A few hours North East of Pyongyang sits the beautiful scenic area of Mt. Myohyang, which is also home to the sprawling International Friendship Exhibition. With 150+ rooms, and rumours of 200,000 plus gifts, it offers a rather unique insight into the world of diplomatic gift-giving. Most countries do not put such a range of these items on display, but North Korea, seeking to show how popular their leadership is around the world, has opted to display them all.
The building itself is rather unusual. Constructed in a traditional Korean style, the bulk of the building recedes into the mountainside, giving a Tardis effect as you wander deeper into the rooms containing cabinets, upon cabinets of gifts. Sadly, no photos are allowed inside, meaning very few photos exist from inside these halls.
The curation of this exhibition is also quite interesting. There are some central halls, featuring an international selection of the most impressive gifts, however, tucked away are cabinets arranged by the gifting countries. For example, paying a visit to the cabinets of gifts from the UK provides some interesting insight such as simple gifts from the Royal Family celebrating key weddings and anniversaries, a section of gifts from UK companies and more fascinatingly are the banners and mementos sent by various left-wing British organisations, some in return for the DPRK’s support during various strike actions around the UK in the latter part of the 20th century.
Returning to the central halls, we find more lavish gifts sent from North Korea’s allies and other socialist nations. Everything from gem encrusted and gold plated ornamental weapons from Arabic leaders such as Yasser Araft and Muammar Gaddafi through to stuffed animals from Russia and Romania’s former leader Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Some leaders have also gifted some apparently more practical items, such as armoured chairs and trains from China’s Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin as well as Kim Il-sung’s personal place which was also a gift from the Soviets.
The exhibition is also famous for some of it’s more quirky items, such as a basketball signed by Michael Jordan taking pride of place in one of the central halls, a gift from Madeline Albright during her diplomatic visit to North Korea as US Secretary of State under Bill Clinton. The gift makes more sense when you understand that Kim Jong-il was quite the fan of basketball, passing on this interest to his son eventually leading to Kim Jong-un’s world famous friendship with eccentric basketball player Dennis Rodman.
Despite the vast collection of gifts, our favourite will always be the mysterious inclusion of a Wigan Warriors shirt, Lupine Travel’s hometown Rugby team. After some digging, it emerged that this shirt was gifted to Kim Jong-un by UK member of the Korean Friendship Association, Peter Twigg during a visit to the DPRK.
We currently visit the International Friendship Exhibition on all of our group tours of North Korea, with the occasional exception due to poor road conditions in the mountains in Winter. Alongside these visits we also make a visit to the neighbouring Pohyon temple, an 11th century Buddhist site, one of the most important in the North of Korea and historically a pilgrimage destination. The temple suffered damage during the bombing campaigns of the Korean War, but has been restored to its current glory.