North Korea's International Friendship Exhibition Hall – North Pyongan Province, North Korea - Atlas Obscura

North Korea's International Friendship Exhibition Hall

North Pyongan Province, North Korea

A bizarre collection of gifts to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il from the despots of the world. 


If you are an iron-fisted despot or terrorist organization, what do you get another tyrannical dictator as a gift? It would seem, judging from North Korea’s “International Friendship Exhibition Hall” that going with a dead animal is always a safe bet.

Located in the UN recognized biosphere reserve of Mount Myohyang, North Korea’s “International Friendship Exhibition Hall” is an exercise in contradictions. First off, for North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world, having an “International Friendship Exhibition Hall” itself is a bit of a contradiction. In essence, it amounts to an enormous collection of gifts given to Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il by various other communist, terrorist, and despotic regimes.

Among the over 100,000 items gifted to the Kims are: Green railway cars from Mao and Stalin, a bronze tank from the USSR headquarters in East Germany, a gold cigarette case from Yugoslavia’s Tito,a 25-watt boombox from the People’s Republic of China Communist Party which seems kind of cheap, considering, a gem-encrusted silver sword and reproduction of a Moslem mosque from Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat, and an antique gramophone from China’s first premier Zhou Enlai.

This isn’t to say the US has never given anything. Yet another of the contradictions of the “International Friendship Exhibition Hall” is that gifts have indeed been given by the democratic western world, albeit only a few, and are proudly displayed. The circumstances of the gifts from the US are unknown and probably date to Kim Il Sung’s era, but include a book, vase, and mirror, three pewter and silver pieces, and two homemade art objects. One can’t help but wonder who made these “art objects” and what they could possibly be. Among the other gifts from the west is a basketball signed by Micheal Jordan, and given (for what reason it is unclear) by Madeleine Albright.

One of the more bizarre gifts are perfect copies of the black limousine cruisers seen in “The Untouchables” from Soviet leaders Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganina. Obviously less concerned with impressing North Korea, Gorbachev sent only a Glass vase with the Communist star on it. Mongolia sent silver chopsticks, while the Chairman of the Journalist Association of Kuwait sent a pen set.

From various Industrialists trying to woo Kim Jong Il: a robot drink server, wooden mace, astronaut’s suit, Sony Walkman, Casio keyboard, Yamaha organ, football signed by Pele, and an old Apple computer – which seems like someone might have just been getting rid of their trash – and once again with a somewhat unimpressive display, a tiny rubber ashtray from the Hwabei Tire Factory in China.

But by far the most popular theme for gifts given by one dictator to another is taxidermy. Fidel Castro gave a crocodile-skin briefcase, and Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator who was overthrown and killed by his own people, gave a bear head mounted on a red satin pillow. Lebanon gave Water buffalo-horn handles and the president of Tanzania gave an ivory lion. The National Black United Front gave Kim a small butterfly collection, at some point Canada gave North Korea a polar bear skin, and someone gave a tiger claw positioned as to be tearing through an American map.

Of course, the most creative and unusual of the gifts belongs not to a dictator or even a head of state, but naturally, a revolutionary. The Sandinistas of Nicaragua donated an upright grinning alligator, holding out a wooden tray of cocktail glasses. It comes with a matching ashtray.

While to an outsider the museum represents a bizarre collection, with a remarkable amount of kitsch, ashtrays, and uninteresting consumer goods, it is not outsiders that are the intended audience. North Koreans have almost no contact with the outside world, and this is one place in which they are allowed to see many of the goods from around the world. The aim is to convince them that their leaders are universally admired and lavished with gifts.

One of the hall’s guards is quoted as having noted the basketball signed by Micheal Jordan and saying “When the general plays with that ball, it proves that he controls the whole world in his hands.” For that North Korean Guard, Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, really does hold the whole world in his hands.

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