On December 28, 2011, the funeral of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il displayed to the world a sight that many found shocking: a Lincoln Continental from the 1970s used as the official hearse. The North Korean regime owning an American luxury car over 30 years old and using it as the final conveyance of its deceased leader was difficult for many to understand. There was considerable discussion in automotive and general news media about this sighting, some of which doubted that the car was a real Lincoln and not a copy on a Soviet-made chassis, and some of which questioned how the North Korean regime could have obtained an American car. The discussion of how North Korea could have obtained “a” Lincoln Continental was badly uninformed, however. The North Korean regime has a fleet of Lincolns, not just one.
This screenshot of the funeral procession television broadcast shows how unobservant the earlier reports were. With the 1975-76 Continental serving as a hearse not in sight, there are three other 1974-76 Continentals visible, as well as a 1995-97 Town Car. There is a 1975-76 Continental carrying a huge portrait of Kim Jong Il, trailed by another 1975-76 Continental bearing an almost equally large wreath, and flanked by what appears to be a 1974 Continental made into a four door convertible. So there are at least four 1974-76 Continentals in North Korea, along with at least one 1990s Town Car.
Here are the three 1975-76 Continentals lined up in the funeral procession, with the portrait and wreath bearers leading the hearse, which is really a stretched sedan with the coffin laid on top of the roof.
There was considerable speculation at the time of the funeral regarding how a 1970s Lincolns ended up in Pyongyang. All of it that I have seen published has been laughably off the mark, because none showed much knowledge of foreign car markets or of North Korea. The car used as a hearse appears to have been originally sold in Japan, because it has the fender-mounted mirrors characteristic of Japanese market cars, here used as handholds by Kim Jong Un and one of his generals. North Korea finding a way to import a car from Japan in the 1970s is not shocking, because there was a long history of Japan being a source of hard currency and goods for North Korea, through ethnic Koreans in Japan.
Stringent economic sanctions against North Korea are a recent development, and North Korea had economic ties to certain non-Communist countries. In Japan, which has a large ethnic Korean population that South Korea did not contact for half a century under a diplomatic deal with Japan, sending money and goods to North Korea through Communist Party connections was a common practice until recently. At least one foreign car, a Volvo, made it to North Korea in this way (see the defector autobiography Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulet, pp. 26-34). This Volvo was a privately owned car in Japan shipped to North Korea, not one of the 1,000 Volvo 144s that North Korea acquired directly from Volvo in the early 1970s. This Lincoln could have been similarly directly shipped from Japan to North Korea, or first shipped to a third country port such as Singapore or Macao and then transferred to a ship bound for North Korea.
The origins of the other Continentals are less clear, because they appear not to have the Japanese-style fender mounted mirrors. They may have been re-exported from Japan before installation of Japanese market equipment, or imported separately from an order placed in another country. Considerable detective work would be necessary to find the truth, probably more than anyone (or any organization) would be willing to undertake.
Regardless of the details of their origins, each Continental differs significantly from the others in its roof treatment. The hearse car has a six window layout with a wide B pillar with a coach lamp. The portrait carrier has a six window layout with narrow pillars, and with the oval opera window introduced in the 1975 Continental in the rear pillars. The wreath carrier has four windows and especially wide pillars with no opera window. The fourth Continental is a full convertible. These four Continentals may have been stretched and given new roof treatments by multiple coachbuilders, possibly in multiple countries, or maybe the same coachbuilder worked on all of them. Each car likely has a builder’s data plate that explains the facts, but I doubt that anyone other than a few carefully selected North Korean drivers and mechanics will ever see them.
“Why a fleet of 1970s Lincoln Continentals?” is a question that must be bothering many. The answer is simple: at the time, it was the obvious choice. In the mid-1970s, the Lincoln Continental had been the car of Presidents of the United States for over a decade. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford each had a Lincoln Continental limousine as his official car, with the infamous 1961 Continental in which Kennedy was assassinated also serving Johnson and Nixon, and the 1972 Continental that replaced it serving Nixon and Ford and continuing into the early 1980s as the Presidential limousine of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The Lincoln Continental was an internationally established symbol of American power in 1974-75 and an obvious choice for a dictator envious of the United States such as Kim Il Sung.
The inevitable questions “Why would he want an American car when Americans were his enemy?” and “Wouldn’t he want a Communist-bloc car?” simplistically overlook that Kim Il Sung and the regime that he created have never looked up to the Russians and Chinese and sought to emulate them, and that they have always measured themselves by their own strange ideology and where they stood relative to the United States. Possessing a token of American power in the form of the President’s car is what Kim Il Sung would have wanted, not a ZIL or a Hongki from his second-rate allies, when he went to what must have been great lengths to acquire these Lincolns over 40 years ago.
Now we must say farewell to these long-lost products of the American automobile industry that have spent their lives serving three generations of one of the worst regimes that the world has ever seen and are likely to have to continue their servitude for many years to come. Each likely spent two decades conveying Kim Il Sung (d. 1994), and since then they have passed to his son Kim Jong Il and then his grandson Kim Jong Un. They are a bizarre family tradition that cannot come to an end too soon.