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    Korea
     Jan 12, 2012


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.

Since 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.

The body 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 bloc tradition.

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).

For a 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.

By that 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 state.

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 their disposal.

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 bodyguards.

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.

The first 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.

In March 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 Vietnam.

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.

Chinese scientists 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.

When 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 all-time low.

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 themselves.

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 struggling scientists.

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.

North 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 mausoleum worldwide.

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.

The few 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.

Andrei 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.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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