North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and Diabetes


About a month ago I spent four days in North Korea. I went with a friend on a quick long-weekend trip through Koryo Tours. It was an incredibly interesting experience and a unique glance into a place which is entirely different from anything we know.

One of the strangest experiences was the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung is treated as nothing short of a deity. Every foreigner who goes to North Korea is required to go to his mausoleum and see his body. They tell you from the outset that if you have objections to that, you shouldn’t go to North Korea.

Before going to the Mausoleum, I checked my blood sugar: 200. So I gave myself a shot of 2 units of Humalog. My Dexcom sensor wasn’t working at the time. While I had candy, I later learned that at the Mausoleum, you are not allowed to bring anything in your pockets. So at the entrance, I had to turn over that candy as well as my diabetes kit. I could have discussed it with our guide (I was the first type 1 she had ever met) but didn’t want to deal with it. 

Little did I know, the walk to the actual Mausoleum was almost a mile. There is then a walking tour around the area for about 20 minutes. It was enough walking that I kept thinking about the insulin I gave myself when I was at 200 and was worried I might get low.  Without Dexcom, I wasn’t sure if I had already been falling when I gave myself the shot.  My worst-case scenario internal alarms started going off.  If my blood sugar fell too quickly, I wouldn’t know what to do: I had no sugar on me, there were soldiers all around, and doing anything other than quietly following the person in front of me seemed like a really bad idea. 

This fear peaked when we got to the actual body. The Mausoleum is a darkly lit room, with red floor lights, soldiers all around, and somber music playing.  Ahead of us, there were North Korean women weeping as they walked by and bowed to the body. All I could think about was my blood sugar. “Please NO hypoglycemic reactions.” I had a bit of a panic but couldn’t let anyone notice.

We finished seeing the body, and the tour continued through different exhibits.  Before long, we were walking back that long walkway.  About 15 minutes later we got back to where we could pick up our things. I checked my blood sugar and was still at 200.  All my fear had been for nothing.

The experience showed me that I have a sixth sense about knowing where I can get sugar is at any time if I need it.  Every now and then, if I don’t know what I would do if I got a hypoglycemic reaction, that sixth sense starts to panic. In North Korea, that moment was at Kim Il Sung’s Mausoleum.  While everything turned out ok, talking to my guide about keeping the sugar with me have probably would have been the best idea.   Even in North Korea, just like nearly everywhere I’ve been, people seem to be understanding when it comes to diabetes, and I’m sure she would have been able to help.

Outside the mausoleum

Ladies at the Mausoleum

The Mass Games

The Mass Games


Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

Wow. That is terrifying. I had to turn over all my diabetes gear when I visited Lenin’s body (what is it with the dead communist leaders?) but luckily my husband was right outside with my tablets, and there was no real walking involved. 

Those photos are amazing. If you haven’t seen it already, you should check out the movie “State of Mind.” It’s a documentary (available on NetFlix) that follows a couple North Korean kids as they prepare for the Mass Games. Their goal in life is to perform in front of Kim Jong Il.  It’s pretty nuts.

Catherine Price
11 years ago

First, great pics.
I have never been to North Korea (or south) but have had situations were I was sure my BS was dropping and had no way to check. I think the pressure and panic some how keeps it high.
Sound like a very spooky and interesting trip. Movie like. I think I’ll stick to democratic countries for my vacations.  

Rachel Zinman
11 years ago

Thanks Karmel-  I haven’t written anything too elaborate about it – but I do tell stories about North Korea on my facebook album North Korea (you can look me up as Sam Gellman – I don’t have the link to the album here right now – my office blocks Facebook).  There should also be a little story about it on at their photo blog at some point over the next little while. 

Dr. Margaret A. Morris
11 years ago

“I’m in Korea, in a mausoleum, and I can’t fix my blood sugar if anything goes wrong.” Yikes! If you just add, “And it’s freezing cold,” to that, I would class it with my worst nightmares… Incredible pictures– and where can I find your non-diabetes-related thoughts about the country? Because I’d be interested in hearing those, too!

Copyright © 2009-2021 Diabetes Media Foundation, All Rights Reserved.
ASweetLife™ is a trademark of the Diabetes Media Foundation, All Rights Reserved.
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x