Pyongyang to preserve Kim for
posterity By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - There is little doubt about what
is going to happen to late North Korea leader Kim
Jong-il's body; there is an established tradition
going back to the early days of the Soviet Union
of what should be done. It might appear rather
gruesome, but for decades it was seen as something
quite natural from Prague to Hanoi.
the 1920s, many Moscow visitors - Soviets and
foreigners alike - participated in a somewhat
unusual ritual. They went to Red Square, a large
open space in front of the main gates of the
Kremlin, and joined a long queue that led to a
small but imposing building.
After half an
hour of waiting, they would be led into a small
hall and then they would pass by, single file, an
oversized glass coffin. Inside the coffin (which
actually was an extremely expensive piece of
high-tech equipment) there was the body of Vladimir
Lenin, the founder of the
Soviet state, who died in 1924.
seemingly did not change with the passage of time.
This was possible thanks to a large and very
expensive government program - perhaps one of the
most unusual, not to say bizarre, government
programs in modern history.
The idea of
putting the body of a state founder on display
might seem strange, even macabre, but under Soviet
influence it became an important part of socialist
Many a communist strongman
was treated in this way and it came to be seen as
an expression of reverence to their extraordinary
genius. It was understood that by putting the body
on display, the party provided the working masses
with the opportunity to have an audience the long
dead state founder. No doubt, many a visitor at
communist mausoleums (as such tombs came to be
known) did feel this way, even though many others
were driven by sheer macabre curiosity.
The idea of saving Lenin's body for all
eternity originated soon after his death in
January 1924. Among the most active proponents of
the plan was Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the
Cheka (the Soviet secret police) and Leonid Krasin
(a top-heavy industry manager).
brief while, the Soviet politburo toyed with the
idea of a glass-covered refrigerator. But they
soon realized that such a contraption could not be
devised and produced fast enough. Instead, they
decided to rely on chemistry.
time, a number of Russian scientists had attempted
and succeeded in preserving human bodies. Two
scientists - Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiev -
were dispatched to apply their experimental
techniques to the body of Lenin. They succeeded.
The body was soon put on public display in a
specially designed mausoleum that eventually
became the symbolic center of the entire Soviet
Preserving the body was by no means
an easy or cheap task. A small research group
eventually developed into a large institute known
as the "Lenin laboratory" (officially founded in
1939). There, a few dozen first-class scholars
worked around the clock to ensure that not even a
single hair would rot nor a single dead cell
disappear from the body of "Comrade Lenin". They
had for all intents and purposes an unlimited
budget and had the most advanced equipment at
During World War II,
Lenin's body was sent to the city of Tumen, in
western Siberia where it was hidden in the
building of a local agricultural college -
coincidentally from where the author's grandfather
graduated. The body remained there for the length
of the war, under the protection of 40 of Stalin's
The end of World War II in
1945 brought a dramatic expansion of the socialist
bloc. The nascent communist states tended to
emulate Soviet traditions and institutions. The
ghoulish tradition of putting the founder's body
on display was not omitted.
non-Soviet communist leader who was treated in
this way was Georgy Dmitrov, the former head of
the Communist International (Comintern), who
became the founding father of the Bulgarian
People's Republic. Dmitrov's body was handled by
the Lenin laboratory, and both the architecture of
the mausoleum itself and the way the body was
preserved were identical to those of Lenin's.
In 1952, another communist strongman,
Khorloogiin Choibalsan of Mongolia, died, and his
body was treated in a similar way. Choibalsan's
mausoleum became the first communist-style body
displayed in a mausoleum in Asia.
1953 it was Stalin's turn. Lenin's mausoleum was
rearranged and for a few years it had two
sarcophaguses, one displaying the body of Lenin
and the other the body of Stalin. This did not
last long, the de-Stalinization of the late 1950s
led to the eviction of Marshall Stalin, whose body
was moved to less grand surroundings - the grounds
of the Kremlin.
Nonetheless, a tradition
was established. Soviet experts treated the bodies
of Klement Gottwald of Czechoslovakia, Ho Chi Minh
of Vietnam, Augustine Neta of Angola, and,
somewhat surprisingly, Forbes Burnhamof Guyana.
Sometimes, experts encountered great
difficulties. For example, the Vietnamese
government refused to allow Ho Chi Minh's body to
be flown to Moscow (as was initially suggested).
So the work had to be done by the Soviet
scientists in a secret locations in the jungles of
In 1976, Mao Zedong, the mighty
dictator of China, died and the Chinese decided to
follow the Soviet tradition. Because relations
between Moscow and Beijing were extremely hostile
and Mao (who was to be embalmed) was presented in
the Soviet media as a major international villain,
Soviet involvement in the embalming process was
out of the question.
developed their own technology, but as their
Soviet (and Russian) rivals like to say, the
technology was inferior to that of the "Lenin
laboratory" (it is not impossible that this is yet
another case of bad-mouthing a competitor).
In the wake of the anti-communist
revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s,
many old mausoleums were closed. So of the
above-mentioned bodies, only those of Lenin, Ho
Chi Minh and Mao remain on display.
Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the North
Korean state, died in 1994, North Korean
authorities immediately decided to follow the
established tradition and embalm his body to put
on display. They decided to commission Russian
(formerly Soviet) experts to do the job, even
though relations between the two states were at an
No doubt the "Lenin
laboratory" was quite happy to get this order.
Communist Party rule had ended in 1991 and the
laboratory had lost its highly privileged
standing. Despite some protests, Lenin's body has
remained in the mausoleum, but his scientific
protectors could no longer rely on generous
government subsidies and had to make money for
Surprisingly, families of some
nous riche Russians were willing to pay for the
macabre procedure, but this was clearly not enough
to keep the laboratory going. Therefore, Kim
Il-sung's death was actually good news for the
It is not known how
much money the North Korean government paid to the
Russian scientific team. According to rumors, the
price tag was around US$1 million - additionally,
$800,000 has been spent annually to keep the body
in good shape. It is also unknown to what extent
the Russian team has been involved in the daily
upkeep of the body.
It seems that most, if
not all, routine work in Pyongyang is done by
North Korean scientists (one should not be
surprised by this - for such an impoverished
state, North Korea is remarkably well educated).
North Korea's version of a mausoleum is
remarkably different from that in other communist
countries that tend to emulate the Soviet
prototypes. The Soviet mausoleum is a small
building that was dedicated to the body itself and
necessary preservation equipment.
Koreans chose instead to convert Kim Il-sung's
official residence into his resting place. It is
much larger and more elaborate than any other
Visitors who come to
Kim Il-sung's mausoleum do not queue for hours
outside the entrance. Instead, they ushered into a
chain of halls that are dedicated to the memory of
the great man (and also commemorate the popular
belief about his demise in 1994). His glass coffin
is located on the top floor of the building.
Unlike Soviet citizens, who could just
pass by, visitors to Kumsusan memorial palace are
required to bow three times, in three different
places, in front of Kim Il-sung. In a nice touch,
visitors en route to Kim Il-sung's body pass
through a full body dust remover - to decrease the
chances of some dangerous germs getting in.
There is little doubt that Kim Jong-Il's
body will be treated in the same way. After his
death on December 17, it has been reported that
the Russian scientists have once again been
invited to Pyongyang. More recent reports,
however, state that the preservation work will be
done by North Korean embalmers.
experts from the "Lenin's laboratory" who agreed
to talk to the media recently said that economies
of scale existed even in such a macabre business.
Therefore, maintaining an additional second body
was not going to cost too much: the equipment and
chemicals that are used for Kim Il-sung's body
could be safely used on the body of his son too.
If all goes to plan, Kumsusan memorial
palace will host a new body - that is of the Dear
Leader Marshall Kim Jong-il. This will be the
first double communist mausoleum since 1961 - the
year when Stalin's body was finally removed from
its public display in Moscow.
Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin
University in Seoul, and adjunct research fellow
at the Research School of Pacific and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He
graduated from Leningrad State University with a
PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with
emphasis on Korea. He has published books and
articles on Korea and North Asia.
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