The exhibition house is filled with gifts from 184 countries
China and Russia are the biggest donors
In 2000, Madeleine Albright gave Kim Jong Il a silver dish and a basketball signed by Michael Jordan
Struggling for a present for the man who has everything?
How about a skinned bear?
This was just one of the thousands of thoughtful gifts on display that had been given to the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.
A present from former Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, the bear takes a place of pride in an exhibition house in Hyangsan, three hours north of the capital, Pyongyang.
Officially named the International Friendship Exhibition House, the exhibition hall is on the official tourist route and crammed full of vases, canvases, military paraphernalia and more unusual gifts.
Displayed are 112,225 gifts for Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un from 184 different countries.
By far the biggest donors are China and Russia, and most notably the communist former USSR.
The tour begins
A soldier stands guard on both sides of the impressively large entrance door and any cameras, phones and even pads and pens are promptly taken away. The tour can then begin.
In the introduction hall, the eye is drawn instantly to a domineering white stone carving of Kim Il Sung sitting in a chair. I am told the Eternal President still receives many posthumous gifts.
Under the ornate and pricey-looking chandeliers are glass cabinets containing some of the more important gifts.
The official commentary says, “enemy countries too sent a lot of gifts to president Kim Il Sung and respected Kim Jong Il, impressed by their great personality and virtues.”
Gifts from the “enemy”
Sure enough, there are a couple of gifts from the “enemy country” the United States.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave Kim Jong Il a silver dish when she visited in October 2000. The two countries were enjoying a lull in tensions at the time.
In addition, Albright gave a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. Kim Jong Il was reported to be a huge fan of the NBA star.
There is also a bowl from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife who visited in 1994 under the guise of a private trip.
Of course, these gifts look rather paltry when I entered the next room and saw an actual train – a gift from the communist leader of the USSR in 1945. I then noticed the car Stalin gave to Kim Il Sung during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Not to be outdone, in 1953, Chairman Mao Zedong of China also gave the North Korean leader a train.
According to the souvenir DVD from the gift shop, 3.7 million visitors have walked through the building’s doors from its opening in 1978 until 2010, almost half a million of whom were foreigners or South Koreans. I see a number of North Koreans filing through at the same time as me.
Still lacking inspiration for that hard-to-buy-for person from what you’ve read so far? How about a fossilized snail, given by a former Prime Minister of Madagascar or ivory tusks from Guinea?
The tour guide insists most of the ivory in the world is housed in this exhibition, a claim that sounds a little far-fetched but given everything else that I have seen, somehow wholly appropriate.