Human Flower Project

Kim Il Sung: Orchids & Embalming

Nothing’s too good for the former leader of North Korea, or his corpse.


Magenta orchids fill Pyongyang, North Korea,

for Kim Il Sung’s birthday and the new year, April 15

Photo: Gao Haorong, for Xinhua

Given the hostile silence between the U.S. and North Korea, it only makes sense that April 15th—the dreaded filing deadline for taxes here—is the jolliest day of the year there.

It’s the birthday of Kim Il Sung, who was North Korea’s leader from 1948 until 1994. Nearly half a century long, his reign (a more fitting word than “administration”) includes what’s known on this side of the Pacific as The Korean War, which we understand has never formally been declared over by the U.S. We assume this diplo-lunacy is observed in North Korea, too.

Kim Il Sung’s birthday has been called “the North Korean equivalent of Christmas Day,” but it’s also New Year’s Day. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, had the calendar changed to honor his father and start the year off April 15th.


The 2007 celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, Pyongyang

Photo: Marc in North Korea

In Pyongyang, the capitol, official celebration has been ongoing for about a week. You can tell because magenta orchids have been amassed in the city’s public spaces. There are indoor hillocks of them, and pots filed in rows before giant paintings of the former leader, depicted lolling on the grass in suit and tie as smiling throngs surround him.

The holiday flower is a species of dendrobium orchid named for Kim Il Sung in 1965, on a visit to Indonesia. President Sukarno was showing the North Korean leader around Bogor Botanical Garden, when Kim admired this garish bloom. It was a new orchid, as yet unnamed, bred by one of the garden botanists (still unnamed). The story goes that Sukarno spontaneously honored the North Korean Leader by naming the purple flower for him.

Ever since, “Kimilsungia,” as the orchid is known, has symbolized the president. And with huge displays in April, it’s as if his ghost drapes Pyongyang like a heavy purple robe. We’ve never seen these New Year’s displays in person, but the photographs are intriguing. We see a huge outline of the North Korean nation, right down to the 38th parallel, packed with orchids. Many displays combine propagandist landscape paintings—the grinning Kim Il Sung flanked by 2-D flowers—and masses of live blossoming plants, creating diorama effects that are, in our view, quite marvelous.


Live orchids and painted ones honoring Kim Il Sung, 2007

Photo: Marc in North Korea

We understand that this year’s festivities had to be scaled back a bit due to the sorry state of the North Korean economy (our two nations do share a few things), though apparently, the cultivation of KimIlsungia remains a top national priority even in hard times. “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.”

In the U.S. expenditure on flowers is routinely flouted as evidence of wastefulness. Politicians who spend freely on flowers or on their personal adornment are held up for ridicule.  But the North Koreans see things from a different angle. To mark the new year, the NK News Agency has announced with pride that $800,000 (USD) is being spent annually to preserve Kim Il Sung’s body, “the 9th eternally-preserved corpse among the former socialist countries’ leaders.” See for yourself, at the Mt. Keumsoo Memorial Palace; year round, there must surely be purple orchids near the mummy case. Kim Il Sung has been dead 14 years.

And to think John Edwards was shamed for a $300 haircut!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/16 at 04:17 PM


Hi Julie,  very interesting story here.  It is a good example of how different some people’s lives are in comparison to ours.  Aren’t we lucky to not have been born there, in my opinion anyway.

Frances at Faire Garden

Posted by Frances on 04/17 at 05:21 AM

I am intrigued by the nationalism expressed by citizens who forewent heat to grow the Kimilsungia orchids.  I wonder about the links between other flowers and nationalism.

Posted by Georgia on 04/18 at 06:45 PM
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