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    Deeper Than Oil: Souvenir shopping in Pyongyang

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    I’ve been writing about North Korea pretty much non-stop since I returned from Pyongyang last weekend. By the time I’d done my fifth article in as many days, I was suffering from a bad case of Kim Jong-il overload.

    I’ve been writing about North Korea pretty much non-stop since I returned from Pyongyang last weekend. By the time I’d done my fifth article in as many days, I was suffering from a bad case of Kim Jong-il overload. “That’s enough North Korea,” I told myself. But then I realised I’d missed out the most important topic of all – souvenir shopping in the hermit kingdom.


    For some reason, most people who heard I was going to Pyongyang asked me to get them a fridge magnet. They were in for a disappointment – they don’t do fridge magnets in North Korea.
    They do, however, have a lot of books by Eternal President Kim Il-sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. The bookshop in my hotel had a quote apiece from them on the wall.

    “The book is a silent teacher and a companion in life” - Kim Il-sung. “Books are a treasure-house of knowledge and the textbooks for a person’s life” – Kim Jong-il.

    Pretty wise stuff. But as almost all the books on sale were exclusively about or by one of the two Kims, I guess it was sheer oversight that led the two leaders to skip the first-person, possessive pronoun “my.”

    I was actually thinking of picking up a Kim book or two, but my apartment in Moscow was already covered in them (gifts from the North Korean embassy), and I wasn’t sure how many more I really needed. (A Kim Jong-il book featuring the smiling dear leader on the cover had somehow found its way under my pillow and given my wife, Tanya, a nasty shock when she was making the bed shortly before my departure).

    In the end, I chose a North Korean children’s story translated into English. “The Story of a Hedgehog” was a tale of a tiny hedgehog standing up to a massive and bullying tiger. The symbolism couldn’t have been plainer if the hedgehog was called Kim and the tiger wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.

    Slightly disappointed with the books on offer, I turned my attention to music. I was pleased, although not too surprised, to find a Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble disc. The group, with over 150 CD releases to its name, is the most popular in North Korea and a firm favorite of Kim Jong-il. (The latter undoubtedly explains the former.) Kim was even said to have fallen head over hells in love with Yun Hye-yong, the ensemble’s lead singer. But Kim’s heart was turned to stone after Yun rejected his advances in favor of a fellow group member. When the affair was discovered, both Yon and her lover jumped to their death from the roof of a hotel. Yun survived the fall, but remained in a coma until 2003, when she was executed. Author Chang Jin-song wrote the story up in his book “Kim Jong-il's Last Woman.” Sounds like a good read, but I couldn’t find it on sale anywhere in North Korea. Or, as one of the ensemble’s songs describes it, that “Country Full of Happiness.”

    I grabbed a couple of PEE - as Pyongyang hipsters refer to the group - CDs, and another one by some army orchestra as well. I’ve been using them as wake-up music since I got back.

    So what else is there, souvenir wise, in the austere socialist republic of North Korea?

    Well, there are a lot of North Korean flags and stamps, for starters. I also managed to get myself a pretty cool English-language map of Pyongyang, which is now hanging on my wall. I also nabbed a replica of the Tower of Juche, the North Korean national ideology of self-reliance. It stinks of glue, paint and chemicals though, so I’ve left it in its bag for now.

    There weren’t any portraits, postcards or posters on sale bearing images of either of the Kims. To stop them being misused by decadent foreigners, perhaps? I didn’t ask.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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    *

    From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

    Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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