Human Flower Project

Iron Rule in a Red Begonia

How do you wish happy birthday to a dictator? With a show of 30,000 flowers, all named Kimjongilia.

In celebration of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s 63rd birthday, Pyongyang cranked up the exuberance machine yesterday. There were “feasts of pheasant and venison for the capital’s elite,” fireworks, “extra rations,” and reports of increased production of shoes for the hoi polloi. According to the United Nations, 6 million of North Korea’s 23 million citizens are malnourished.


Images of Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung loom above the red begonias that are North Korea’s enough-already national flower, February 2003.

Photo: Julian Rake, for Reuters

Kim Jong Il came to power in 1994, upon the death of his father Kim Il-Sung. In 1988, dear old Dad had Japanese botanist Motoderu Kamo produce a flower to honor Kim the Younger’s 46th birthday. Kimjongilia, which for English-speakers sounds like a large lizard or venereal disease, is actually a bright red perennial begonia. Lovely. But lovely won’t do.

Earlier this month North Korea’s central news agency carpet-bombed the nation with declarations of Kimjongilia’s intergalactic dominion

“Immortal Kimjongilia is now appreciated by people at home and abroad as a ‘flower of the sun revered by all people’, ‘valuable flower representing the times’, ‘the best flower in the world’, ‘king of flowers’… This flower was awarded a special prize, gold medal, diploma and other top prizes at the 12th International Flower Show held in Czechoslovakia in May 1991, the Nordic Flower Show in Sweden in March 1995….”  Etc. etc. “The facts go to clearly prove that Kimjongilia is the most beautiful flower in the world.”

In years past, Kim’s birthday has featured displays and design competitions of the red begonia, even synchronized swimming events with plastic Kimjongilia props.  This year, 30,000 Kimjongilia flowers were massed in Pyongyang. One occupational hazard of a tyrant’s job: it’s so hard to know where to draw the line.

On Dear Leader’s behalf, the central news agency took credit for this year’s “unseasonable blossoms of wild flowers, citing them as divine evidence that nature was also celebrating the birthday, the ‘common holiday of the humankind.’”

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