Kim Jong Il Gets the Gifts, and All North Korea Ends Up Paying

Bradley Martin

For decades, tourists visiting North Korea have been brought to a 200-room, 70,000-square-meter palace completed in 1978 that displays presents to Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader,” who died in 1994.

Starting with Joseph Stalin’s 1945 gift of a bulletproof railway carriage, the items include a stuffed bird from American evangelist Billy Graham and a piece of the Berlin Wall donated by a German writer.

These days most visiting foreign dignitaries bring gifts for Kim’s eldest son and successor, Kim Jong Il, 65. The junior Kim’s loot is housed in a 20,000-square-meter (215,278-square- foot) annex that was completed in 1996 — a time when a famine was starving tens of thousands of North Koreans.

Why would the country have spent vast sums on four-ton bronze doors and polished marble floors? “Our people couldn’t display all these precious gifts in a poor palace,” says tour guide Hong Myong Gun. “So we built this palace with our best.”

The gifts in the windowless “International Friendship Exhibition” at Mt. Myohyang, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Pyongyang, range from the trivial to the grandiose.

Cable News Network founder Ted Turner donated paperweights with the CNN logo. A tribal chief in Nigeria offered a throne featuring carved lions, with matching crown and walking stick. Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu brought the stuffed head of a bear he had hunted and killed.

Giving and Receiving

In Asia, the protocol of gift-giving has been well established since Chinese emperors began expecting visitors to bear tribute. The Chinese know how to give as well as to receive: Pride of place in the exhibit goes to one of their presents, a life-sized wax figure of Kim Il Sung standing on a three-dimensional representation of a lake shore.

Reverent music, calculated to induce bowing, plays in the background of the posthumous gift, the final exhibit viewed by visitors to the hall.

The elder Kim’s title of President for Eternity makes him the world’s only dead head of state, and Hong says he continues to receive gifts. As of last year, his presents numbered 221,411.

“No other president could draw so many presents, so our people live in pride,” she says. “Except for this place, where can you see such a sight?”

The annex for Kim Jong Il, whose titles include secretary general of the Workers’ Party and chairman of the Military Commission, houses 55,423 additional presents, Hong says. As with his father’s gifts, most of them were never used but were immediately donated to the exhibition.

A Dynasty Sedan

Some highlights in the annex: a 1998 luxury sedan from the founder of South Korea’s Hyundai group — the model named, appropriately enough, Dynasty — and two roomfuls of carved, gilded furniture from South Korea’s Ace Bed Co.

From time to time, groups of uniformed soldiers troop past to see the gifts. A high percentage of them are five feet tall or shorter. In the 1990s, North Korea reduced the minimum height for military service to 148 centimeters (4 foot 9 inches) from 150 centimeters and the minimum weight to 43 kilograms (95 pounds) from 48 kilograms, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

A 2004 World Food Program nutritional survey found that 37 percent of North Korean children suffered chronic malnutrition. The state “bears central responsibility” for the shrinking of North Koreans, says Marcus Noland of Washington’s Peterson Institute for International Economics, co-author of a new book about the famine.

Freeing Up Foreign Exchange

“As aid began arriving, the North Koreans cut commercial food imports, freeing up foreign exchange,” Noland said in an e-mail exchange.

The saved money was used to purchase surplus military aircraft from Kazakhstan and to build monuments “to the recently departed Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son,” Noland says. If the regime had maintained the rate of commercial food imports during the 1990s, using aid as a supplement instead of a substitute, he says, “the famine could have been avoided.”

Noland estimates the death toll at 600,000 to 1 million; others have said as many as 4 million people may have died.

Tour guide Hong, 27, places the blame elsewhere. “From 1993 to 2000 our people suffered from countless natural disasters and also from other pressure in the economic field owing to the U.S. aggressors,” she says, referring to sanctions. Even during such hardships, she says, constructing the annex with the best materials was “the greatest desire of our people.”

As she speaks, there is a brief power blackout, a frequent occurrence in the energy-short country. When the lights come back on, Hong continues.

“Our people are very grateful because the Great Leader Kim Jong Il sent all the gifts here for the people to look at freely,” she says. “It was our duty to preserve them and show them to the new generation.”


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