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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

North Korea Part 6: The Weirdest Flower Show On Earth

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Day 6: The Weirdest Flower Show On Earth

 

Day of the Sun.  Loud band music started early on this important day of the DPRK calendar.  It’s the birthday of Kim Il Sung and a public holiday.  The riverside was full of families on outings, rowing boats and simple merrymaking.  We visited the Taedong Gate, an ancient gate that once guarded the city of Pyongyang.  Nearby, a school was celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung by presenting top students with prizes. 

 

We dropped by Kim Il Sung Square – this is the heart of Pyongyang where all the grand military parades take place – 75,000 sq m of concrete slabs surrounded by immense buildings such as the Grand People’s Study House, the Korean Central History Museum with its Socialist-classical columns, Korean Art Galley and various ministries.  All that form part of a fengshui-like symmetry with the Juche Tower, Monument of Kim Il Sung and other monstrous monuments and concrete mammoth of Pyongyang’s megalomaniac city planners. 

 

The visit to the Korean Central History Museum has to be my favourite alternative history lesson ever.  It was interesting comparing the North Korean version of history with that of the rest of the world:

 

a)      Korea is the cradle of mankind.  They claimed that ancient skulls of million of years old had been found in Korea which proved that Korea was where man began, and the peninsula had been ethnically Korean since the beginning of time.

b)      Tangun was a real person who founded the first Korean state.  They hadn’t tried to explain how he was descended from the gods as well as a bear-woman.  North Korea also claimed that they found the skeletal remains of Tangun near Pyongyang and had carbon-tested to prove that those remains were 5000 years old.  International historians and scientists, however, had cast doubts on the North Korean findings, especially on the methodology used.

c)      Korea under the Koryo Dynasty was the only country in Asia that defeated the Mongols.  According to South Korean, Japanese and Chinese sources, Korea was repeatedly occupied and devastated by the Mongols, who used it as a launching ground to attack Japan.  Japan was one of the few countries never conquered by the Mongols.

d)      Kim Il Sung defeated the Japanese during WWII and liberated Korea.  Nothing mentioned about the atomic bomb and role of the Americans and Russians fighting the Japanese and Germans.

e)      The US invaded North Korea and the North Koreans, under Kim Il Sung, defeated the Americans.  Little mentioned about Chinese involvement or Soviet aid.

 

The museum guide made references to the great deeds of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from time to time – they were responsible for all the good deeds, liberating the country, reconstructing the country and even for the preservation of historical relics. 

 

She pointed to some gold Buddhas found near Mt Kumgang, “Under the guidance of the Dear Leader, these golden relics were preserved and now presented to the world in this museum.” 

 

I was touched.  I wondered what they would have done to the golden Buddhas if the Dear Leader had not given special instructions – perhaps some zealous functionaries would have melted them down to make golden statues of our two great friends?

 

I shouldn’t complain.  In this wonderful depository of Korean historical artefacts, I realised how foolish I had believing the lies imperialists and evil capitalists wanted me to believe all my life.  Maybe I should repent by setting up a Juche study group in Singapore, and spending my vacations teaching Juche ideas to Thai farmers and Indonesian sea gypsies.

 

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Lunch was on Pyongyang Boat Number 1 (what a crime, how dare they not name it after the Great Leader or Dear Leader!), which cruised along the Taedong River while we had wonderful bugogi (Korean BBQ) and got our face smelled just like what we ate.  The river was full of pleasure craft and the riverbank crowded with families out on picnics and strolls.  Crew of Pyongyang TV waved wildly on the riverbank, shouting greetings and filmed us waving back.  I could imagine this TV news commentary, “Visitors from afar celebrating the Day of the Sun on a cruise on Taedong River”.

 

Then off to the Arch of Triumph of Pyongyang, sixty meters tall – the North Koreans would point out to you that it is exactly one meter taller than the Parisian version.  It was built in 1982 to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and to commemorate his “victorious liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation”.  Inscribed on different sides of the arch were “1925” and “1945”, representing the year Kim Il Sung left home to fight the Japanese and the year he returned to Pyongyang as a victor. 

 

About a hundred meter away is the enormous Kim Il Sung (you are right again!) Stadium, with capacity of 100,000 people.  Nearby is a huge wall mural depicting the arrival of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on 14 October 1945. 

 

According to DPRK official accounts, the citizens of Pyongyang welcomed Kim Il Sung on this spot where he gave a speech about the Revolution and plans to reunify Korea.  The murals also depicted banner written in Hanja (which is basically Korean written in Chinese script, with the same meaning) “Long Live General Kim Il Sung!” and “Long Live Liberation of the Motherland!”

 

Everyone was elated to see this bright young man who had spent twenty years of his youth fighting for the liberation of his country.  Kim Il Sung’s grandparents hugged him and cried, asking, “Why did you return alone?  Where were your parents, uncles and cousins?  All dead? Why didn’t you return with them?”  Sob, sob…just try imagining a North Korean tearjerker. Once again, DPRK official history highlights the sacrifices of the Kim clan in liberating the country.

 

South Korean accounts, however, claimed that when Kim Il Sung appeared at the venue, the gathering crowds were shocked that the great guerrilla hero the Soviets (who took over the northern half of Korea from the Japanese) had told them about was but a confused young men.  Sensing that this was a Soviet lie, they booed when Kim Il Sung began to address the crowd.  Kim Il Sung had to leave the area quickly, protected by his Soviet bodyguards.   Which version of the story would you pick?

 

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Another gem of wisdom from KCNA.  In this one, the Old Man dead for a decade even received awards from Ecuador and Peru.  Can anyone from these two countries confirm the accuracy of this report?

 

April Holidays Widely Commemorated Abroad

 

Pyongyang, May 13 (KCNA) -- Functions took place in over 100 countries to commemorate the Day of the Sun and celebrate the 11th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's election as chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and the 72nd anniversary of the heroic Korean People's Army this year. Kim Jong Il received gifts from the president of Pakistan, the Chiclayo Branch of the Peruvian-Korean Institute of Culture and Friendship, the honorary director of the Voluntad Publishing House of Ecuador, Juche idea study organizations and public figures of different countries. He was also presented with floral baskets by the Guinean president, the Political Bureau of the Party for Unity and Progress of Guinea, the Palestinian president, the prime minister of Thailand, the first vice-president of the Council of Ministers who is the minister of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba and other state and party leaders, government ministers and figures from all walks of life of many countries.


President Kim Il Sung was awarded certificates of honorary citizenship by the government of Canar Province of Ecuador and Magdalena del Mar District of Lima City, Peru.

Kim Jong Il was also presented with certificates of honorary citizenship by Rafael Lara Grajales City of Puebla Province, Mexico, and Magdalena del Mar District of Lima City, Peru.


Commemoration and celebration functions marking the April holidays were held at least on 1,000 occasions under the sponsorship of over 2,000 political parties, organizations and institutions in more than 100 countries.

The functions were held in more than 20 forms such as meetings, national seminars, "cultural evenings to commemorate the Day of the Sun", the opening ceremonies of the week of Korean culture, art performances, sports contests, book and photo exhibitions, film shows and lectures.

Over 600 media of 130 or more countries featured the commemoration and celebration events more than 2,500 times.

Upwards of 380 newspapers of over 90 countries dedicated articles to the events with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and over 100 TVs of 50 odd countries made special telecasts of films recording the revolutionary activities of the peerlessly great men.

At least 100 radios of over 70 countries aired brief histories of revolutionary activities of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and articles on the indomitable might of the KPA and the revolutionary paeans "Song of General Kim Il Sung" and "Song of General Kim Jong Il" and other Korean songs.

 

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Every April, Pyongyang plays host to the International Kimilsungia Festival, which must be one of the largest flower shows in the world by visitor number.  Held at the modern, grandiose Kimilsungia-Kimjonglia Exhibition Hall, this must be the only flower show in the world devoted to only two flowers – none other than the Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia, flowers named after the Great Leader and Dear Leader. 

 

We arrived at the venue to find the whole area crowded with disciplined Korean families and groups of workers – men in formal suits and ladies in flowing traditional gowns, walking in file to the exhibition hall.  As tourists, we were given priority entry and were greeted by an enormous full-wall painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with the crater lake of Mt Paektu in the background.  Hundreds of pots of blooming Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia in front of the painting, turning the whole area into a symphony of pink and red. 

 

Hundreds of people – families, co-workers and friends queued patiently for their chance to have their photos taken in front of the painting, and more people streaming into the building, once the ushers cleared the earlier group.  It was an incredible sight, with loud piped military marching and patriotic music.  Definitely a pseudo-religious ritual of pompous proportions.  Although we were now used to unreserved display of piety for the Kim’s on this 6th day of our tour, what appeared in front of us was nonetheless spectacular.

 

I asked the exhibition guide how many visitors there were.  “800,000 people attended the last exhibition held here 2 months ago, during the birthday of the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il – the 8th Kimjonglia Festival.  We expect the number to exceed a million this time, during this 8th Kimilsungia Festival.”

 

Wow!  This must be the weirdest and most attended flower show in the world!

 

We were quickly brought into a few rooms where there was a display on the history and background of the two flowers.  The pink Kimilsungia is a species of orchid, first bred by an Indonesian botanist, and presented by Sukarno to Kim Il Sung in 1965 when the latter visited Indonesia.  It was named after Kim Il Sung, a gesture which North Korea’s KCNA called “a symbol of the great love and genuine admiration the people of Indonesia have for the Great Leader”. 

 

Before long, this tropical orchid became the symbol of the regime and over 250 greenhouses have since been built for the growing of this tropical hybrid all over this country of harsh winter.  Despite the shortage of electricity, the greenhouses of Kimilsungia are always well taken of.  During the famine and energy crisis of the late 1990’s, KCNA carried reports about how patriotic citizens asked the state energy bureaus to shut down their home heating systems during winter so that there is enough electric power for the glories of Kimilsungia. 

 

How can there be a flower for the father without one for the son?  The Dear Leader’s cause was answered by a Japanese botanist in 1988.  The Kimjonglia is a variety of the South American begonia.  Huge and red, some critics say the Dear Leader need flowers larger than his father’s to make up for his father greater stature in history.  Whatever it was, Kimjonglia took off in a big way too, with huge Kimjonglia festivals every year as well.

 

Into the exhibition proper.  Numerous provincial and municipal authorities, military units, factories and even foreign embassies have sponsored displays of the two flowers.  A typical display comprised a wall-sized panel with either one or both of the Kim’s, either in formal suit, in military uniform, on a running horse, with children, with workers/farmers/soldiers, with people of all colours from around the world, or Mt Paektu/Kim Il Sung’s birthplace/Chollima horse in the background.  And in front of the panels, countless pots of Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia.  They even have prizes for the best exhibits! 

 

The whole exhibition centre, probably the size of a few football fields, was jammed with massive crowds.  What a nice family or office outing opportunity!  Great music such as the Song of General Kim Il Sung and the Song of General Kim Jong Il.  Lots of (or rather many of two kinds) beautiful flowers, not to mention an excellent venue for people-watching.  All the hunks and babes of Pyongyang are here for the flowers…ops… I mean for the admiration of the exquisite Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia.

 

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Night time – the grand finale of Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations.  We went to the big square named after the God himself, to watch the celebrations from a grand stand full of foreign diplomats, tourists, military brass of the Korean People’s Army in their full uniform splendour and the well-dressed, well-fed elite of DPRK society (the “New North Koreans”?) in expensive, almost bourgeoisie-looking outfit. 

 

What a breathtaking sight!  On the enormous square was a huge colourful platform with a symphony orchestra and numerous singers, surrounded by a hundred thousand Korean dancers, in a kaleidoscope of amazingly colourful traditional costumes.  Balloons released into the skies, huge banners everywhere on the dazzling square overlooked by the oddly solemn portraits of Kim Il Sung, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.  An exuberant sight which only became eerie when one realised they were celebrating the birthday of a man dead for a decade and yet still the “eternal president” of the country.

 

Before long, beautiful Korean girls rushed up the viewing platform to get the foreign guests onto the square.  And so we went, dancing with the people of Pyongyang.  A dozen Sikh dancers from India, complete with turbans and flowing Punjabi robes, ran around the splendid square in a line, waving wildly the flag of DPRK.  Yes, these were the people who appeared in the local papers today, raising the Book of Juche, in total admiration.

 

That night, Pyongyang suffered no power shortage.  All the buildings were brightly lit, and I presume, the lifts and taps worked as well.

 


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