Human Flower Project

February 16: Dictator Theorists

On the 68th (or is it 69th?) birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, speculators read floral clues and predict his successor.


Officials in Pyongyang at the convocation Feb. 16, 2010 to honor Kim Jong-Il’s birthday. Red kimjongilia begonias set the scene but the North Korean leader did not attend.

Photo: North Korea News Agency, via AP

“If we’ve done it at least once before, that makes it a ‘tradition,’” So our friend Clint remarked, about the human tendency to see patterns and march along accordingly (a tendency of ours, to be sure).

But what if it’s happened TWICE, Clint? We are thinking of course of North Korea, this being the birthday of its leader Kim Jong-Il, thus the biggest celebration of the year there.

As we’ve described before here, February 16th is a huge human flower project in Pyongyang, as public spaces in the capital are swathed in the national flower “Kimjongilia,” a bright red begonia named for you-know-who. The begonia was a gift to the nation in 1988; we’d always heard that its breeding was commissioned by Kim Il-Sung, then the North Korean leader, to honor his beloved son and dictator-in-waiting.

Kim Il-Sung, too, had been honored with a flower, a purple orchid which was a gift from Indonesia’s president Sukarno in 1965. Ceremonial occasions in North Korea (well, the two leaders’ birthdays ARE the ceremonial occasions here) always feature huge displays of the two plants in bloom.


A water ballet in Pyongyang for Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, Feb. 16, 2009, rendering the begonia named for him.

Photo: AFP

Now we learn that yet another begonia was ceremonially introduced in North Korea on January 9 this year. That happens to be the birthday of Kim Jong-Un, youngest son of the man in khaki—a.k.a. Ah-ha!

More than a year ago, hints began trickling out that Jong-Un was Kim Jong-Il’s favored son and choice as successor. As rumors multiplied about the North Korean dictator’s ill health, so did more clues that Kim Jong-Un would “take over the all-pervasive family personality cult that controls the country.” He had been named to an important military post…South Korean intelligence experts were sure he was next in line.

So when the North Korean news service announced that a new begonia was making its debut on Kim Jong-Un’s 24th birthday, that seemed to clinch it. Three noble flowers, three Kims, birthdays. Well, bibbity-bobbity-boo.

Bloomberg’s Bomi Lim got out in front in its story about Kim Jong Il’s birthday observances:

imageKim Jong-Un, youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (perhaps, his successor). It’s thought that Jong-Un is now about 24 years old.

Photo: Hollywood Celebs Gossip

“The inclusion of a new breed of begonia delivered on the Jan. 8 birthday of youngest son Kim Jong Un follows a pattern of using flowers to help legitimize the ruling family’s power, according to Paik Hak Soon, a director of inter-Korean relations at the Seongnam, South Korea-based Sejong Institute. ’North Korean leaders have used the flowers as a propaganda tool to glorify their leadership,’ Paik said. ‘The flower is an obvious sign that Kim Jong Il is preparing a handover.’”

We and other dictator-watchers sprang to attention. Indeed, this did seem to “signify preparations for a succession.” Tradition, don’t you know. “Obvious.” And for our purposes, amazing (which is not to say humane) that in lieu of democratic elections, flowers could appoint the next leader of a nation.

Bouquets to Lim for picking up the pattern, and then challenging it. This dogged reporter tracked down Mototeru Kamo, the Japanese horticulturist credited with breeding both the original ‘Kimjongilia’ begonia back in ’88 and the new flower, delivered on Kim Jong-Un’s birthday this year.

“Kamo, who said he has visited North Korea about 10 times, denied sending a new flower to commemorate Kim Jong Un,” writes Lim. “Neither had the 1988 begonia been intended for the father, Kamo said by telephone from his office in Kakegawa, Japan. ‘At the time, no one knew anything about Kim Jong Il,’ he said. ‘Therefore, there’s no way I could create a flower to suit his image. Horticulture and politics should be separate.’”

This is not to say that the North Korean central authority might not be planning to launch the new begonia as yet another propaganda device, and preparing the nation for a new boss—just that we pattern-mongers need to remember Clint’s joke. Once—and even twice—- may not a tradition make. And when they’ve been imposed by tyrants, “traditions” have a sudden way of wilting.

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