In a Nutshell: It’s unexpected, but as a foreign tourist to North Korea you’ll find souvenir desk outfits set up at important sites all across the country, many of them in Pyongyang. I’m generally not a souvenir kind-of-guy, but I was in North Korea, so I made an exception and was glad for the decision. Most of the items I bought tell interesting stories and provide a look into the intricacies of this fascinating nation. Here are the souvenirs I acquired during my visit!
North Korea Propaganda Postcards
Not exactly subtle, these postcards and others similar were available for purchase at many tourist sites within Pyongyang. ‘Songun’ (military-first politics) is centre stage within North Korea and presented in all forms of media — postcards are no exception. By sending one, you may make a postman’s day.
Left: “If the US imperialists aim their gun at us, we will do the same, but with our cannon!”
Right: “We will fight the tough by being even tougher!”
Top Left: “Give us any command!”
Bottom Left: “With the united strength of the whole nation, let’s detonate the nuclear war manoeuvre provocation of the US!”
Right: “Raising the sound of the marching group’s trumpet, let’s march forward towards a powerful nation!”
Kaesong Koryo Insam Liquor
This fine beverage is a ‘Special Class Commodity’ only available to the elite and wealthy in North Korea (it’s very expensive) and has earned both ‘Gold Medals’ and ‘Diplomas’ to international acclaim if the box is to be believed.
It’s a 700ml, 86 proof bottle of 20-year-old rice alcohol distilled and bottled in Kaesong, North Korea. Inside it contains Kaesong’s speciality ‘insam’ (ginseng), an extensive root plant that’s been grown for six years — the perfect timing to highly concentrated nutrients. Why is it bottled? Well, ginseng is said to wield a myriad of medicinal benefits, ranging from beating physical and mental fatigue to diabetes. It’s found globally, however, the Korean ginseng has a solid reputation and North Korea recently released a wonder drug named Kumdang-2 containing ginseng and traces of rare earth metals such as gold and platinum (and not a lot else) that apparently cures Ebola, AIDS, MERS, tuberculosis and cancer. Interesting.
It was purchased from a supermarket in Pyongyang where I was told I was the second foreigner to be allowed inside. A plaque on the entrance denoted the dates both Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un had overseen the store. It’s illegal for foreigners to handle local currency. To pay, I had to line up, receive a receipt, then head over to the currency exchange booth offering unofficial, black market North Korean Won rates to make the payment before heading back to collect my goods and finally back to the booth to collect my change in three different currencies, almost certainly wrong, as usual.
The alcohol was also a smash hit with the Korean People’s Army General who searched my luggage on departure from North Korea in Sinuiju. Smiles weren’t derived effortlessly in North Korea, but after the General discovered this magical box, it resulted in one of absolute approval…which was quickly wiped from his face when I refused to offer it as a bribe.
North Korean Stamps
Artworks and stamp collections were commonly available for purchase in North Korea. Collections were extensive, however quite pricey (25 euro+) but were a fascinating political scrapbook outlining past and present North Korea. It’s difficult to believe, but not all stamps were critical of the United States, many were simply historical throwbacks or political milestone celebrations.
These stamps are a sample of the variation.
Top Left: Mechanisation. Automation. Remote control. (Juche, self-reliance ideology and technological advancement)
Top Middle: 10 Century to 14 century (historical dynasty of North Korea)
Top Right: UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) technical cooperation for 40 years, 1990.
Bottom Left: Mansudae Grand Monument, the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle for 10 years, 1974.
Bottom Right: Workers Party of Korea Sixth Congress decision, let’s unite for piercing penetration! The Federal Democratic Republic IO administrative policy. Frequency, equal peace, national unity (reunification).
Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea flag
Not simply a Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea flag, this almost got me detained during my visit.
It was National Day, an important calendar event in celebration of the founding of the DPRK. I purchased the flag from the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang with the intention of some light-hearted pseudo-nationalism, which went down fantastic, the locals loved it. But, as the day came to an end, after tucking into my dinner I was interrupted and taken aside by my guide, huffing from finding me. I was then briefed on the situation. Basically, upon arrival back to the hotel I had left all but my necessities on the bus; we used the same bus every day of our tour, and it was common for us to leave waters, sweets or non-valuables at our seats.
Tonight, I had left the North Korean flag sitting in the back pocket of the seat in front. My guide asked me if I had done this, I responded that I had. She proceeded to tell me that the bus driver had found it and was left incredibly offended by my actions as he perceived it as a way of me disposing of the flag, essentially a national treasure, accusing me of not wanting it anymore and not giving it the respect that it deserved, or required. He had reported this offence to the guides. Quite alarmed at this point and with vision as to where this was heading, I gave my utmost apology to the guide, and it was filtered back. Some tense minutes followed, but thankfully my apology was accepted, and I was advised that under no circumstance was I to leave the flag inside North Korea, I was to take it out with me. This was always my intention but that didn’t matter.
The situation could have easily escalated, the guide’s report all happenings back to their government superiors and I had technically broken DPRK law. It was as simple and as innocent as that. Apologies and acceptance of responsibility in North Korea were a requirement in getting away unscathed.
It was quite easy to get blasé in North Korea, overall. That may sound strange, but you’re kept well sheltered, the guides do a great job at lulling you into a false sense of security. In the event of any wrongdoing, this facade crumbles immediately.
From that point on, my flag was kept as an almost spiritual being living within my luggage. I checked up on him regularly. Here he is for your viewing today. What a memento.
This t-shirt is the only government approved apparel for sale to tourists in the entire country of North Korea. It’s about as sterile and unimaginative as souvenir t-shirts get. An untapped market, most of us purchased one of these…we did yearn for some variety, however, there is no market freedom for locals to produce their goods for foreigners or otherwise. I only saw it available within Pyongyang, but at least, you had a choice of three colours! On the back below the neck is a small land mass map of North Korea, with the text ‘Pyongyang DPRKorea’. This t-shirt got me a lot of attention in China on the day I left North Korea, the Chinese found it an intriguing novelty, in particular at the border city of Dandong.
Postcard home to Australia from Pyongyang
It took many months, but this postcard I sent from Pyongyang to my parents on the 13/09/2014 actually turned up in Australia. I apologise for my handwriting. My words were chosen wisely, all postcards sent from North Korea are translated and screened by officials. Anything untoward or critical ensures it’ll never cross that border, and at worst could end in your detainment. So, I did my best to sugar coat the experience.
My tongue-in-cheek ode to the Supreme Commander, Kim Jong-Un at the end was walking a fine line, but I simply couldn’t help myself.
DVD: A Traffic Controller on Crossroads
I purchased this DVD in the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang, It’s directed, produced and distributed in North Korea and stars the iconic Pyongyang traffic ladies that I am convinced form a nationalistic fetish to those that live here.
Traffic ladies are synonymous with Pyongyang city life, it’s a well-respected position and certainly not seen as a novelty like we perceive. These beautiful women are dressed immaculately whether rain, hail or shine and operate near robotically with movements of militaristic intention. Monotonous and soulless, nobody dare crosses the intimidating law enforcement of the traffic lady on the streets of Pyongyang. I witnessed cars come to a screeching halt at the change of their signal, as they offer no equivalent to our ‘yellow’ traffic light. The women will also salute passing vehicles driven by Worker’s Party of Korea officials (they can tell who’s driving based on their number plates)
North Korea Flag Pin and Stamp
All North Korean citizens must wear, by law, a lapel pin of the late leaders above their heart. Ordinary citizens usually wear that of either Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il themselves, while ‘elites’ are permitted to wear a more expensive, double portrait version, denoting the social hierarchy in North Korea.
As a foreigner, you aren’t allowed to purchase any of these and are instead urged to buy the (less interesting) souvenir North Korean flag version pictured here instead. So I did. The stamp was given to me as part of my change. The pin was 1 euro. Everything was 1 euro, seemingly. Or 1 USD. Or well…whatever you have on you in foreign currency. Anyway, I wasn’t going to argue, it’s not a stamp you’d see in every collection.
North Korean Cigarettes
“Cigarettes are harmful for your health.” Surprising, right? The juxtaposition between health warnings adopted by most of the modern world and the otherwise concerning lifestyle conditions forced upon citizens of North Korea may leave you scratching your head. Me too. Has North Korea truly adopted such a reasonable stance on a known health hazard? Probably. Alternatively, it’s been hypothesised as a way to reduce the value of cigarettes as a currency between North Korean people, primarily bribery. Plausible. Commodity scarcity is rife, making cigarettes a highly valuable currency on the North Korean markets.
These cigarettes in particular, ‘Lake Samilpo’, are named after a south-eastern lake of the same name I visited in North Korea. A non-smoker myself, and one that’s likely spent too long in Asia, I purchased them as an icebreaker and currency. Unbeknownst to me, they’re a highly regarded brand associated with male status in North Korea, so I ended up handing out packets like the Santa Claus of cigarettes. This couple I kept as product mementoes, though!
Book: Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in the Year 2012
I purchased this book at the Foreign Language Bookstore in Pyongyang. A small trusted group of foreigners are employed to translate Korean publications into other languages to distribute the re-education beyond North Korean borders and into international acclaim.
This particular book was widely distributed, I saw it at most souvenir desks during my visit to North Korea. I’d say this is because the transition between Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un’s new leadership is still a sensitive political topic and they’re trying to get some circulation. Confidence from the people in Kim Jong-Un as the new commander is paramount to North Korea continuing forward unchanged.
The entire book is a celebration into Kim Jong-Un, in particular, his ‘accomplishments’ and the unconditional, endearing love he has (already) ‘earned’ from his people. Relatively unknown prior to his leadership, Kim Jong-Un is now undergoing a phase where a narrative is being constructed and attributed to his life for propaganda purposes, much the same as his father and grandfather. I mean, he is the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the fourth largest army in the world and has had no formal military experience. He needs the storytelling behind him.
Air Koryo Items
Air Koryo is North Korea’s only airline, it’s state-owned, the flag carrier and the first point of contact for you as a foreigner into the hermit kingdom. The Pyongyang Times is complimentary upon boarding, and the stewardesses don their leaders pins above their hearts. It’s the only one-star rated airline on earth, and until 2010 was banned from entering the European Union due to safety and maintenance concerns. Was it that bad to fly on? I didn’t think so, but the food quality is in a league of its own, even by airline standards. Their idea of a vegetarian burger was two pieces of bread with lettuce. I’m not exaggerating. I mean, I guess technically correct is the best kind of correct after all.
Either way, I wanted to take a memento of likely my one and only flight on Air Koryo. Air China printed my boarding pass in Beijing, so it didn’t tick the souvenir boxes…so the next best thing? An Air Koryo branded air sickness bag and hand-towel. I hold no shame!
Masik Pass Slippers
Ordered by Kim Jong-Un himself, Masik Pass Ski Resort was built by the Korean People’s Army in just ten months to boost tourism numbers. After my visit, I can confidently claim that Masik Pass is far and away the most luxurious building available to the ‘public’ in North Korea. Easily.
So, I took their slippers. I think that was allowed, but I’m unsure. If not, I apologise, and they’re still in their shrink wrapping. Sadly, there was no matching gown.
Masik Pass was simply stunning inside, it’s nothing like anywhere else we stayed. It’s on par with international luxury standards and reminded me of The Venetian in Las Vegas, especially the bathrooms. It sits in the middle of nowhere with a bright allure. Not bad for a country with a power shortage, especially considering we were the only guests, and the staff outnumbered us. Man, that was a weird visit.
Another fun fact: Masik Pass came to international notoriety in 2013 after having it’s outsourced ski lift order blocked by the United Nations, classifying it a ‘prestigious propaganda project’. North Korea officially responded by labelling the decision a serious abuse of human rights.
CD: The Song of the Sun Will Be Immortal
With modern classics such as “Long Live Generalissimo Kim Il Sung”, “Our Leader Beloved of People” and “The General Lives Forever as the Sun”, I just had to have it. Apparently the eighth CD in the collection, a quick ponder of the track list may leave you wondering how many further amalgamations of Kim Il-Sung and authoritarian synonyms are left mathematically possible.
In all seriousness, I wanted to leave North Korea with something like this. North Korean music is unique, every song is politically influenced — pop music as we know it simply does not exist. Musical freedom is undefined, it’s usually militaristic, upbeat and supported orchestrally with female vocals. References to the leaders and self-reliance ideology are certain. I watched many performances on Korean State Television in Pyongyang, and it focussed more on the religious celebration (of the leaders) than the music. Amazing stuff, and a great souvenir.
The Pyongyang Times
The Pyongyang Times is the foreign language edition of the local Korean newspaper distributed across the country. This newspaper is North Korean citizens’ only exposure to the outside world, it’s state controlled and offers a restricted view of reality. It’s a fascinating read.
I was told that by law, Kim Jong-Un is featured on the front page of each edition and that it’s illegal to fold in the middle, as it could crease the Great Leader’s head. The paper cannot be used in a disrespectful manner (firestarter, cleaning a mess, etc.) as it retains near holy status, outlining the progression of the Korean people and the Juche ideology. I read three editions and found that each one followed the same structure, beginning with political accomplishments and celebrations, followed by technological and social breakthroughs before offering a double spread in targeted, aggressive propaganda claims towards South Korea, United States and Japan. Facts were optional. Sport and smaller success stories were on the back page.
The Pyongyang Times has in the past been scrutinised due to its creative licence, including claims of South Korea’s ‘poor human rights record’, of maintaining a 50% unemployment rate and their spread of incurable disease.
This newspaper was one of my favourite souvenirs. I’ve included three articles below from inside, they’re an entertaining read.
P.S – Do you have any souvenirs with an interesting story from your travels? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!