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International friendships

DPRK (and Beijing) Day eighteen


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International Friendship Exhibition

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On the way to the International Friendship Exhibition

After breakfast in the Wedgewood blue Banqueting Room of the Hyangsan Hotel (omelette and a mountain of toast!) we drove the short distance to the International Friendship Exhibition.

Here two vast buildings set into the mountainside, climate controlled and windowless, 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. 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.

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Kim Il Sung building

The buildings are protected by honour guards armed with silver-plated Kalashnikovs, and we were allowed to take photos outside but not close-ups of the guards (although using a zoom lens didn't appear to be a problem).

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Entrance to the Kim Il Sung building, with honour guard

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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 our group, the ‘other’ Chris, 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.

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Chris opening the door (with obligatory white gloves!)

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Door detail

Inside all cameras and most other belongings had to be left in the cloakroom, so to a large extent you will have to take my word for it that a visit here is a pretty astounding experience – although having splashed out on the souvenir book in the gift shop I feel it’s not unreasonable to share a few scans here (you can also find the full book online on the DPRK publications website at http://www.korean-books.com.kp/KBMbooks/en/album//00000436.pdf). The security checks were fairly perfunctory compared with those at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, although we did have to walk through metal detectors.

Our local 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 to Kim Il Sung, many to his son, quite a few to his grandson and more 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, 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!

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Foyer of the International Friendship Exhibition
~ from souvenir book

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. 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 – maybe 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.

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Kim Il Sung building entrance hall
~ from souvenir book

We spent most 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 – although lingering wasn’t encouraged or even possible, given that the lights were switched on as we walked into each room and off again immediately we left.

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One of many long corridors
~ from souvenir book

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 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

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Mammoths given by the General Manager,
SBK Group Russia, Jan 2014

~ both images from souvenir book

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Bronze Buddha given by the Delegation of the Study Forum for Self-Reliance, Nepal, April 2014

  • 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

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Cars given by various donors - the one from Stalin at the front
~ from souvenir book

  • 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 - and Billy Graham!

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Silver tea service given by Ho Chi Minh, Oct 1955
~ from souvenir book

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 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.

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Water buffalo horn sailing boat given by
the Vietnam Govt, Nov 1958

~ from souvenir book

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Crystal vase given by the
General Manager Arab Contractors Company
Kuwait, Jan 2013

~ from souvenir book


The display case of gifts from the U.K. was perhaps unsurprisingly small, but 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.

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Observation car given by Stalin, Dec 1948

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Observation car given by Mao Zedong, Nov 1953

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Il-14 aircraft given by the Communist Party and government of USSR, Sept 1958
~ all from souvenir book


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 just last year. Our guides talked positively about the dialogue between the two and the potential for an improved relationship with the US, in marked contrast to the rhetoric we had heard elsewhere, e.g. at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

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Conference table and chairs given by the President of a Chinese company,
and photos of Kim Jong Un with world leaders

~ from souvenir book

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.

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Views from 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 wonder 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.’

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Roof details
~ 'green eaves upturned'

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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.

When we had shopped and drunk and rested, we walked across to the smaller building housing gifts presented to Kim Jong Il.

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Kim Jong Il building

We spent much less time here, most of it in the rooms displaying gifts from Europe. There were a large number from the USSR – not 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.

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Kim Jong Il introduction hall
~ from souvenir book


Again there was a gift from Regent 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).

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Selection of gifts presented to Kim Jong Il
~ from souvenir book

A relaxing afternoon – for some!

By now it was time for lunch, so we said goodbye to our enthusiastic and rather sweet local guide and drove the short distance back to the hotel for the meal.

In the afternoon there was the option to go for a hike in the mountains, which Chris took, but I opted for a relaxing afternoon catching up on my notes, sorting photos and meeting some of the other non-hikers for a mid-afternoon cocktail in the bar and a chat.

I also ventured just outside the hotel to take a few photos. My plan had been to stay firmly within the grounds, as per instructions, but our young guide, who hadn't joined the hikers (I suspect he had been given the job of keeping an eye on those who stayed behind) saw me leaving and offered to accompany me. I could, he told me, go as far as the bridge just beyond the hotel entrance if I were with him, so we did. I attempted to teach him the very English game of 'Pooh Sticks' but of course the bridge had been swept clean by either hotel staff or local 'volunteers' and there were few sticks to be found. I don't think my young companion quite got it!

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The Hyangsan Hotel from the entrance

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Map of the hike
~ taken by Chris

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View from the bridge

Chris meanwhile enjoyed the hike which he described as ‘excellent but challenging’ (and bear in mind that unlike me he is very fit and used to walking). He was surprised however to find that, far from the rural peace and quiet he’d expected, there were quite a few groups of North Koreans (on a short tour from Pyongyang, we were told) who were playing music and dancing at the various rest-stops and viewpoints. He of course took lots of photos and has passed on some for me to share here.

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Hiking on Mount Myohyang
~ all photos taken by Chris

Barbecue evening

When Chris returned we freshened up and went to the bar for a pre-dinner drink with some of the others. Dinner was a barbecue in the hotel’s outdoor restaurant. We had a great evening with good company, good food (the best meat of the trip, in my opinion, with wild boar and lamb skewers) and good drink, including the local rice wine, soju.

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Barbecue evening at the Hyangsan Hotel
~ Carl, Peter and Val

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Barbecue evening at the Hyangsan Hotel
~ the rest of the gang

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The barbecue

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Chris and me
~ taken by Jane

I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!

Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.

This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.

Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:29 Archived in North Korea Tagged mountains food hiking history hotel museum north_korea barbecue dprk kim_il_sung kim_jong_il international_friendship_exhibi Comments (12)

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