90,000 ways to Love a Leader

Every April, the world screeches to a halt, as tributes flow for Kim Il Sung, Greatest Leader on Earth. Well, not exactly. But North Korea, already kind of comatose, slows even further as the propaganda picks up pace and the privileged pay pilgrimage to the pitiful International Friendship Exhibition Hall.

By Ron Gluckman /Mt. Myohyang, North Korea

WHAT DO YOU GIVE THE DICTATOR who has absolutely everything?

The dilemma needn't cause even a moment's melancholy thanks to the foresight of North Korea's Kim Il Sung. Once the longest reigning ruler on Earth, even after his demise, the self-proclaimed "Great Leader," has left behind the world's longest gift list to help admirers shop for his annual birthday on April 15.

Does the world love and revere the wacky leader? You bet. How else to explain 90,000 tokens of esteem at Kim Il's International Friendship Exhibition Hall. The opulent six-story temple in the northwestern hills of this hermit kingdom house what may be the largest gift museum on the planet. It's undoubtedly the Great Leader's greatest ego trip.

Warhorses of the communist world set aside conservative habits to go on a shopping spree for Kim. Mao and Stalin sent railway carriages. Fidel Castro contributed a crocodile-skin briefcase. Former Soviet prime ministers Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin dispatched sleek black limousines, copies of the cruisers seen in "The Untouchables."

Gorbachev sent a glass vase, decorated with the Red Star that has fallen from flags everywhere, but still flies high in North Korea, the stubborn final frontier of staunch socialism. Yet Kim isn't above a little free-market flattery, even from stateless suitors.

Among the most persistent present-bearers has been Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat, who sent a gem-encrusted silver sword and reproduction of a Moslem mosque in sparkling mother of pearl.

Libyan leader Khadafi won't dispatch the Pan Am bombers, but he did gift-wrap a metal horseman and several ornate chess boards. Chinese revolutionary Zhou Enlai sent an antique gramophone, suitable for any reunion of the old Communist Party.

A shiver climbs the spine as one surveys the dagger and revolver sent by former East German leader Honecker. Eerier yet is the offering of Kim's close friend, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Romanian ruler, overthrown and executed in 1989, contributed a bear's head, which looks all the more prophetic mounted on blood red cushion.

But there is no need to inject political commentary into this display of idol worship. After all, Kim has long outpaced Mao and even Elvis Presley in the art of self-promotion. His image peers from billboards beside every road and major building, from big bronze statues in every city. And, should you forget his face for even a second, there it is on the lapel pin worn by every citizen in this isolated land. Newscasts carry nothing but Kim's propaganda and radios and TVs are wired to remain tuned to the state-run stations.

From all vantage points in this last outpost of utter insanity, Kim Il Sung looms larger than life. The Kim Il Sung University stocks over a hundred volumes credited to the Great Leader. In the capital of Pyongyang, you sit in the Kim Il Sung plaza and survey other signs of the leader's greatness: the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which would be the world's tallest hotel instead of the most bizarre boondoogle should it ever be finished and open; the Arch of Triumph, an exact copy, only larger than that other one in Paris; and the supreme tribute to Kim's greatness, the Tower of the Juche Idea, a 170-meter obelisk topped with a torch.

Inside the tower are plaques from 50 study groups in 85 countries dedicated to the Juche ideal, Kim's style of self-reliant communism. Kim built the tower for his 70th birthday. It towers over the city, but is nowhere as obtrusive as his 75th birthday present, the 150,000-seat Kim Il Sung stadium constructed to compete for a share of the 1988 Olympic action, which all went to arch rival South Korea.

By such standards, the 120-room gift museum in the countryside near Mt. Myohyang seems a quaint collection of kitsch; from the magnificent to the meager, silver chopsticks from Mongolia and a tiny rubber ashtray from the Hwabei Tire Factory in China.

There's a bronze tank from the USSR headquarters in its old satellite state of East Germany, a silver serving set with water buffalo-horn handles from Lebanon, pistols from Vietnam, silverware from the president of Indonesia, an ivory lion from the president of Tanzania, and a gold cigarette case from Yugoslavia's Tito.

For sheer creativity, none of them match the revolutionary warriors of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas sent a grinning alligator, mounted upright and offering drinks from a wooden cocktail tray carried in its claws. Overhead, wall photos show Sung with Castro, Daniel Ortega and Grenada's Bishop.

One cannot help to feel a certain nostalgia, glancing back at the glory days of the Communist Empire, when all of Earth was caught in the Cold War. Separate rooms showcase portraits of Kim consorting with other world leaders. A long hallway sports photographs of exotic animals from important friends in faraway places.

But the gift giving seems almost a memory as North Korea struggles to find a niche in the New World Order. The gargantuan collection of gifts, displayed country by country rather than by historical value or in chronological sequence, clearly show the shifts of power and alliance in the unmatched six decades of Kim's ironclad rule.

Entire wings are devoted to China and the Soviet Union, communist countries that have ridden a see-saw for North Korean favor. African and Arabic nations command several rooms, yet capitalist countries have been stingy. The US is represented by just nine items: a book, vase and mirror, two homemade art objects, three pewter and silver pieces and a small butterfly collection from the National Black United Front. Canadian contributions are more scant; a polar bear skin, an Eskimo carving and four other trinkets.

The enormity of the exhibition - more than 150 countries are represented - dictates that it should not be confined to a mere show of extravagance. The collection also contends as the world's largest display of tacky ashtrays, desk sets, vases and lamps.

The bounty is endless. There are ugly antiques from Hong Kong, ivory from Africa, crystal from Czechoslovakia, a Polish machine gun, sewing machines, statues, silk ties and cuckoo clocks.

Cambodian Prince Sihanouk spent much of his exile in an enormous palace outside Pyongyang. Among many tributes bestowed upon his benefactor, the prince sent Kim a a painting that encapsulates the period. It shows a broom sweeping the Southeast Asian map of an American MP, his uniform in tatters.

The gift palace includes 20 rooms containing over 20,000 items given to Kim's son and self-designated heir, Kim Jong Il, who goes by the title of Beloved Leader. Both Kims are immortalized inside by two-story marble statues.

Junior's toy chest includes a Sony Walkman, Casio keyboard, Yamaha organ, elephant-leg stools, sea turtle-skin photo albums, a box from Khomeni, astronaut's suit, wooden mace, robot drink server with tape player and clock radio, wide-screen television from an admirer in Macau, and a pen set from the Chairman of the Journalist Association of Kuwait.

Visitors are invited to leave their own tributes, if only a few words in the guest booklet. Nothing seems too crass. Only one tribute is unacceptable. All visitors are met at the door by guards handing out cloth booties that must be worn over shoes so as not to leave even a speck of unappreciated dirt on the enormous carpets lovingly woven by hundreds of Koreans for the "Great Leader."

And the final tally:

Kim Il Sung's booty: 69,378 gifts from 155 nations.

Kim Jong Il's loot: nearly 20,000 gifts.

Most extravagant: green railway cars from Mao and Stalin.

Greatest giver: The Soviet Union, which sent, besides the rail car, three black sedans .

Worst giver: The United States, only nine items including a book, two homemade art objects, and a small butterfly collection from the National Black United Front.

Weirdest gift: The grinning cocktail croc.

Most musical: A 25-watt Hongdeng model boombox-style cassette player from the People's Republic of China Communist Party.

Most artfully anti-American: From Cambodian Prince Sihanouk, a painting showing a broom sweeping the Southeast Asian map of an American MP, his uniform in tatters.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong and Beijing, who roams around the nether reaches of Asia for a variety of publications, including Time, Travel and Leisure and the Wall Street Journal, which ran a shorter version of this piece way back in the early 1990s. But I finally posted it on line as a birthday present to the Great Guy in April 2002 (some things, North Korea especially, are timeless). 

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