Guard with silver plated AK-47 protects the entrance to the International Friendship Exhibition.
Holding all the gifts ever received by leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the two massive mountain bunker palaces comprising the Myohyang-san International Friendship Exhibition are deservedly one of North Korea’s top sites.
Some of the gifts are notorious: bullet-proof cars from Stalin, a Kim Il Sung life size wax statue (that you are expected to bow to) from the Chinese, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Other gifts are more mundane: medals and plaques from communist friendship societies, nicknacks from diplomats, and TVs, golf bags, and living room sets from various Asian businessmen.
Humble or grand, the gifts on display serve as physical examples of world’s love and admiration for the deceased North Korean leaders – gifts to Mother Kim Jong Suk and Marshall Kim Jong Un are also housed there.
The International Friendship Exhibition holds an astonishing estimated 275,000 gifts – an exact count is digitally displayed in the first hall. Visitors are required to wear cloth booties to prevent dirt from being tracked into the sacred halls as they view the gifts. There is so much to see that groups get to choose continents – I recommend seeing the gifts from Africa and Asia.
Touring the numerous halls of the International Friendship Exhibition is tiring, fortunately there is a a resting pavilion and cafe overlooking a scenic valley for visitors to enjoy at the end of their tour.
KITC guide Miss Han and a local guide having a rest at the viewing pavilion.
Most North Koreans will make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetimes to view the treasures on display at the International Friendship Exhibition. Sacred Mount Paektu, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ),and the capital city of Pyongyang are the other great domestic North Korean pilgrimage sites.
Photography inside the International Friendship Exhibition is strictly forbidden (readers will have to use their imagination), but I was lucky enough to find a rare stamp of my favorite gift, the stuffed crocodile bar set given by the Nicaraguan Sandinista communists, which should give you an insight into the treasures the International Friendship Exhibition safeguards.
I made a PDF photo book about the Pyongyang traffic girls.
Right click and save to download for free – looks great when viewed on an iPad!
The documentary A State of Mind broke ground in 2003 as the first western production to be allowed unrestricted access into Pyongyang, filming in the homes of friends Pak Hyon Sun (age 13) and Kim Song Yun (age 11), and showing insights into their daily life as they trained for gymnastics performances in a run of mass games.
Their determined preparation leading to the film’s “socialist realist extravaganza” mass games finale is fascinating, but I more enjoyed the peeks into the girl’s daily lives: attempts to ditch homework, delight as one girl inherits a room when an older sister joins the army, and a father complaining about his house full of chatty woman.
The filmmakers successfully present a non judgmental viewpoint, but there is no mistaking the reality of a people’s collectivist mindset. Sacrifice of individuality to the needs of the state is the film’s major theme – which is precisely what the mass game and other mass events aim to be the ultimate representation of.
Filmed a decade ago, this is not the DPRK I am firsthand familiar with, but I still love this documentary and consider it required viewing for anyone with an interest in the country. I personally know the director, and although I haven’t met the girls from the film, I have seen behind the scenes photos of them from the production, making this extra special film for me.
You can find A State of Mind on Amazon.com.
In the post 5 Reasons Not To Go To North Korea, the author claims (amongst many other things I strongly disagree with) that travel to the Northeast industrial city of Chongjin is impossible:
You know those tour buses that clutter up every major city in the world? The ones that pull up and regurgitate camera-snapping masses onto the streets of London, Paris, New York and Rome?
Give me one of those any day over a trip to Pyongyang.
You see, you only see what the government allow you to see. That is to say, you see the capital city and all the chintziest sights that the Kim dynasty deem suitable for foreign eyes, the sights that portray their tyrannic regime in the best light possible. Prosperous, modern, robust
Your cameras are checked. You can only take photographs where permitted. You can’t wander down a side street while the rest of your tour group is regaled with tales of double rainbows and icebergs heralding the birth of Kim Jong Il.
You won’t see Cheongjin, the industrial city on the coast that was thoroughly ransacked and ravaged during the famine, North Korea’s second largest. It’s not even on Google maps at present.
This isn’t accurate, Chongjin has been an approved tourist city for some time, the problem has been getting there. Until recently access was only possible by charter flight via Pyongyang, but in 2013 new routes in the Northeast were opened with Chongjin easily visited via either Rason or Namyang.
What exactly would a visitor to North Korea see that hasn’t been seen before?
Will they see the places I’ve listed above? Not unless the government relax their policies regarding where can and cannot be visited, and even under the rule of Kim Jong Un, who appears to be slightly less monstrous than his father, this appears unlikely at present.
Rather, a visitor to North Korea is only going to see what everyone else before them has seen. See the same statues, hear the same stories, walk across the giant streets with barely a car in sight – maybe even catch a military parade of some kind if they’re lucky.
There are so many new places and things to see in the DPRK it’s mind blowing. Join Young Pioneer Tours on one of their Northeast Extreme trips, a cruise out of Rason, Dandong day trips to Sinuiju, or check out the newly opened sites in the town of Pyongsong – there is no excuse for not seeing something new on a trip to North Korea if you are adventures enough to get out of Pyongyang!
Amazing interactions with local kids in the “you won’t see Cheongjin” industrial city of the Northeast:
Last spring I had a chance to visit the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair held at the Three Revolutionary Ideas Exhibition. Entrance was 5 Euros and not everybody in my tour group wanted to visit. Those who didn’t enter got to mingle with locals and eat barbeque pork at an outside food court, but those of us who did visit were treated to an amazing look at North Korean technology and the country’s emerging marketplace.
Luxury Tissot watch booth. Other luxury Swiss items can be found at a shop at the Yanggakdo Hotel.
North Korean Samjiyon Tablet – are their tablets and new smart phones really made in North Korea?
This photo is credited as being the first to confirm the existence of the larger size Samjiyon Tablet.
Flat screen TVs showing the Moranbong Band.
Panasonic in Pyongyang.
Washers, dryers, and refrigerators.
Young woman in revolutionary outfit using North Korean currency at the trade fair.
Want to learn more about business opportunities in the DPRK ? Gareth Johnson, Young Pioneer Tours founder, and I will be heading up to the Rason Special Economic Zone for 3 days of business meetings on Sept 24th. This is not a tourist trip, but for those with serious business interests there is still time to join up. Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org – full itinerary and price to be published shortly.
Crayon drawing of a tank displayed at a Kindergarten in Rason, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
North Koreans are initiated into the wearing of badges and insignia at a young age. In the Rason SEZ I found kindergarten children wearing red star badges as a reward for exemplary performance. Throughout the country regimented middle school children compete for rank; those who win responsibilities, receive and wear arm badges.
The highest ranking student in a class receives an arm badge displaying three bars and three stars, as the boy above is wearing.
These types of badges are not available for tourists at souvenir shops, but I did find them. I purchased several using local North Korean currency at the public market in the Rason Special Economic Zone.
Of the two middle school badges I purchased, the one on the right, two bars and one star, ranks higher than the the one on the left, three stars and one bar. I wore the higher ranking badge on my arm in the DPRK and the locals were absolutely delighted. Women giggled, men posed for pictures with me, and I was repeatedly asked why I only held a mid level rank.
Notice the lower ranking badge in the above picture; after leaving my camera battery charger at the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel and having to return for it, Miss Yu, the North Korean guide, demoted me!
Children from a kindergarten in Rason, North Korea proudly wear red star awards for exceptional daily performance.
Graffiti that I found under a bridge at Inner Mt. Chilbo, North Korea.
Shhhhh, dont tell, but the FBI has infiltrated North Korea!
Actually it’s just a Chinese knockoff hat worn by a North Korean at the Mt. Chilbo Home Stay Village. The man had no idea what the hat signified and seemed bewildered by all the attention and requests for photos – and just to be clear, he was wearing the hat, we didn’t put it on him.
Framed print at the Rason Foreign Language School showing school children stabbing an American GI, Japanese imperialist, and a South Korean running dog.
Jet, apple, ship, star, tank, and pear on a poster at the Sonbong Kindergarten.
Military personnel, unified Korea, and a missile launch on a painted exterior wall at the Sonbong Kindergarten.
The Kim Jong-il statue on Pyongyang’s Mansudae Hill got a new jacket this year: a massive bronze winter parka.
The Mansudae Hill Kim Jong-il statue was originally unveiled to the North Korean people on the April 15th, 2012, the 100th birthday anniversary of eternal President Kim Il-sung. I was among the first group of tourists to visit the statue when the monument was officially reopened to foreigners the following day. The original 2012 Kim Jong-il statue attire included a bronze medium length formal style jacket. Apparently authorities didn’t find the formal jacket representative to late leader’s career, so master artists of the Mansudae Art Studio were tasked to cast a giant copy of the late leader’s iconic winter parka – see Kim Jong-il looking at things.
Time examined Kim Jong-il’s parka and reported the following comments from the North Korean Rodong Sinmun:
“People around the world are attracted to and following not only the jacket our Great Leader is wearing,” Rodong Sinmun wrote in 2010, “but also his attitude, facial expressions, hand gestures, and even his handwriting.” All over the world, the parka was “the most valuable and noble item to have.”
Original Kim Jong-il statue with the 2012 formal bronze jacket.
Framed print of children attacking US soldier snowmen at the Chongjin Kindergarten. I have been told the Korean script on the snowmen says “American bastards” - extreme propaganda for a kindergarten!
This painting of the North Korean missile was also found at this Chongjin Kindergarten.
Update – further details on the translation from my comments: The snowman on the left appears to have “쥐명박” (jui-myeong-bak) written on it. The name of South Korea’s former president is “이명박” (lee-myeong-bak). They have changed the family name of the former president from the original “이” (lee) to “쥐” (jui), which means “rat”. The DPRK often referred to him as a rat and Seoul as a rat’s nest. Nice find, Captain!
North Koreans love to dress their children in mock military uniforms – below are pictures of boys in uniform proudly posing for my camera at the Pyongyang Rungna Dolphinarium fun fair.
The Korean War era American G.I. clown is alive and well at the Pyongyang Military Circus. Performed while the nets for the trapeze grand finale are being rigged, the skit always portrays the G.I. as the butt of jokes and as a helpless buffoon. The skit changes with time, one past visitor reported seeing a performance where the G.I. repeatedly had his plate of dinner hidden on him by a cunning South Korean military cook. The skit I watched had the G.I. beat up by a South Korean street bum with 4 legs. Why 4 legs? I assume the audience is meant to see the action via the perspective of the drunken American soldier, which of course is blurred, confused, and absolutely absurd.
And no, this is not a real American G.I., but a North Korean soldier with a fake nose and a heavy makeup job.
A great film about my favorite ladies, A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is newly out with English subtitles on Youtube. In The DPRK the film is described as a romantic comedy, and while through a western perspective I found it neither, the film still provides a unique look into North Korean culture via their domestic film industry.
The Moranbong Band – Kim Jong-un’s hand picked all female band is currently all the rage in the DPRK. Check out the song Donsume starting 30:57 for the sexiest destruction of the USA imaginable.
Painting of the North Korea’s recent successful missile launch at a Chongjin Kindergarten.
Propaganda? Or a celerbrarion of a milestone in North Korea’s technological advancement?
As the western media whips up fear of a North Korean nuclear armageddon, people in Pyongyang are water skiing the Taedong River – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Michael Bassett, constructivist DPRK analyst, US Senatorial consultant, and retired US Army Tank Commander/Platoon Sergeant, gets a hug with a North Korean army commander last week on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone – real world diplomacy through foreign tourism in North Korea.
While the American media beats the war drums, and our citizens panic under a perceived nuclear missile threat, the citizens of Pyongyang, North Korea go on with their lives.
Girls rollerblading on the banks of the Taedong River.
Boys rollerblading near the Arch of Triumph.
Photos from my March 30th – April 6th 2013 trip to North Korea.
Lots of insightful opinions and analysis from top DPRK watchers and North Korea travel industry experts in James Griffith’s article on the ethics of traveling to North Korea:
North Korea, one of the world’s last remaining closed societies and perennial geopolitical troll, is on many world travellers’ bucket list. Few places are as unique or just downright weird as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The DPRK’s attraction as a tourist destination aside, is it ethical to visit a society completely under the control of a dictatorial regime?
My photos are used throughout the article – continue reading here.
The article shows that the majority of experts interviewed believe travel and interaction with North Korea serve as a positive instrument for change - glad I’m with the cool crowd on that one.
Checkout the podcast we recorded from inside North Korea during the 2012 celebratory week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary.
North Koreans celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square - photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Top North Korean scientists split the atom – photo by Joseph A Ferris III