprehend that he might have been the wrong person to bring to the Embassy to sign a condolence book for a dead God.
Finally, we enter the main building where we saw one of the largest paintings EVER. It was at least 25 feet high and had a picture of their now-dead Great Leader Kim Il Sung standing on the top part of some mountain plateau with one of his arms raised, a big frightening smile on his face. It was pretty unsightly, and there is no way of not looking at it constantly, so it served its purpose well.
A copy of the picture on a postage stamp.
After entering this foyer, we were greeted by North Korean diplomats/intelligence officers/security officers. They were sizing us up.
I introduced ourselves in Russian and gave the BS line that we were students at Moscow State, and here in the vein of friendship, brotherhood, anti-war, peace, love, and harmonious spirit. The main ‘greeter’ seemed very skeptical of our ‘good intentions.’
Maybe the greeter figured out that I was going out of curiosity, and Jim was there waiting for the buffet.
A North Korean diplomat, who resembled Odd Job from Goldfinger, decided to interrogate us – in flawless English! ‘What is it that we study at Moscow State? Where we came from (we said New York, it was easier and he probably was never there); How long we had we been in Moscow? Why did we choose to honor the Great Leader? What his death meant to us (Jim replied “a nice all you can eat Korean buffet”).’ Odd Job was convinced that we were CIA spies attempting some covert activity. Yeah, whatever. We were just here for a good time.
Finally, Odd Job left us and we waited on a sofa. We realized that we have no idea what is going on and that our cordial Korean hosts had no idea what to do with us. So we sat on this polyester sofa that must have come from the lowest end furniture company that uses monkeys to design and assemble the furniture. It was not pretty, and not comfortable. Sitting next to us was a very well known Communist member of the Russian Government. He kept looking at us. His name was Sergei something-or-other.
Jim started in a not very soft voice to keep asking about “the buffet.” He was getting hungry and wanted to know when we would sign the book for “Kim Dim Sum and then can eat.” I kept telling him to keep it quiet. The other Koreans in the room were smoking cigarettes, and somberly eyeing us.
After 30 long minutes under the gaze of Old Man Kim smiling from the mountain, Odd Job returned with a stern look on his face. Odd told us what was about to happen. He explained that they are going to escort us to the condolence book, and we were going to write some tribute to the dead guy and then write — not sign — our names. He kept repeating that we will only write and not sign our name here about 32 times in his English. Evidently, it was crucial to write and not sign our names, but we had no idea what why he was making such a big fuss. “I got it the first time, now go throw your hat at a statue.” I thought to myself.
Then Odd Job asked if we were going to sign as a group or as individuals. Jim and I realized that we are overstaying our welcome so we stated that we will be signing together. Odd Job raised the eyebrows above his beady little eyes. “OK. Come over here and write your tribute in the book.” Jim wrote a simple sentence — ” With the greatest respect for your achievements and your legacy of coolness which will shine in these dark times.” Then we were told, yet again, to write, not sign, our names. My eyes widened as I read what he wrote. I was hoping that this would be untranslatable.
Odd Job told us to sit back down on the cheap sofa. I started to get very nervous after reading what Jim wrote. We sat around for about 15 more minutes, and Odd Job and about 4 other Odd Jobbers approached Jim and I regarding the written sentence. The Koreans wanted to know what it meant. “What is coolness? Describe it to me?” Odd said. Poor Jim proceeds to explain that it is a “very high compliment to the Great Leader.” He was taken to where the condolence book was located, and interrogated alone. I wondered if he told Odd Job about the Fonz from Happy Days? I was reminded of the cigarette smoking Korean woman in the labor camp. Look at her punishment for smoking. Here we are defaming the name of their deity/leader. I immediately realized that there was no buffet in our future. We had painted ourselves into a corner that was looking even worse than the 25-foot high painting of the Great Leader.
Somehow Jim talked his way out of what he wrote. He was asked to go back and sit down with me on the polyester sofa. This was all getting extremely tedious. It was at this point I realized my big lesson in dealing with the North Koreans — they are extremely anal and they don’t know how to have a good time.
All of the sudden, out of nowhere, came this horrible music. The horrendous sound of high pitched organ music with a terrible vibrato resonated in the lobby. It was a haunting melody that I will never forget — it was a taste of North Korean funeral music.
Odd Job approached us. We stood. We knew that this was the moment of truth, we were FINALLY going to sign this now defamed condolence book. Odd explained (in great detail, of which I will spare the reader) what we were expected to do. He told us that we were going to “walk in the hall, go up to the picture of the Great Leader, pay tribute to the picture, and then sign the condolence book.” Remember, we had written, not signed, the condolence book just a bit earlier. So now we get to finally sign it.
“What do you mean pay tribute to the picture of Kim Il Sung?” I asked.
“You will pay tribute!” exclaimed Odd Job. He wrongly assumed my hobby is North Korean Embassy funeral hopping.
“You will bow to the picture, then go to the right and finally sign your name in the condolence book.”
Bow to the picture of the North Korean leader? Our American faces just turned 5 shades whiter.
All of the North Korean Embassy staff proceeded to grab us by the arms. We thought we were being hustled out for the coolness comment, but instead they put black armbands on us. This was getting much stranger than I imagined.
We have to bow to a picture of some dead guy while wearing black armbands. The only consolation was that no one in the world would ever witness this degrading moment we brought upon ourselves. That hope was extinguished when we entered the memorial room.
Jim and I entered the room, and almost had cardiac arrests. The cardiac arrest was not from the 4-foot picture of the dead Great Leader’s big glowing smiling face and funny teeth, and the HUNDREDS of floral arrangements and ribbons that surrounded it.
We looked straight ahead and then to each other with eyes as wide as the demilitarized zone. We saw 2 North Korean television cameras and press photographers that also lined the room with their lenses aimed at the running dog capitalist Americans.
Instantly, any notion of fun turned to grave fear as we realized we were now considered suspicious by every major intelligence agency of the free world. It was going to be front page headline news in North Korea of the Americans who came to “pay tribute to the Great Leader.” All hopes of getting a security clearance for a government job were just shot out of the water. This is going to be an event that if we were ever to become infamous, news reporters and conspiracy theorists would say “and [insert one of our names here] was known to have visited to the North Korean Embassy while in Moscow.” Now I understand how the visit of Lee Harvey Oswald to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City could get totally blown up out of proportion. Maybe he wanted to know where to buy some caviar.
We march up to the picture and flowers. We do a quick and not very low bow to the picture, then move over to the book, and sign our names. I turn to my right, and am facing a long line of people waiting for me. I realized that this was the receiving line – and I was eye to eye with the North Korean Ambassador.
I was not prepared to meet or speak with anyone. I thought I would just sign a book. I was a bit startled, but luckily, synapses clicked and after an awkward pause of a few seconds. I realized I needed to say something to the Ambassador. I was mortified that our visit would be broadcast as a huge propaganda triumph in North Korea, I was sweating profusely and was extremely nervous. But I regained composure rapidly, stood up straight and realized that I have a job to do as the representative of the Imperialist Running Dogs of Capitalism here.
I spoke in Russian to the Ambassador and said, “We are very sorry about the death of Kim Il Sung. We hope that our peoples can have a better relationship, and that we can build peace and understanding in the future between our two nations.” I then got my Russian seriously mixed up, and instead of saying “you have our deepest sympathy”, I said “you have our deepest illnesses” as the words sound very much alike in Russian. The Ambassador looked at me rather surprised, but he got the gist of what I was trying to say. He said “thank you” to me in Russian.
It was a triumph for citizen diplomacy. I felt as if I had spoken on behalf of all of the 260 million American citizens. My imagination started running wild…I felt as if I was playing a major role in US-North Korean relations at this moment.
I shook the Ambassador’s hand and said (in Russian) ‘Thank you’ and gave him a small bow (as I thought was the custom, based on all the old Kung Fu and Godzilla films I watched as a child). I then proceeded down the line of 15 or so people, and said ‘thank you.’ They all responded back, ‘thank you.’ Then Jim said thank you to each and every person, and received a response of ‘thank you’ all immediately after I did. It became an echo chamber of ‘thank you’s’ and sounded rather funny, as the word for thank you in Russian is Spasibo, which sounds like placebo.
Once we finished, Jim and I regrouped outside the funeral room. We kept our cool and walked out of the main building and gate. We walked with our heads up high. We just made a major diplomatic coup. I thought to myself, “maybe the North Koreans will think of America in a more positive light. Maybe we are true catalysts of peace between the two nations.” I was getting all warm and fuzzy.
Just then Jim looked at me and said, “You know what the bad thing is about going to a dead North Korean leader’s funeral?
“No,” I responded.
“After half an hour, you want to go back to another dead North Korean leader’s funeral.”