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A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P2: Immortal leaders

A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P2: Immortal leaders

Tuesday, November 01, 2016, 17:02 GMT+7

People in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have invariably held their immortalized, sainted leaders in profound reverence.

>> A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P1: First images

During a visit to North Korea, which allows foreign reporters only restricted Internet access at hotels and issues separate visas for tourists without leaving a single mark on their passports, a South Korean journalist asked a local teenager about the weight of an imposing monument to Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) was the supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as North Korea, for 46 years, from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994.

The late statesman was known for his philosophy of Juche, which focuses on Korean patriotism and self-reliance.

Kim was succeeded by his own son, Kim Jong- il (1942- 2011), who ruled the country from 1994 to 2011. 

Kim Jong-il is father to Kim Jong-un, who has taken office following his father’s state funeral as the nation’s incumbent supreme leader.

The above-mentioned teenager replied to the South Korean journalist that the monument weighs as much as North Koreans’ affection for the two statesmen.

The minor added the memorial also has the height of North Koreans’ combined reverence for the duo.

The story was recounted by Choe Un Mi, one of two tour guides to a group of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters and others right after their visit to the monument, as soon as they arrived in Pyongyang, the country’s capital.


A memorial to revered North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Photo: Tuoi Tre


As the train pulled into the capital city, Choe and the other tour guide were waiting right at the carriage door.

The train station boasts time-honored, tasteful architecture and a spacious, immaculate yard.

In the heart of the square in front of the station were dozens of teenagers sporting red scarves and performing music under the baton of a conductor, probably as a welcome to first-time visitors.

The bus carrying the Tuoi Tre reporters cruised on tidy, empty streets.

The group, along with an elderly married couple from Beijing and a mother and her child from Hong Kong, later scaled Mansudae Hill to pay a visit to the memorial of the two most respected North Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

The hill is home to lush, well pruned vegetation, with loudspeakers emitting heroic songs at low volume.

Women at five flower stalls on the sidewalk were wrapping and arranging flowers with great dexterity.

The flowers came in a surprisingly great variety, but many of them turned out to be plastic on closer inspection. 

Interestingly, only bunches and baskets of flowers, not wreaths, were available at the stalls.

Guide Choe explained that wreaths, typically meant for the deceased, must not be offered in tribute to the two state dignitaries, who live on forever in North Koreans’ hearts and minds.

Choe also warned against indecent behavior and taking photos of only one statue or details of the two statues.

Instead visitors are expected to make floral offerings and kowtow in profound respect before posing for photos with both statues. 

“We had been told that as one member of another delegation had bowed casually in front of the statues, everyone was asked to come back and perform reverent kowtows with their backs bent low,” the Tuoi Tre reporters recalled.

With several ‘living statues’ keeping a close watch nearby, the Tuoi Tre reporters and the four other members performed the rite as requested for fear of running into ‘trouble.’

The towering memorial includes two lifelike statues facing the Taedong River.

The other riverbank is in Taedonggang District, the highlight of which is a memorial built in commemoration of the Party’s founding anniversary.

When the Tuoi Tre reporters took photos of one another at the site, a nearby man took pictures of all the tour members for some unknown reason.

Another surprising thing is that though the yard was immaculate, seven or eight women continued to painstakingly sweep it, without a speck of dust in the dustpan.

It was later explained that people volunteer for the task during their visit to country leaders.

As explained by Le Quang Ba, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the two most venerated leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, remain alive in the people’s hearts.

Wreaths, generally meant for funerals, must not be offered in tribute, he added. 

Even staff members from diplomatic agencies are not allowed to buy and bring flowers to the memorial directly.

They can only make down payments with an agency in charge.  

Ba recounted the time his son once came home and passed on to them his teacher’s reminder that they were not allowed to wrap gifts with newspapers featuring country leaders. His wife had unwittingly wrapped a gift for their son’s teacher with pages from a copy of Rodong Simun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.


A propaganda picture released to mark the successful launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 Satellite in 2009. Photo: Tuoi Tre

“They venerate their supreme leaders in their subconscious and in almost all activities, including the most minute details,” Ba observed.

The presence of the powerful duo is felt across North Korea, with conspicuous concrete boards recording the dates on which each of the two leaders visited the locality.

Particularly on public squares, their photos invariably occupy the most solemn position in the principal structures.

Even hills and walls are built to bear large pictures depicting the two statesmen as highlights of the entire area.

Those who have lived in North Korea for a long time, including former ambassadors of other countries, observed that all households, in rural and urban areas, place the photos of their two leaders in the most solemn part of the house, where Orientals typically put an altar to worship Buddha and their ancestors.

According to Pham Ngoc Canh, who studied and worked in the North Korean capital for many years, the memorial measures 20 meters and was crafted from bronze, gold and some other precious metals.

He added that during wartime, the statues would be placed in a secret underground tunnel.

Canh noted that some government departments are dedicated to constructing and maintaining the memorial.

Broadcasting hymns into outer space

A propaganda picture released in commemoration of the successful launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 Satellite clearly indicates the date of April 5, Jechu 98 in the North Korean calendar, after Kim Il-sung’s date of birth, or the year 2009 in the Gregorian calendar.

The tunes of two everlasting revolutionary songs in praise of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were included in the satellite projected into space at a frequency of 470MHz.

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