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What Azaleas Mean in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-04-12

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ Getty Images Bank

This song titled “Azaleas” was sung by a South Korean rock singer Maya on an outdoor stage at the Onjeonggak Rest Area on Mt. Geumgang in North Korea in 2005. That year, the number of tourists to the scenic North Korean mountain surpassed one million. The performance was part of “Open Concert” hosted by KBS to commemorate the milestone. 

Azaleas with bright colors are one of Korea’s representative spring flowers. Today, we’ll examine the special significance of this particular flower in North Korea with Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Azalea or jindallae flower is also called dugyeon flower and cham flower in Korea. It is known as cheonji flower in North Hamgyong Province in North Korea. 

Azaleas are very strong and can grow not only in and around cities but in regions higher than one-thousand meters above sea level. Early spring, they usually have blooming flowers before they have leaves, and the hills and mountains across South Korea come alive with beautiful azalea flowers. In North Korea, too, azaleas are one of the flowers that herald the arrival of spring. 

Azaleas grow well even in barren soil. For people in both South and North Korea, who went through a harsh winter, the flower signals the arrival of spring. Also for those who struggled during the hungry spring season, known as the “barley hump” in Korea, azaleas have traditionally helped alleviate their hunger. On the third day of the third lunar month, Koreans eat pan-fried rice cake decorated with petals of seasonal flowers including azaleas. To make the flower cake called hwajeon(화전), glutinous rice powder is kneaded into dough and flower petals are placed on top. The flower cake is then fried in oil. And the flower scent spreads through the fried rice cake, giving extra flavor. 

In North Korea, eating hwajeon is regarded as a custom of the wealthy class from the feudal age—something that poor people cannot enjoy. Still, the pan-fried flower cake is considered a special spring food and is introduced as a traditional Korean food that looks beautiful, tastes delicious and smells great. 

During the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000, Pyongyang citizens, holding azaleas in their hands, warmly welcomed then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and his entourage. In North Korean media, it is easy to find local people waving pink azaleas or royal azaleas to welcome someone at various events. 

The image of azaleas often appears in monumental buildings in North Korea. The Arch of Triumph, which was unveiled in 1982 to mark the 70th birthday of former leader Kim Il-sung, is fringed with 70 carved azalea flowers. North Korea built the Tower of Immortality in Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang in 1997, three years after Kim Il-sung’s death. The tower is also decorated with 82 azalea reliefs symbolizing the leaders age when he died. 

In North Korea, azaleas are considered the flower of the general public. Peonies and roses are treasured flowers, as people have to plant and raise them with great care. Peonies actually symbolize wealth and prosperity. Azaleas, on the other hand, grow well and bloom without being taken care of. For those who survived the hungry spring season, azaleas provided something to eat. For sick people, the flower served as medicine. Azaleas blooming at the foot of the mountains, where ice still remained, delivered hope that a long tough winter was over and a warm spring was on the way. 

For Korean people who endured the hardships from Japanese colonial occupation, it is said that liberation came all of a sudden, like a thief. In a similar context, Koreans found an overwhelming sense of hope in the sudden appearance of the spring flower. As one of spring flowers, azaleas represent the life of the general public and also have the historical significance of liberation. So the flower has been used as an important symbol that has multiple implications. 

In North Korea, azaleas are called the flower of Kim Jong-suk, the first wife of regime founder Kim Il-sung and the mother of Kim Jong-il. Born in 1917 in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, she is dubbed one of the three generals of Mt. Baekdu, along with the two former leaders. North Korean films stress that she joined the anti-Japanese movement, alongside Kim Il-sung. 

North Korea says she was a deadeye who was able to hit her target every time. 

Kim Jong-suk died young, in her early 30s, in 1949. North Korea has strengthened the personality worship around her. It created a revolutionary historical site in a region where she is said to have engaged in guerrilla activities. In 2017, the North issued commemorative coins to mark the 100th year of her birth and produced relevant programs. 

In North Korea, her embroidery work called “Azalea of the Fatherland” is rated as a monumental artwork. It is said that she made the handkerchief during her years as a guerrilla fighter at Mt. Baekdu. 

North Korean literature associated Kim Jong-suk with the azalea flower. The April 15 Literary Production Unit produced a multi-part novel titled Along the Road of Loyalty that portrays her revolutionary achievements. In the series, Part 5-Azaleas describe her activities from 1938 to 1939. At the time, as an anti-Japanese guerilla fighter, she belonged to Kim Il-sung’s group, where she also sewed and cooked as well. She even saved Kim Il-sung’s life, and the novel depicts the process. Before she became Kim Il-sung’s wife, Kim Jong-suk had been a loyal warrior who adored him. The novel Azaleas played a significant role in promoting her image. 

Kim Jong-suk’s son Kim Jong-il is said to have mentioned that the azalea is the flower his mother loved the most. He even wrote a poem titled Azaleas in 1962. Part of the poem goes as follows: Azaleas bloom in the land bathed in bright sunshine, although rather late in spring, to tell their stories/ Do they embody my mother who I will never forget?/ Azaleas, azaleas, Korea’s azaleas~/ 

In North Korea, this poem is regarded as one of immortal classic masterpieces, which refers to literary and artistic productions created by the top leader. Every North Korean citizen is supposed to learn and master the poem. 

Kim Jong-il’s poem Azaleas is by far the most famous and well-known literary work featuring the theme of the flower in North Korea. Almost all local citizens probably know this poem, although they may not know a poem with the same title by Kim So-wol(김소월), one of the most beloved poets in Korea. 

Kim Jong-il reportedly wrote the poem, recalling an episode about his mother and azaleas. When Kim Jong-suk returned to Korea with Kim Il-sung, she shed tears of joy and held azaleas in her arms. She gave the flowers to Kim Il-sung, who said that the more he looked at it, the more beautiful the flower was. And Kim Jong-il remembered all this. He replanted azaleas in front of his mother’s grave and expressed his feelings about the flower in his poem. The poem reinforced the image of Kim Jong-suk, an anti-Japanese heroine who missed her country so much, holding crimson azaleas in her arms. 

In North Korea, the azalea flower is used as the main theme not only in literature but in various other genres such as movies, dramas and dance. One of the most renowned works is “Azalea of the Fatherland,” a dance piece created by the Mansudae Art Studio in 1970. It is cited as one of the four masterpieces of North Korean dance. 

Audiences are mesmerized by the spectacular group dance, with dancers holding azalea flowers in both hands. The dance show describes female guerrilla fighters’ firm belief in revolution against the background of the 1939 battle led by Kim Il-sung in the Musan area in North Hamgyong Province. 

When hearing azaleas, many South Koreans will probably be reminded of Kim So-wol’s poem Azaleas, which was announced in 1922. The word “Yongbyon” in the poem is the name of a place located in the southeastern part of North Pyongan Province. 

When people hear about Yongbyon, what comes to their mind first is probably North Korea’s nuclear complex. But some 100 years ago, the poet sang about azaleas in the Yaksan hills right in Yongbyon. 

Yaksan(약산), meaning the medicine mountain, is known to be rich in medicinal herbs. Also, a spring with remedial qualities flows in the mountain. In spring, azaleas blooming in rock crevices would tint the entire mountain with beautiful pink colors. I imagine Kim So-wol’s Azaleas, the heartbreaking poem about the sorrow of love and parting, was born against the backdrop of Yaksan, which is well known for its lush springtime colonies of flowering azaleas. 

The place could be used as a natural fortress, as it is surrounded with mountains. It has been known as a strategic point since old times. It is hard to observe the area even with artificial satellites. Considering the geographical feature, North Korea chose this place for its nuclear facilities. It’s sad that Yongbyon is now better known as North Korea’s nuclear site rather than its beautiful azaleas. 

Kim So-wol’s Azaleas was released back in the 1920s, but it is still one of the poems beloved by South Korean people. Many can recite the poem fluently, from the beginning to end. There are several different songs inspired by this poem. 

Azaleas started to bloom in southern areas in South Korea, and the blossoms are slowly moving up north, passing through central regions. 

When will South Koreans be able to see azaleas in full bloom in Yaksan in Yongbyon? 

We hope people in South and North Korea will soon travel to the other side of the border freely and comfortably, share the azalea liquor and hwajeon decorated with azalea petals, recite Kim So-wol’s poem and get fully soaked in fragrant azalea flowers. 

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