Human Flower Project
After decades of imprisonment and violent repression, Kim Dae-jung returned to his native South Korea to lead it, under the sign of an enduring flower.
A mourner in the memorial room of Severance Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, pays respects to the former president Kim Dae-jung (known as “honeysuckle”) who died August 18, 2009.
Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, 85, died on Tuesday. Jailed by his countrymen, exiled, sentenced to death, and targeted for assassination, Kim then triumphed. He won 1997’s presidential elections and earned the Nobel Peace Prize three years later after arranging the first international summit of the two Koreas, meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il face to face in Pyongyang.
Some called Kim Dae-jung “The Nelson Mandela of Korea.” But he was better known as “honeysuckle” - the nickname he preferred. The paper Chosun Ibo said Tueday, “It is difficult to find a better way to sum up Kim’s life than the flower.” Jīn yín huā, the Korean word for this common plant, means “overcoming hardship.”
In the U.S. honeysuckle, with a cloying fragrance, shaggy form and little white and yellow flowers, is considered old-timey, even weedy. But Koreans admire how Lonicera japonica rambles on with “unyielding determination.” The weather in Korea runs to extremes, yet honeysuckle survives its harshest winters and reblooms each summer.
A youthful Kim Dae-jung, the opposition candidate, received bouquets and greeted throngs of supporters in Seoul.
Photo: Korea Democracy Foundation Archives
“Under the menacing authoritarian rule of the late President Park Chung Hee,” writes Yoo Kwang-jong, “Kim survived numerous difficulties and made a huge contribution to the nation’s democratization. Like the honeysuckle, Kim survived horrifying circumstances to fight tyranny.”
It was Kim “the honeysuckle” who advocated a Sunshine Policy with North Korea: “peaceful cooperation…as a prelude” to unification. We read now that a delegation from Pyongyang will attend Kim’s funeral “and bring wreaths.” The Christian Science monitor calls the special envoys’ visit a “surprise move” and “the latest signal from the North of a thaw in relations.” Kim Jong-Il has sent his personal condolences to the South Korean leader’s widow.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Photo: Sandy Ao
We’d hoped to find images of Kim with his namesake flower but haven’t succeeded. We did learn, however, that during his presidency, he planted honeysuckle on the grounds of the villa at Cheongnamdae, South Korea’s beautiful presidential retreat.
The American presidency has included very few botanical leaders. “Old Hickory” (Andrew Jackson) is the most familiar, and apparently he sprouted “The Mistletoe Politican” (Martin Van Buren) and “Young Hickory” (James Polk) by association, though that’s some very esoteric political history.
But a U.S. president naming himself for a roadside flower? Never. Or we should say, not yet. When we see the likes of a Kim Dae-jung come to power here, maybe an American leader will deserve a flower name, too.