Birthday boy Kim Jong-il needs a mountain to house his gifts
By Jack Kim
A perk for being the leader of a country for as long as you want is you get to build a gift collection from other world leaders, business moguls and masters of the arts so large that you can’t keep them in your house.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il celebrated his 67th birthday on Monday and was showered with even more gifts.
Kim and his father Kim Il-sung, the North’s state founder, have accumulated hundreds of thousands of gifts over the years and since there is no mantelpiece big enough to display them all, they have built a special museum that is carved into a mountain to house them all. I was part of a group of South Korean civic activists, academics and journalists taken to the museum during a trip to North Korea last November.
Covering a sprawling compound by the scenic Mount Myohang, about a two-hour drive north of the capital, Pyongyang, the highlight of the International Friendship Exhibition is two imposing marble structures with ornate jade coloured file roofs that are dug deep into the hills.
Stored in the climate controlled buildings are gifts ranging from a stuffed crocodile standing up holding a tray of cups to a globe encircled by doves sent from U.S. evangelist Billy Graham. We were not allowed to take pictures during the trip, but you can see some of the gifts here
Kim has been seeing his collection expand further this week with gifts arriving from a Russian dance company, the Syrian defence minister and the head of the communist party of Britain.
Covering 46,000 square metres (495,000 sq ft), the massive buildings feature hundreds of rooms linked by a labyrinth of halls, housing items that a guide told us would require 18 months to view, even by taking a mere minute per item.
Other items on display include a clock sent from a Japanese women’s association made from 20 layers of wild boar skin, a calendar of the Aztec civilisation sent by the Mexican labour party, and a vintage Hyundai sedan given by the late founder of the South Korean conglomerate.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright brought a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan when she visited the North in 2000, not housed at the museum and can be seen by special request.
Then there is a small collection of items that were definitely not welcome because they came from three conservative former South Korean presidents but still put on display as a lesson on what not to do in gift giving.
“What you see here are items from people who have no idea about giving gifts,” a suddenly bereft guide told the visitors, pointing to a small cabinet housing tea sets, chinaware and calligraphy pens from the three South Korean leaders.
[File photos of museum in North Korea where gifts are kept and a pavillion displaying pictures of Kim Jong-il]