Should you visit North Korea it will not take you long to realise that anything of any importance is named after Kim Il-sung or more recently, since his death in 2011, Kim Jong-il. Very little, at this point is named after the current leader, Kim Jong-un.
It will thus come as no surprise that the most important flowers (trumping the national flower, the magnolia) in North Korea are the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. Yes indeed, that is what they are called – I kid you not.
What may come as a surprise is that neither of the flowers are natives to North Korea and indeed the Kimjongilia is of Japanese origin. I am not sure how this fits in with the Juche philosophy of self-reliance and independence.
Over their lifetimes, the two Kims have amassed hundreds of thousands of awards and gifts from overseas. These are on display for all to see. Visitors to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (the two Kims’ mausoleum) in Pyongyang can examine two very large rooms full of awards (degrees, certificates etc), vehicles and other gifts bestowed upon the leaders and those visiting the International Friendship Exhibition on Mt Myohyang can indulge themselves in two massive buildings full of gifts given to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il both during and after their lives. Numerous live animals also received were donated to the zoo! The Friendship Exhibition also has an ever expanding selection of gifts given to Kim Jong-un by international admirers.
The Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia are gifts from Indonesia and Japan respectively.
In 1965, while on a stroll through the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Indonesia with President Sukarno, Kim Il-sung stopped to admire a particular flower – a violet hybrid orchid. Sukarno indicated that the plant had not yet been named and said that he would name it after Kim Il-sung. ‘Modest’ Kim declined Sukarno’s offer but the latter insisted that Kim was entitled to such a great honour for his great exploits, already performed, for the benefit of mankind. So was born the Kimilsungia.
The government owned Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) referred to Sukarno’s gift as “a symbol of the great love and genuine admiration the people of Indonesia have for the Great Leader” and in 2002 the KNCA reminded its readership that Kim Il-sung’s “peerless character” is “fully reflected in the immortal flower” which is “blooming everywhere on the five continents”. On the assumption that it does not bloom on Antarctica I am at a loss to know on which other continent the Kimilsungia is not blooming.
The Kimilsungia has since become as immortal as the Great Leader himself and each year Kimilsungia flower shows are held throughout the country to coincide with the Great Leader’s birthday. I got to go to two such shows during my 2014 visit, one in Pyongyang and one in Sinuiju. I have written a separate review on each show – suffice to say here that it is rather peculiar to attend a flower show basically dedicated to two flowers, albeit interspersed with models of national monuments, missiles and pictures of the Leaders. The Kimjongilia is also displayed at the Kimilsungia shows though it has its own shows in February.
The Kimilsungia is a tropical plant not at all suited to the harsh climate of North Korea, especially the winters. As such it is grown (in great quantities) in heated glasshouses which get priority, over freezing peasants, in terms of electricity allocation. During the time of the country’s greatest famines the KCNA reported on how patriotic citizens asked that their home heating systems be shut down so that there was enough electricity to grow the Kimilsungia.
The Kimjongilia, its flower strangely larger than that of the Kimilsungia, is a hybrid tuberous begonia and was cultivated by Japanese botanist Kamo Mototeru to commemorate Kim Jong-il’s 46th birthday, in 1988. It represents the Juche revolutionary cause symbolising wisdom, love, justice and peace and friendship between North Korea and Japan.
Rather than being able to deliver the flower by hand, Kamo Mototeru laments in a letter to Kim Jong-il as to how he had to hand it over to officials in Beijing due to ‘the unjustifiable ban on exchange decided by the Japanese Government and the United States and South Korea too’.
ExploreDPRK.com, the website of the International Friendship Initiative “Explore DPRK”, tells us thus:
‘As soon as Kimjongilia appeared in the world, prominent political, social and academic figures in many countries of the world sent Korea letters reflecting their wish to grow the flower in their countries. It was recognized as the king of flowers while winning top prizes at international flower exhibitions and horticultural expositions, creating a great sensation. And then numerous bases propagating the flower appeared across the world, and over 100 rounds of Kimjongilia exhibitions were held. Amidst the growing enthusiasm for cultivating the flower decade after decade and century after century the flower has spread to over 70 countries.”
Naturally there would be a song dedicated to such an auspicious flower as this:
The red flowers that are blossoming over our land
Are like hearts: full of love for the leader
Our hearts follow the young buds of Kimjongilia
Oh! The flower of our loyalty!
Anyone who might think that a 98 page book dedicated to a flower (the Kimjongilia with significant reference to the Kimilsungia) would be a fairly heavy and bland reading experience for anyone other than a botanist should pick up a copy of ‘Kimjongilia – The king flower has appeared and spread abroad’ at the Foreign Language Bookshop in Pyongyang. You will find it rather light on botany but heavy on the glorification of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
The Kimjongilia flower should not be confused with a documentary film of a similar name – ‘Kimjongilia: The Flower of Kim Jong-il’ – produced in 2009. The later is a deliberate attempt to compare the brightness and beauty of the flower with ‘the extraordinary stories told by survivors of North Korea’s vast prison camps, of deadly famine, and of every kind of repression’. While not terribly well produced the documentary is well worth a look as it somberly portrays a side of North Korea which you will never come across as a visitor to the country.
What of Kim Jong-un? I hear you say.
I harbour a sneaky suspicion that the real reason that Singapore was chosen as the host location for the June 2018 talks between President Trump and Marshal Kim Jong-un was that they both secretly hoped to be presented with an orchid named after them. Singapore has developed a tradition of naming new strains of its famous orchids after visiting heads of state, royalty and celebrities – a form of orchid diplomacy, if you like.
If you visit the beautiful Botanical Garden in Singapore (incidentally, my favourite botanical garden in the world) you can see examples of the orchids named after dignitaries down the years (over 200 to date), including Queen Elizabeth II, Lady Dianna, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, President and First Lady Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Africa Nelson Mandela, British Prime Ministers Thatcher and Cameron, German Chancellor Merkel, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Jackie Chan to name but a few. Depicted here are a few of the orchids I took pictures of in Singapore on a recent visit.
Despite much talk about it and conjecture at the time, alas, for our dear President Trump and Marshal Kim Jong-un, Singapore’s orchid diplomacy was not extended to them.
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews –HERE