Throughout our tour in North Korea our guides went to great lengths to extol the virtues and wholesomeness of North Korea and its Leaders and took great pride in the fact that it and its people are pure, clean and devoid of negative outside influences. Our guide told us of how the State makes every effort to protect itself and its citizens from everything bad and wicked. This, of course or at least for the domestic audience, explains why North Korea isolates itself from the outside world rather than the outside world isolating itself from North Korea.
Indeed, far from isolating itself from North Korea, the outside world, we were told, loves North Korea and its Leaders and this manifests itself through the gifts and accolades nearly every country in the world, including the United States, bestows upon the country and, in particular, on its great leaders.
If you have read my review on the Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang you will recall the hundreds of small plaques of support received from Juche societies and similar from all over the world which provide evidence of how Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea has been embraced worldwide. Likewise, you may recall from my review of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which, in addition to being a mausoleum for the two leaders, has (at least) two large rooms, one for each leader, displaying the awards and accolades bestowed upon them during and indeed after their life on earth. There, we were guided by display case after display case of medals, trophies and degree certificates including an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California (since closed). Also preserved there, in separate rooms, are cars, boats and train carriages given to, or used by, the leaders.
The Juche Tower plaques and these trophy rooms were a mere foretaste of what we saw at the International Friendship Exhibition.
Here at, and indeed built into, Mt Myohyang are two massive ‘temples’ in traditional Korean style architecture housing around 300,000 gifts bestowed upon the Leaders since 1945. The majority of the gifts were to (and indeed some 20 years after his death he still receives gifts – in his current role as Eternal President of the DPRK) the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. One of the two buildings is dedicated to him.
Kim Jong-il, while not having received as many gifts as his father, still makes a good showing with tens of thousands of gifts to his credit – so far. The current Leader Kim Jong-un has already amassed enough to fill seven rooms.
The process in terms of visiting both ‘temples” is the same – you enter, leave all your worldly possessions (bar your clothes and wallet!) in the cloakroom and don cloth covers over your shoes to protect (or is it assist with polishing?) the marble floors in these extremely lavish buildings.
In terms of what you can take in, and to avoid potential embarrassment, our European guide warned us of the highly sensitive airport type detectors we would have to go through and how, on an earlier visit, a condom in a gentleman visitor’s wallet had been detected, somewhat to his embarrassment. As such condoms, chewing gum, etc were to be left in the cloakroom. Rather ironically a couple of minutes later a stick of chewing gum was detected on the very same guide. Photography was prohibited within the exhibition buildings and I cannot imagine how anyone would get a camera or phone in here – if indeed, a condom can’t get through!
Having made our way through security and having paid homage to massive statues of the leaders in the lobby area we made our way deeper into the mountain through windowless room after windowless room full of gifts which were indeed from all over the world, arranged (in the main) by geographical location. As time would not permit us to see every room we were asked which countries we would like to see. Whether we liked it or not (and we liked it) we would be seeing gifts from China, Africa, Cuba, Russia and the former USSR, Romania, Central America and other left leaning countries in addition to, the United States. In terms of countries selected by our group – obviously everyone wanted to see gifts from their home countries so in addition to a few others we visited rooms or sections dedicated Australia, Canada, UK, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of other West European countries.
While there are few countries in the world not represented here one does have to look closely at who gave the gifts and in what capacity they were given. It comes as no surprise that various Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese heads of state presented gifts as did the likes of Nicolae Ceausescu from Romania and Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi from Libya. Perhaps more surprising are gifts from former US Presidents Carter and Forde and former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. Senior UK politicians have also given gifts but that comes from having (or rather being permitted to have) an embassy in the country. Gifts on display from most western countries come from fairly obscure communist and socialist groups, Juche societies and individuals. As you might also expect, anyone or any company doing business with North Korea is also represented here.
While visitors from outside North Korea can distinguish between donors and separate the official from the non official, North Korean visitors are not in a position to do so and leave believing that all gifts were official gifts from the various countries given through their love for North Korea, its Leaders and its people. The exhibition is primarily directed at North Koreans and not foreign visitors.
The gifts themselves range from the very expensive and well considered to the downright cheap and tacky with the majority of them being at the lower end of this scale.
Writing of the tacky brings to mind a picture ( I can’t recall from where or whom) which the guide, to our merriment, explained had been made from ‘genuine cock fur’. Well what does one say? She, of course, meant chicken feathers!
Perhaps the most famous (for all the wrong reasons) gift, once temporary interest in some basketballs and jerseys recently presented by US basketball player, Dennis Rodman, recedes, is a stuffed crocodile with a serving tray of wooden ‘glasses’ (not to forget the matching ash tray) presented by the leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebels. Clearly the guides know of the world wide notoriety of this particular gift and ensure everyone sees it. Our guide, in total seriousness, did point out that this was a very significant and important gift as it provided evidence that even the animal kingdom sought to serve the Great Leader via this crocodile offering him a drink. The picture below is not mine but is widely available on the internet.
While I could list many more ‘notable’ gifts on display, in addition to that from the Sandinistas, I will restrict myself to the following:
• Nicolae Ceausescu, former Romanian leader – the head of a bear which he personally shot, mounted on a red satin pillow. Stuffed animals seem to be particularly popular gift items from dictators and terrorist organisations. That said, the collection also includes a stuffed bird from US evangelist, Billy Graham!
• Fidel Castro, former Cuban leader – crocodile skin suitcase
• Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State – a basketball signed by Michael Jordan
• Muammar al-Gaddafi, former Libyan leader – metal horseman and ornate chess boards
• Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe leader – an ivory ashtray
• Hwabei Tire Factory in China – a tiny rubber ashtray
• Ted Turner, founder of CNN – paperweights with the CNN logo.
Housed deep in the museum were three extra special gifts from China, the most amazingly lifelike wax statues I have seen in my life – quite stunning pieces. Unsurprisingly the statues were of Kim Il-sung, his first wife Kim Jong-suk and Kim Jong-il. Absolute reverence and bowing was demanded in the three rooms housing these statues. This article contains a picture of the Kim Jong-il statue – http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/04/09/kim-jong-un-elected-kim-jong-il-erected/
While gifts are showered upon the Kims from all quarters they also give gifts but mainly to people within North Korea. Our guide explained that Kim Jong-il was especially generous and in visits to army units he regularly gave out machine guns, automatic rifles and binoculars!
Should I have whetted your appetite for more you will have to make the trip and see them for yourself. Indeed you might even be selected to don white gloves (you are not allowed to touch it) to push open the 4 tonne bronze door (picture 4) to gain entry for your group to the Kim Il-sung collection. Be careful that you don’t upset the guards who carry silver-plated Kalashnikov rifles (picture 3).
Our visit, covering both ‘temples’, lasted 2-3 hours with a short break between the two in a rather nice café cum gift-shop in the first ‘temple’ where we were able to go out onto the balcony and admire the mountain views while having a drink. So impressed was Kim Il-sung by the exhibition and its mountain location that one day while standing on this very balcony he recited a poem he had personally written.
“On the balcony I see the most
glorious scene in the world…
The Exhibition stands here,
its green eaves upturned, to exalt
The dignity of the nation,
and Piro Peak looks higher still.”
And on that poetic note ………………….
This is the last blog entry in group (loop) of entries on my visit to Mt Myohyang, North Korea. I trust you have enjoyed reading about my visit and invite you to partake of another of the loops on my “Travel Loops” page, by clicking HERE.