It is customary behaviour for travellers to bring small gifts for their hosts and it is no different when travelling to North Korea. Visitors should bring their guides, drivers as well as other people they meet on their trip a gift from their home country. Since the North is often, if not always, plagued with shortages a gift of a scarce item can mean the world to the recipient.
My tour company, Koryo Tours, realizes the current economic state of affairs and they even provide a list of items that would make ideal gifts for the guides. Koryo goes so far as to include such details as brand names and price ranges to make the purchase of such items (usually in China just prior to departure) easier for the DPRK tourist.
Women in Korea, if not most of east Asia, prize a smooth, porcelain-white complexion. It is not a secret that North Korean flight attendants (all of whom are women) and the famous Pyongyang “traffic ladies” are hired as much for their beauty as for their ability. Face cream makes a valuable gift for a North Korean woman, as well as other beauty products. I shall bring some face and hand cream with me, as well as shampoo, nail files and soap. I have given thought where to buy such products, and my first thought, which I thought almost reflexively, was to go to a dollar store. The quality of such products, however, might be suboptimal even by North Korean standards, so I will stay away from the Lander® creams and shampoos. I will keep my eye open for sales in the coming months yet there is no need to bankrupt myself with a suitcase full of Clinique®.
Men in North Korea smoke like chimneys and a gift of cigarettes is always welcome, however I don’t wish to contribute to the ill health of anyone. Cigarette smoke, especially when puffed right next to me, makes me nauseous. The last thing I want is for my guide to finish off his last pack, only to be too delighted to open up the carton of smokes from the Canadian. If one does wish to give the gift of emphysema, Koryo Tours provides the names of recommended brands that can be bought in China. Men are more likely than women to drink alcohol, and a gift of scotch would be appreciated just as well.
Other gifts that come highly recommended include candies, chocolate, packages of cookies, pens and cigarette lighters. I can foresee that in this trip I will be coming back with less than what I came in with. There is not much to buy in the North, and although books are my most favourite souvenir of all, I will not be too keen on buying the complete works of Kim Il Sung. There are some works by the Great Leader and the Dear Leader that are quite collectible that I would love to pick up, especially On the Art of the Cinema by Kim Jong Il. This title is in fact for sale through Amazon, but wouldn’t you rather have it with a Pyongyang imprint?
I do not intend to bring any of my gifts back home. I will leave everything with my guides for them to give away, as the chance I will have to personally give these things to members of the North Korean public is remote. A travel first would be to have a lighter suitcase on my trip home, and after I give away my gifts of face cream, cookies and chocolate, I will have more space than I know how to fill.