axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 9, Mt. Myohyang - Axis of Evil World Tour
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Mt. Myohyang and the International Friendship Exhibition

Known as the 'mountain of mysterious fragrance', Mt. Myohyang ('Myohyangsan' in Korean) is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen on the Korean peninsula. Thanks to the International Friendship Exhibition, it is also one of the weirdest. Though the name sounds nice enough, an exhibition of friendship, it's really best described as the mecca of Kim-clan worship.

We arrived at the mountain after a three-hour bus ride that took us north up the center of the country, about halfway to the border with China. Another day on the bus talking to the guides, which by this time was beginning to get on everyone's nerves, did at least offer some interesting moments. For one thing it allowed us to get to know them a little better, at least the part of themselves they allowed us to know. Mr. Baek, for example, proved to be a huge music fan. He happily whiled away a good part of the trip listening to one of our MP3 players. A device which confused him at first, "how do you put the music in it . . . " but soon had him stretched out in the back of the bus with headphones and a relaxed smile.

After exhausting our music collection we next got to talking about money. Not salaries, but actual bills and coins and how they looked. As foreigners in North Korea we were forced to use a separate currency reserved only for tourists and visitors (a policy that's reportedly since been changed). For young Mr. Huk some of the bills and their pictures we had were new, and he seemed to enjoy the chance to look them over. We also showed him some of the Chinese money we had from our time in Beijing. In return they gave us a chance to check out some of their "real" North Korean currency.

It was then that I remembered I had some South Korean change sitting in my bag. I dug up a 50 won coin and showed it to Mr. Baek, who was sitting in front of me. He curiously looked it over for a bit and then handed it back. Just then Mr. Huk, who'd been talking to someone else, happened to turn and see the coin. Thinking it was from China he held out his hand to take a look, while simultaneously asking where it was from.

When I reached over I saw Mr. Baek's eyes go wide in anticipation. As I went to drop the coin into Mr. Huk's hand I said it was from the South. He jerked his hand back like I was pouring acid. His whole body literally recoiled at the presence of the coin.

"No thank you, I do not want to see it."

With that he turned away, visibly shaken at my affront to his sensibilities. Mr. Baek gave me a grin and told me I'd better put the money back in my bag.

Certainly quite different than the reaction one received when handing over dollars . . .


As we neared Myohyangsan the trip began to get much more scenic. Instead of hills we started to see mountains, while farmland denuded of nearly all trees and brush gradually gave way to forest.

For a while we drove through some of the very lush mountain scenery you see below, until finally pulling into the parking lot of the International Friendship Exhibition, first picture below.

A gentle rain was coming down and seemed to make the area even more peaceful and secluded. As we got out of the bus we could get a basic idea of the layout. In the middle were a couple of long, low, administrative-type buildings. At either end were much more ornate structures with traditional Korean architecture (to the top and bottom of the picture at right.

These traditional-style buildings turned out to house the two main "friendship" exhibits, one devoted to Kim Il-sung (top), the other to Kim Jong-il (bottom).

This is also when we found out "International Friendship Exhibition" really means "Shrines Housing Gifts Donated by Foreign Countries to the Glorious Kims".

Our guides turned very serious at this point, telling us we needed to be, "proper and respectful at all times."

Myohyang International Friendship Museums
Mt. Myohyang and the International Friendship Exhibition, home to shrines for
the 'Great Leader', Kim Il-sung, and his son the 'Dear Leader', Kim Jong-il.

Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

As we approached the 'shrine to foreign gifts to Kim Il-sung' we could see two honor guides on either side of the door, visible here in the photo at right and in the close-up below.

The doors here are apparently very special - the local guide warned us not to touch them without first donning white gloves, as per the honor guards.

We were instructed to select a member of our group to don the ceremonial gloves. He would then have the historic honor of swinging open the heavy doors to the shrine.

Ah, the amazing delights of travel in North Korea.

Gifts to Kim Il-sung Museum
Entrance to the shrine of Kim Il-sung, International Friendship Exhibition
(located just out of sight at the top of the road in the picture above)

Photo courtesy Dan Harmon
Honor Guide - Kim Il-sung Museum
Honor Guard, Shrine to Kim Il-sung
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

Once inside the first thing we were instructed to do was put on covers over our shoes. The polished marble floors of the Kim shrine were not to be dirtied by the soles of our nasty shoes. A picture of the shoe covers are in the photo to the left.

Once properly attired we were next ordered to turn over all of our cameras and bags for safe keeping until the end of the tour. No sneaking unauthorized pictures in the Kim Il-sung shrine. Apparently friendship is a one-way street.

The tour began by the guide leading us down a long hall into the hushed, peaceful interior of the building. Since it had been a very long bus ride we first asked to see the hushed, peaceful interior of the rest room. The guide pointed out the direction and, once a ways away and having noticed how slippery our new shoe coverings were, we were gliding around like giddy school kids on a frozen pond.

Once out of sight of all guides and guards (a true rarity) we found that with a running start you could slide a good three meters (9 feet) across what is easily the most polished floor on the face of the planet. I've been on ice stickier than that floor. Soon the place was echoing with the shouts and collisions of our impromptu skating competition.

Unfortunately this was hardly the "proper and respectful" attitude Mr. Huk and Mr. Baek had in mind. Once we had skated our way back into sight we were quickly 'urged' to quiet down. The local guide just gave us a puzzled look and restarted the tour.


Shrine Shoe Covers
Kim Jong-il Shrine - notice the shoe covers
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
Dangling Chime at Kim Jong-il Shrine
Dangling Wind Chime - Kim Jong-il Shrine
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The tour consisted of room after room of gifts to Kim Il-sung from around the world; broken down by geographic area. Here gifts from Russia, there gifts from Africa, another room for the Americas, etc.

The place was colossal, the pictures here in no way do it justice. We could have spent all day wandering around the place and still not seen it all. God knows (Kim Il-sung knows?) though, the schedule would never have permitted that. We were just shown some of the larger rooms and the more interesting gifts. The winners here were easily the armored train cars presented by the Soviet Union and China back in the glorious days of communist brotherhood. The cars were truly plush, all wood and silk and fine embroidery. Certainly not a bad way to travel and, after our experience with Air Koryo, quality evidence as to why the Kims nearly always travel by train.

The most interesting room though without a doubt the inner sanctum of the Kim Il-sung shrine. Before being allowed in the guides turned hyper-serious; telling us we were about to see a representation of the Great Leader. They insisted on a solemn and respectful demeanor. We were to enter, bow our heads and leave without uttering a word, or laughing, smiling, and, left unsaid, sliding around like idiots. Even with gloves we weren't allowed to touch this door, the local guide opened it for us.

Standing as if amidst trees and water, a life-size wax figure looked on all who entered. The lighting was all on Kim, making him really appear to be standing before us. As we quietly approached you could see the effects put into maintaining the aura. In this windowless, soundproof room the fake water glistened and rippled, while the fake leaves on the fake trees stirred as if from a passing breeze. At the center of it all was an amazingly life-like Kim, slightly raised as if standing on a rise, looking down on our little group.


We paused at the guide's signal before we got too close. We stood looking at the figure and background while the guides bowed their heads, then we were quickly ushered out. It had lasted all of 30 seconds but the guide acted as if we'd undergone a life-altering experience. When I asked about the glistening water and blowing leaves she and Mr. Huk beamed.

"I didn't think you were paying attention. You did see. How did you feel on seeing our Great Leader?"

I rattled off something about how devoted his people must be to have built a place like this. The local guide agreed. She regaled me with how people from around the world visited to pay their respects to the Great Leader (I guess that now somehow includes me . . .) and honor him with the fabulous gifts we had just seen.

"People come from around the world with the best their country has to offer. Koreans never need to leave Korea to see the world. The best things from every country are all right here."

Now how can anyone argue with that?


Kim Jong-il Museum/Shrine

After the 'highlight' of viewing Kim's wax figure we were led out of his shrine and down the road to the shrine for his son. Of course, after removing our shoe covers and being given back our bags and cameras.

Items we had to immediately turn right back in as we entered the Junior Kim's shrine. We even had to put on shoe covers again. Though one member of our group did manage to slip a small, single-use camera into his pocket without the guides noticing. Not being able to take pictures of some of these gifts and accompanying plaques was very frustrating, and explains why there are so few pictures on this page.

In contrast to the visit to his dad's place, in the Kim Jong-il shrine the first stop we were led to was the inner sanctum with the statue of Kim. The same seriousness came over the guides as we were again warned to be on our best behavior. The drill was to be the same - enter in strict silence, gaze upon Kim's raised and seated visage (think Lincoln Monument in Washington D.C.), bow our heads for a moment, and then exit quickly.

This time though the guides weren't paying as much attention. As we left one of our group was able to hang back and surreptitiously snap the photo you see below. Not bad considering he had to yank out the camera, point and shoot from pocket level, and then get the camera back into the pocket before anyone noticed. Had he been caught the repercussions could have been pretty severe. Luckily everything went fine and below you can see what is perhaps the only unofficial photo ever published of the inside of that shrine.

Kim Jong-il Illegal Photo
'Illegal' photo of the Kim Jong-il statue inside the Kim Jong-il shrine
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart

After that we were taken to see the gifts to Kim Jong-il. This was actually more interesting than his dad's place, mainly because everything was more recent (Kim Jr. having taking over only in the mid-90s). The first room we were taken contained gifts presented by prominent South Korean industrialists during their visits in the late 90s. Sitting side-by-side were top-of-the-line LG, Samsung and Hyundai entertainment systems, complete with large screen TVs, stereos, VCRs and plenty of speakers. Some of the same equipment you might have sitting in your living room, here sitting in a museum showing off the glorious gifts received by the Dear Leader.

The next room contained more gifts from the South, including a Hyundai Grandeur (the top Hyundai car) donated by the former chairman of Hyundai (whose family is originally from the North). Mr. Huk asked me if I had ever seen one of these cars during my time in the South. When I said, "sure, my neighbor has one just like it," he gave me another one of his 'you have to be lying' looks. How could such a great gift, a gift implying so much respect, belong to some normal person like my neighbor? This was obviously a car reserved for the elite, capitalist oppressors, not some common car for the masses. When I told him I wished the chairman had given away a lot more so there'd be less traffic in the South he got fed up with my obvious lies, gave me a disgusted look and moved on to talk to someone else.

Ever wonder why CNN seems to be the only Western news organization regularly allowed into North Korea? The next room perhaps offered a clue. In the 'Gifts from America' room a whole section of one wall is taken up by gifts from CNN. A few engraved plaques, a coffee cup (yeah, a freaking coffee cup!), a logo ashtray, etc. Probably at most a couple hundred bucks worth of crap that nonetheless get pride of place in the museum - for they reveal obvious signs of respect from a world famous news organization. The people at CNN are certainly using their heads and showing they know how to play the game. Though one wonders how that fits in with journalistic integrity . . .

Another of the interesting gifts in this section was the guestbook signature from former U.S. President Carter's visit. The several sentences, "wishing you peace and good fortune" (hard to remember verbatim when notes and pictures are banned) were a model of empty diplomatic phrases. Exactly the kind of stuff we were getting used to saying ourselves.

The other interesting gift is one I mentioned at the very beginning of this travelogue - a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. This one presented by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright during here Fall 2000 visit to Pyongyang. It was funny seeing Mr. Huk's eyes light up in recognition of the name we had asked him about the day before; when trying to figure out what he knew of the outside world.

"That's the person you talked about? He really is a basketball player!?"

Mr. Huk was incredulous that a simple autographed basketball was all that the mighty U.S. government had come up with. No cars, entertainment centers or nice respectful plaques, just a freaking basketball. It seemed to bother him for quite a while, he even asked me about it later on the bus ride back to Pyongyang. When I told him Jordan is kind of an American god, who got his start by playing basketball, he seemed to be somewhat mollified.

Madeline Albright, if you're out there, excellent call on the gift - you certainly puzzled the hell out of a lot of North Koreans!

After the gifts display it was on to the souvenir shop, where we were also asked to sign the guestbook. An act that we found out later gets counted in the grand total of overseas gifts presented to the two Kims. Apparently most of the tens of thousands of gifts they continuously talk about come in the form of messages and signatures from guests.

I knew something was up when we weren't rushed through the gift buying. It seemed the rain was going to keep us from what would have been a very scenic mountain hike. Instead we were to hang out on the balcony of the shrine for a while before heading off to a nearby hotel for lunch. For the first and only time the whole trip we had some time to sit, relax and look around. They even let us get our cameras to take some shots from the top of the balcony, hence the photos shown above.

During our wait I also witnessed one of the odder spectacles of the whole trip - a group of Korean-Japanese high school students visiting the shrine on a separate tour. Without getting too long-winded, there are large numbers of Korean-Japanese, descendants of those taken to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony (1910-1945), who still believe the North Korean regime is the rightful ruler of the peninsula. One of the largest North Korean hard currency sources is donations from these 'overseas compatriots' in Japan. Chances are, if you've ever played pachinko in Japan (since most pachinko parlors are owned by these Korean-Japanese) a part of what you paid was donated to North Korea.

The students we saw were part of a North Korea affiliated high school in Japan. While we talked and took pictures they took turns breaking into smaller groups to sing songs eulogizing the two Kims, North Korea, Juche, etc. The singing and, apparently very real, fervor were unbelievable. Even Mr. Baek was giving them some odd looks as they continued their emotional, non-stop singing. To grow up in a place as modern and open as Japan yet still subscribe to this ideology and regime . . . wow. The memory of those earnest young faces fervently singing away is one of the strongest of the whole trip.

After about half an hour we finally caught up to the schedule and were herded back down onto our bus. After a pretty good lunch in very beautiful mountain setting we were off to Pyongyang to visit Kim Il-sung's birthplace and start winding down our trip to the DPRK.

 8. Pyongyang Circus
Copyright 2006-2007 Scott Fisher and All Rights Reserved.