International friendships in North Korea
Among the mountains to the north of Pyongyang two vast edifices are set into a mountainside. Climate controlled and windowless, the International Friendship Exhibition buildings house thousands of gifts presented to the Great Leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, both during and after their lifetimes, and more than a few given to Kim Jong Un.
Of course it isn’t unusual for national leaders to be given gifts by those of other countries; indeed, protocol demands that gifts are exchanged on state visits etc. It’s presumably also pretty common for many others to give gifts. Perhaps in thanks for services or support received; or hoping for such support; or simply in admiration of achievements. What is less common is to build a huge complex in which to display every such gift, large or small, and open it to viewing by all. The assumption in the way the gifts are received by the Kims is of course that all were given out of admiration; and one of the main aims of this impressively huge collection must be to demonstrate to visiting North Koreans how much their Leaders are loved and respected all around the world.
Kim Il Sung’s gifts
The first building, housing Kim Il Sung’s gifts, was inaugurated in August 1978; the similar but somewhat smaller building devoted to Kim Jong Il’s gifts was added later.
The buildings are protected by honour guards armed with silver-plated Kalashnikovs. Our local guide mentioned the extreme solidity and heaviness of the rather magnificent doors (the souvenir book says that they weigh four tons) and invited one of us to see if he was strong enough to open them. This was clearly a ‘trick’ that the guides play on every group, as the door opened smoothly and easily.
Inside all cameras and most other belongings had to be left in the cloakroom. There were security checks on entry, and we had to walk through metal detectors. So for the most part you will have to take my word for it that a visit here is a pretty astounding experience. However having splashed out on the souvenir book in the gift shop I feel it’s not unreasonable to share a few scans here, with apologies for the quality of some. You can find the full book online on the DPRK publications website if you’re keen to see even more!
Our guide started by pointing out a map showing the 188 countries from which gifts have been received; from presidents and royalty, government departments, organisations and companies, and from individuals. To date 116,144 gifts have been presented (some official sources say even more, over 200,000!) and are housed here. The majority were given to Kim Il Sung, many to his son, quite a few to his grandson and more are being added all the time! There are also some given posthumously to Kim Jong Suk, the wife of Kim Il Sung who died in 1949.
The guide told us that if you spent one minute looking at each gift in the museum it would take you a year to see them all. But my calculations work it out at 80 days if you’re looking day and night, or 241 days based on an eight-hour day; still a long time but not quite a year. But apparently the gifts keep coming so no doubt it won’t be long before the full year is required!
Needless to say we did not spend a year here, or even a day, so in the course of our morning visit we barely scratched the surface. We spent most of our time in just a few of the many rooms in the building devoted to Kim Il Sung’s gifts. Some items were proudly pointed out by our guide; but there was also time in some rooms to search out a few for ourselves.
The gifts on display range from the fabulous to the tacky, via just plain odd or nondescript. Here’s a list of some that caught my eye, in no particular order:
- A detailed ivory carving, about three feet long, of Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, in Mangyongdae, given by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party
- A poster given by the son of the Cambodian Head of State depicting the countries of Indo-China sweeping the US out of the region with a broom
- A stuffed caiman perched on its hind legs and offering a tray of drinks, donated by the Nicaraguan Sandinista Party
A crystal vase given by the General Manager Arab Contractors Company Kuwait, Jan 2013; and a water buffalo horn sailing boat presented by the government of Vietnam, Nov 1958
- A massive model of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, made from gold-plated wood, given by China
- Various other impressive gifts from China including a stunning large embroidered picture of cranes, a model of a terracotta warrior in a horse and cart, a 1958 radio and a hi-fi system
- A bullet-proof car, a gift from Stalin in 1950, during the Korean War; our guide told us that Kim Il Sung refused to use it until after the war as he didn’t want to have better protection than the brave soldiers who were fighting for freedom
- A model of the Pyongyang Juche Tower perched on the top of a globe, i.e. at the North Pole, presented by the crew of a Japanese vessel
- A model of the space shuttle on its launcher, with both rebranded as CCCR (USSR) rather than USA
- A bracelet made from metal from the 1,000 US planes shot down during the Laos-US war, given (naturally) by Laos
- A bearskin from former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu
- Gifts from Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Yasser Arafat, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, President Tito; oh, and, bizarrely, Billy Graham*
One long corridor was lined with photographs of animals from all over the world. I at first though that a photo of, say, a lion or panda was a poor gift but soon realised that the lion and panda themselves were the gifts and are now living (hopefully) in the Central Zoo we had driven past in Pyongyang. The photos were here simply to ensure that every gift received was included in the display in some way.
The display case of gifts from the U.K. was perhaps unsurprisingly small. It included a plate commemorating the Miners’ Strike and the small crystal vase presented by our tour company, Regent Holidays.
On a much grander scale were the train carriages gifted by Stalin and Mao; and the Ilyushin 14 aircraft presented, again by Stalin, in 1958, to mark the 12th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK.
From the top: the observation car presented by Mao Zedong, Nov 1953; the observation car presented by Stalin, Dec 1948; and the Il-14 aircraft presented by the Communist Party and government of USSR, Sept 1958
Three rooms are dedicated to wax statues of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Suk (wife of Kim Il Sung), in each of which we were asked to line up and pay our respects with the by now customary bow.
One room had a series of photos of Kim Jong Un meeting various world leaders, including Donald Trump the previous year. Our guides talked positively about the dialogue between the two and the potential for an improved relationship with the US. It made a marked contrast to the rhetoric we had heard elsewhere, e.g. at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
At the end of our tour of these ‘few’ highlights from the collection in this first building, we were allowed to retrieve our cameras from the cloakroom before being escorted to the sixth floor where there is an outdoor terrace with mountain views and a simple coffee stall.
Most of us bought a coffee and many visited the gift-shop; most to buy the aforementioned museum booklet so that we would have a visual record of our visit. I often wonder whether photography bans are in place to encourage the purchase of books and postcards, but that may be too commercial a notion for North Korea? And at least photos were permitted out here on the balcony.
The views were lovely, and it would have been very pleasant to be outside in the fresh air for a while (the buildings have no windows and are climate controlled, i.e. a little chilly!) were it not for the large group of Chinese tourists also here, most of whom were smoking. I wondered if Kim Il Sung had that problem when he wrote his poem about this spot:
‘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.’Kim Il Sung
The Kims by the way are lauded for their ability to turn their hands to anything. From factory design to opera composition; from apple farming to poetry; from engineering to education – their skills are far-reaching and diverse.
Kim Jong Il’s gifts
When we had shopped and drunk and rested, we walked across to the smaller building housing gifts presented to Kim Jong Il.
We spent much less time here, most of it in the rooms displaying gifts from Europe. There were a large number from the USSR, which wasn’t surprising perhaps. But I was surprised to see several religious icons among them and also a set of non-traditional Russian dolls carrying images of Stalin, Boris Yeltsin and Putin.
Again there was a gift from Regent Holidays in the U.K. section, a glass paperweight, and also one from our tour leader Carl and his wife: a set of British coins minted in 1942, the year of Kim Jong Il’s birth (according to the North Korean version of events; most external authorities have it as 1941).
By the time we finished here the morning was over. We said goodbye to our enthusiastic and rather sweet local guide and left, our eyes overloaded with the sheer number and variety of objects displayed. What truly special people the two Kims must have been, to be so loved and so overwhelmed with gifts!
* Billy Graham visited the country in 1992 as part of his crusade to convert Communist countries to Christianity. He lectured at Kim Il Sung University and had a personal meeting with Kim Il Sung. The Washington Post has an interesting article about their relationship.
I visited North Korea in 2019
Wow, this was a really interesting story. I had no idea you could tour places like this in North Korea. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Kat 🙂 You can tour a lot of surprising places in North Korea, provided you do so with a guide. They want to show you all the best aspects of life there! We went to an apple farm, mushroom farm, secondary school, kindergarten, rifle shooting range, watersports centre … 😆
such an interesting visit to a place that probably few other people have gone to. To have an entire museum dedicated to the gifts received over such a period of time is impressive and would be such a different look into relationships between world leaders.
Pre-pandemic North Korea actually received quite a few tourists, albeit nearly all of them from China. Most reports suggest a few thousand non-Chinese pre-pandemic, and I believe our own UK-based tour company, Regent Holidays, used to take around 100 people a year in total across various tours.
As an American (even today on Canada Day!), I am amazed at being able to freely visit North Korea even if you were accompanied throughout by Korean guides who ensured you followed all the rules.
Pre-pandemic it really wasn’t an issue for us, although of course relatively few people went there. The company we travelled with used to run five or six tours a year I think.
What an impressive collection!!
Yes – over-the-top impressive!!
Aren’t you glad you’re not a VIP obliged to give house room to a vast range of on the whole useless objects? Even the useful ones don’t get used, I suppose! Or the attractive ones displayed.
Haha yes! The useful ones here certainly aren’t used now but I believe some, like the cars and plane, were when Kim Il Sung was alive.
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Another super interesting post, Sarah! I (Kellye) have to wonder if you were ever afraid while touring North Korea. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you Kellye 🙂 No, never afraid and we always felt completely safe. We travelled with a very experienced English guide (Carl from Regent Holidays) who has visited the country 20+ times and knows the ropes perfectly. Plus, we were always with our two North Korean guides too – you aren’t allowed to go anywhere without a local guide. The main one of those was lovely and relatively lenient in terms of photography rules tec., but we were always clear about what was permitted and what wasn’t. Anyone who gets into any sort of trouble over there must do so knowing exactly what they are doing, there’s no risk of doing so by accident. Plus tourists are regarded as special guests and really well looked-after so again you never feel in any danger as you might in some other countries.
Your whole Korea trip has always sounded amazing. It must have been startling to view all of these gifts from around the world, on top of everything else you saw and did out there.
It was mind-boggling – and especially to realise that we were only seeing a tiny fraction of the collection!