Commemorative Names and Diplomatic Bridges: Begonia ‘Kimjongilia’ Turns 30

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On a mural in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il enjoy a garden setting. Photo by Michael Day, Creative Commons by 2.0
On a mural in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il enjoy a garden setting. Photo by Michael Day, Creative Commons by 2.0

Long known as “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il was from 1980 a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, from 1991 the Supreme Commander of the People’s Army, and from 1993 Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea until he died in 2011. That’s an assortment of important names, isn’t it?

From February 1988, added to this array was a new variety of begonia to reflect them, ‘Kimjongilhwa.’

In the second act of a play you might have seen or read, Juliet Capulet asks her boyfriend, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” Although they can be arbitrary or intentional, there is much to a name indeed.

In ancient times, humanity created gods and personified natural phenomena, a practice called physitheism. For instance, many cultures had a god or goddess of the sea and a god or goddess of thunder. Looking skyward, we gave names to constellations, such as the 48 famously identified by the Greco-Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in his treatise Almagest.

Most of our commemorative names are a historical artifact from European explorers and boosters of nationalism. Naming places, geographical features, and forms of life for people dates especially from the time explorers sailing for European colonial powers sought personal and national glory along with forms of wealth and new converts for Christianity.

Names often have high ideological value, with a kind of equivalence suggested between the place or object and its name. Some of these examples might be quite simple. Persepolis is a compound word meaning “the Persian city” or “the City of the Persians.” Lake Baikal is Mongolian for “the Nature Lake.”

Sometimes commemorative names haven’t endured due to what they symbolize or imply. A familiar example is that Russian city, Saint Petersburg, which went to Petrograd in 1914, then Leningrad in 1924, and back to Saint Petersburg since 1991. Political changes may well be reflected through changes of names.

Before the mid-18th century, names of plants tended to be short descriptive Latin phrases called polynomials. In the 1680s and 90s, French botanist Joseph de Tournefort and German botanist Augustus Rivinus started to standardize the concepts of genus and species extended later by Linnaeus. Since then, many genera, species, and cultivars have commemorated people. Most have been scientists, but now many subjects are also celebrities or politicians.

Begonia 'Kimjongilia'
Begonia ‘Kimjongilia’ by Laika ac, CC by SA 2.0

Over about 20 years, Japanese horticulturist Kamo Mototeru developed a red tuberous begonia that bloomed in mid-February. His purpose overall had been to create a new and ideal flower that would represent the 20th Century. According to one source, he

bred a new flower and wanted to name it after a defender of peace and justice, an architect of a beautiful future for mankind, and an outstanding man who commanded the respect of all people. After studying the world and reading biographies of great persons, he decided to name his creation after the Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The person he decided to name it for was actually then the oldest son of the leader of North Korea. Kim Jong-il was a member of the governing body called the Presidium and heir apparent to the supreme leadership.

Mototeru intended to bring the new begonia to its namesake and present it to him in person, but he wasn’t able due to sanctions. As a result, on February 12, 1988, he flew from Osaka to Beijing. On the morning of February 13th, he presented his gift to representatives of the country at the embassy in China. President Kim Il-sung first saw it on February 20, and the plant was accompanied by a letter Mototeru had written. He asked whether Kim Jong-il would accept the honor since this variety would bloom on his birthday.

In order to fully appreciate the “soft power” of this gesture, it helps to realize that Japan and Korea have a history of not getting along. Before Mototeru was born, his mother witnessed violence against Koreans after the devastating earthquake of 1923. In the early 1950s, while he was in college and Korea was at war, she worked to promote peace, particularly through flowers. In presenting this variety to the Koreans essentially as a new national symbol, he was fulfilling an intergenerational wish in the family for international harmony between Japan and the DPRK.

That itself says a lot, but it might help you to discover some of the symbolism involved in ‘Kimjongilia‘ that may not be apparent to outsiders. In North Korea, the color red stands for the working class, their political party, and both are often represented in flowers. But there’s much more to red in this culture. According to Kim Jong-il, the nation had to emphasize the role of the military in politics to maintain independence or become the colonial slaves of imperialism. According to Kim Il-sung, the red panel in the North Korean flag signifies “anti-Japanese fervor, the red blood shed by the Korean patriots, and the invincible might of our people firmly united to support the Republic.” Red is the favorite color of Kim Jong-il because it represents ardor and because it reminds all Koreans of the color of the sun as it rises over Mount Paektu. Beyond the leader of government, this begonia would represent the official state ideology of North Korea called Juche, and more generally symbolize justice, peace, truth, and a bright future. ‘Kimjongilia’ or ‘Kimjongilhwa’ has a wealth of associations, as you can see. Since its introduction, international acclaim has followed.

This begonia cultivar has been awarded top prizes and gold medals at the 12th International Flower Show in Bratislava held in May 1991, the Nordic Flower Show held at Stockholm in March 1995, the Horticultural Exposition at Jilin, China held in August 1997, the China 99 World Horticultural Exposition held at Kunming in May 1999, and the 2011 Xian International Horticultural Exposition (specially instituted gold prize). It was officially registered at the American Begonia Society Convention held at San Diego in August 2004.

You might not realize that ‘Kimjongilia’ is the companion to another representative flower called ‘Kimilsungia.’ This is a purple orchid named for Kim Il-sung in 1975 by Indonesia’s Sukarno and bred about a decade earlier by Carl Ludwig Bundt. ‘Kimilsungia’ and ‘Kimjongilia’ Festivals have been held on major occasions including the birthdays of President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong II.

In 1992, the story of this begonia would be presented in a fictional version broadcast on television. The Story of a Blooming Flower by director Gyu Sang tells about the life and tribulations of Japanese florist Masahide Shimozawa, who belongs to a family of distinguished florists. Representative lines:

[Any] flower is a gift from the sun for us human beings.

A long time ago, people asked the sun how to live a beautiful life. The sun bloomed flowers with warm light and said: “Live like these flowers.”

If the sun were to become a flower, where would it bloom? Anywhere in this world? In some fairyland?

introductory page from a book about Begonia 'Kimjongilia'A more accurate version of the story would be issued in 1998 by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of Pyongyang. Titled Kimjongilia: the King Flower Has Appeared and Spread Abroad, this book would be followed by others, including in 2011 the 300-page Encyclopedia of Kimjongilia, issued in English by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of Pyongyang.

In April 2002, a museum called the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition House opened in Pyongyang, North Korea. Up to 100,000 visitors a day view collections of displays that often total around 100,000 potted plants. Each display is supplied by a different organization or individual, ranging from the Central Bank to school-age boys and girls. Some come from international organizations to recognize friendship and solidarity, or from foreign embassies and leaders, such as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic and the general secretary of the central committee of the Lao Peoples’ Revolutionary Party. Potted displays often show the entire Korean peninsula made up of the begonia.

In the week of July 27, 2013 a major exhibition was held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean people’s victory in the great Fatherland Liberation War, which other countries refer to by other names. An event with related floral pageantry is the Arirang Festival, held in the Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang.

Russia and North Korea declared 2015 a “Year of Friendship” between the countries, and the begonia was often a prominent part of related ceremonies.

For 2016, the United States National Garden Bureau declared begonias the Annual of the Year, directing nationwide attention to the tuberous begonia and many other forms.

This strongly symbolic begonia and its orchid predecessor are not official national flowers. That honor belongs to a species of magnolia.

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