N. Korea’s Kim Showing His 87,387 Gifts


What do you buy the Communist who has everything?

Some of the major figures of the Communist world, from Josef Stalin to Mao Tse-tung, from Fidel Castro to Erich Honecker, must have scratched their heads over that question before selecting a gift for North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung.

The presents they eventually settled on are now displayed for all to see at the International Friendship Exhibition Hall north of Pyongyang.

Kremlin leader Stalin was clearly a man of the grand gesture, picking out a sleek black limousine and a custom-built railway car to cement fraternal ties with a man whose personality cult has surpassed even his own.


Not to be outdone by his rival for influence on the Korean Peninsula, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao matched Stalin with another train car as the last word in 1950s traveling luxury.

What is probably the largest museum of gifts in Asia, if not the world, houses a staggering 87,387 items, each labeled and described in English and Korean.

Who would have thought of a cuddly teddy bear to present to the former guerrilla fighter and now leader of the world’s fifth-largest army? Answer: The Free German Youth league of the former German Democratic Republic.

As an added flourish, the German youngsters dressed the furry bear in a bright blue blazer with the badge of their movement sewn proudly onto the breast pocket.

Naturally, in a collection of gifts this large, many are dull and repetitive. There are plates enough to serve a sit-down dinner to North Korea’s army officer corps, and almost enough vases to decorate the tables with cut flowers.

Cigarette lighters, ashtrays, walking sticks and pen sets are other standbys from socialist nations where imagination and perhaps a sense of humor are in short supply.

It took the Latin flair of Nicaragua’s Sandinista guerrillas to dream up the idea for a present that for sheer chutzpah beats the lot.

The left-wing rebels gave Kim a three-foot-long grinning alligator rearing up on its hind legs and balancing a tray of wine glasses in its front claws, like a cocktail waitress serving a table of regulars.

It is said that gifts tell as much about the giver as they do about the receiver, and so it’s a credit to former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev that he alone thought of Mrs. Kim Il Sung.

The dour Brezhnev gave a touchingly personal gift of matching jewelry and fashion accessories for him and her--a necklace, bracelet, hair clips, tie pins, cuff links and cigarette holders crafted from amber.

Gifts have been sorted by country rather than historical sequence, size or value and placed in glass cases spread throughout the 100 rooms on five floors.

There is a porcelain cow from Denmark, bronzes from Benin, spears from Zambia, pewter from Malaysia. And from Hong Kong, an all-too-predictable solid gold Rolex watch.

Disgraced former East German Communist leader Honecker sent a short dagger and a snub-nosed revolver.

Indeed, browsing through the vast collection of objects, it’s hard not to feel an occasional shudder as you consider the fate of some of the senders. Democratic changes that have swept Pyongyang’s former allies in Eastern Europe have added a poignancy to the list of names.

Former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, executed by firing squad in December, 1989, is recalled by a severed bear’s head that he chose and which has been mounted on a blood-red cushion.

Space devoted to China and the Soviet Union, North Korea’s two giant Communist neighbors, is vast, while the contribution from the United States, supporter of rival South Korea, amounts to little more than a forlorn butterfly collection given by the National Black United Front.

Many of the exhibits are from a more recent era, gifts for Kim’s son and designated political heir Kim Jong Il, known as the “Dear Leader.”