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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Flowers in N. Korea

Flowers in N. Korea

Spring may remind many people of flowers in full bloom. This spring, flowers started blooming early in South Korea because the temperature during March was higher than the average temperature for the month. In general, azaleas are seen in April, while royal azaleas and lilacs start to bloom between April and May. The beautiful spring flowers in full blossom make people’s hearts flutter. On weekends, flower festivals take place all across the nation to lure tourists. On these fine spring days, what kinds of flowers are blooming in North Korea? 

Today, we’ll learn about flowers in North Korea from Professor Jeong Eun Chan at the National Institute for Unification Education. 

In April, flowers come into full bloom in North Korea, just like in South Korea. In the North, the gorgeous blooming of spring flowers move from the warm, southern region of Gaeseong to northern areas including Hamhung, passing through the capital of Pyongyang in April and May. One of the most representative spring flowers in North Korea is apricot blossoms. 

Apricot blossoms bloom in Pyongyang in April. In South Korea, street trees are mostly gingko trees. But it is hard to see gingko trees on North Korean streets. Rather, many apricot trees are found there. Pyongyang’s apricot blossom season is really beautiful. 

In spring, North Korean media outlets often show photos of Pyongyang covered with flowers. They highlight the capital’s famous sites, where spring is definitely in the air, such as the Arch of Triumph, Mangyongdae, the Juche Tower and Moranbong Park. Local residents are eager to go to see apricot flowers. 

My parents often told me that our supreme leader instructed officials to plant apricot trees on the street between the Chollima(천리마) Statue and Jonu(전우) Station. When spring comes, this street is fully covered with apricot flowers. 

Apricot trees account for 80 percent of street trees in North Korea. The Korean War in the early 1950s destroyed Pyongyang. In the course of rebuilding the capital after the war, regime founder Kim Il-sung ordered officials to plant apricot trees to add some vitality to a desolate landscape and provide edible fruit as well. 

The instruction had been implemented until very recently. Until 2020, North Korea planted apricot trees across the country as part of a springtime tree-planting campaign by the Red Cross. But it doesn’t mean that the apricot flower is North Korea’s national flower. 

North Korea’s national flower is mokran(목란), a kind of magnolia. When former leader Kim Il-sung went to Jongbang(정방) Mountain in Hwanghae Province in May 1964, he said he would never forget the white flower that he had seen at the mountain with his grandmother when he was little. Hearing that, his son Kim Jong-il, who was trying hard to show loyalty to his father to become an heir apparent, made tremendous efforts to find the mountain magnolia. He finally presented the flower to his father, who was immensely happy. Kim Il-sung named the flower mokran. “Mok” means “tree” and the word “ran” has traditionally been used to refer to a beautiful flower. After it was designated as the state flower, citizens studied it in various programs. 

South Korea’s national flower is the rose of Sharon or mugunghwa in Korean. It means “eternal blossom that never falls.” In fact, the rose of Sharon was North Korea’s state flower until the early 1960s. But in 1964, the North began to call mountain magnolia “mokran,” which became the nation’s official national flower in 1991. 

But a different flower represents North Korea on April 15, the birthday of former leader Kim Il-sung. Known locally as the Day of the Sun, it is one of the biggest holidays in the country. 

With the Kimilsungia festival drawing nearer, workers and servers at the Kyunghung(경흥) Guidance Bureau are busy taking care of Kimilsungia, the flower of immortality.

The Kimilsungia festival has been held as part of celebrations for the Day of the Sun. At the flower festival, workers, teenagers and students in various parts of the country exhibit the flowers named Kimilsungia that they have cultivated with great care. What is Kimilsungia? 

Kimilsungia is a flower named after the former leader. It was known for the first time in April 1977. The flower is a tropical perennial plant of the orchid family. An Indonesian botanist bred the new variety after some 200 experiments. Indonesia sent the flowers to North Korea in 1975 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s visit to Indonesia. In January that year, the flowers were replanted in a botanical garden in Pyongyang under the instruction of Kim Il-sung. The flower was officially named Kimilsungia in April 1977. Relevant research was conducted and greenhouses were built. The Central Botanical Garden in Pyongyang began to cultivate the flower. 

When Kim Il-sung visited Indonesia in 1965, then-Indonesian President Sukarno presented a flower to Kim, and the flower was later named after the North Korean leader. The flower bearing the name of the leader is a symbol of a personality cult. That is, the flower itself is regarded as the leader. North Korea has produced a movie and a song about the flower and built greenhouses in different regions to carry out research. North Korea built a similar cult of personality around Kim Jong-il as well, as seen in the flower named after him. 

Kimjongilia is a type of begonia. The broad-leaved, large flower is red in color. It is widely promoted as the flower of passion and the flower of immortality in North Korea. Japanese floriculturist Kamo Mototeru succeeded in growing a new variety of begonia after 20 years of long research on begonia roots originating from South America. He presented the new variety to Kim Jong-il on February 16, 1988, on the occasion of Kim’s birthday, in the hopes that Kim would contribute to strengthening friendship between North Korea and Japan. 

The Kimjongilia festival has been held annually on February 16, which is called the Day of the Shining Star in the North, since the flower first appeared in 1988. The flower has the purpose of idolizing Kim Jong-il, just as Kimilsungia is dedicated to the regime founder. North Korea has also created a song featuring the theme of the Kim Jong-il flower. 

In this way, North Korea even uses beautiful flowers to revere the two former leaders. The personality cult using flowers is deeply rooted in North Korean society. 

People solemnly offered floral baskets and bouquets in front of the statues of our great supreme leader Kim Il-sung and our great leader Kim Jong-il.  

North Korean residents place flower baskets and wreaths at the statues of the two former leaders on political anniversaries like the birthdays of the leaders and also on New Year’s Day. Professor Jeong recalls her experience about having a hard time finding flowers to be offered in winter.

I still remember that I used to lay flowers before the statue of Kim Il-sung with my classmates when the clock struck midnight and the New Year began. In front of the statue, we would read a written oath, which is about how we should live in the coming year. 

We also had to hold the same ritual on the Day of the Sun on April 15 and the Day of the Shining Star on February 16. In April, we managed to get flowers somehow because we could pick them at nearby hills. But in January and in February, we couldn’t find flowers. Each city and county had its own greenhouse, but flowers in the greenhouses were for high officials, who also had to prepare flowers. Teachers told us to bring flowers as an assignment, but it was difficult to obtain flowers. It was hard even to buy ones. I remember I pestered my parents for a flower.   

As Professor Jeong said, finding and offering flowers in the winter months like January and February places a significant burden on citizens because there aren’t many greenhouses in North Korea. Still, North Korea uses flowers whenever it worships the ruling Kim family and holds large-scale celebratory events. 

I did what I had to do as a football player. I’m so honored to be allowed to ride a car decorated with flowers. I have no words to express my gratitude. I’m just shedding tears. 

When North Korea holds a car parade to celebrate something or when foreign heads of state visit the country, the North decorates cars with flowers, while local residents wave paper flowers on the streets. In North Korea, flowers serve as a symbol devoted to society, group and regime and as a means of eliciting loyalty from the general public. 

But the meaning of flowers has changed somewhat since locals got used to the private market or jangmadang in the 2000s. 

Nowadays, many North Koreans give flowers to their loved ones as a gift, especially on March 8 International Women’s Day and November 16 Mother’s Day. Current leader Kim Jong-un designated November 16 as Mother’s Day. Husbands present roses to their wives, while children give red carnations to their parents. This cultural change has now taken root in North Korea. 

Flower shops have appeared at the jangmadang nationwide, prompting North Koreans to embrace the culture of giving flowers to their parents or others on special occasions like birthdays and holidays. The country’s state-run Korean Central Television even gives the viewers some tips on appropriate flowers for sick people. 

When you visit a person in the hospital, you’d better choose light pink, light red or light purple flowers because they look warm and full-petaled. 

Considering economic difficulties, though, many choose artificial flowers, which can be kept longer than real flowers. It is also true that people feel burdened by expensive flowers. 

Most flowers are quite expensive, especially in Pyongyang. There are gigantic statues of the two former leaders on Mansudae(만수대) Hill in Pyongyang. Flowers are on sale near the place, priced between 30-thousand and 80-thousand North Korean won. An average North Korean worker earns a monthly salary of three-thousand won. Flower prices are pretty high. 

People in the world all have the right to enjoy beautiful flowers just the way they are. These days, North Korean people present flowers to their loved ones, not only on political events but on special days and also when they want to express their feelings. We hope North Koreans will lead their usual everyday lives comfortably and peacefully, buying flowers at affordable prices and enjoying their favorite springtime activity of flower viewing. 

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