PYONGYANG: Making their way around displays of bright red begonias, military officers from North Korea’s traditional allies China and Russia toured a flower festival celebrating late leader Kim Jong Il on Thursday (Feb 14).
Pausing for selfies and laughing at times, the uniformed group – also including defence attaches from Iran and Cuba – gave every appearance of enjoying their visit to the Kimjongilia exhibition in Pyongyang.
“The exhibition of Kimjongilia flowers is yet another testament to the unlimited love and devotion of the Korean people to the great leader of the entire nation, Comrade Kim Jong Il!” the Russian representative wrote in the visitors’ book.
It was a demonstration of the nuclear-armed country’s enduring alliances, even after a year of rapid diplomatic developments on and around the peninsula, with three summits between North and South and a first-ever meeting between US President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un – Kim Jong Il’s son and successor.
A second US-North Korean summit is due in Vietnam at the end of this month, but in marked contrast to the speculation circulating in Washington and elsewhere, the North’s official KCNA news agency has barely mentioned the meeting.
KCNA did say, however, that a delegation from Vietnam led by Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh returned home Thursday after a three-day visit.
The North has yet to announce the date to its own people, and KCNA last referred to the meeting three weeks ago.
Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear arms and the ballistic missiles to deliver them to the US mainland has left it isolated on the global stage, subject to multiple sets of sanctions from the UN Security Council and other bodies.
Even so, it still has some backers and supporters. At past flower festivals, blooms have been sponsored by the leaders of Syria, Laos and Palestine, but this year the Nigerian president figured among them for the first time.
Donors sponsored flowers to “display their reverence for General Kim Jong Il”, said guide Ri Yun I. “So year after year the participants are increasing and the number of foreigners also increased.”
While Trump has proclaimed that he and Kim “fell in love” through an exchange of letters there were no flowers from US authorities or American organisations.
“Not yet,” said Ri. “Maybe in the future.”
According to Pyongyang’s orthodoxy, Kim Jong Il was born on February 16, 1942, at a secret camp on Mount Paektu, the spiritual birthplace of the Korean people, where his father, the North’s founder Kim Il Sung, was fighting the Japanese.
But outsiders point instead to official Soviet records showing he was born a year earlier in a Siberian village where his father was in exile.
Either way, the North celebrates the anniversary every year with skating and synchronised swimming shows, fireworks and the flower festival.
The Kimjongilia – a large tuberous begonia – was bred by Japanese botanist Kamo Mototeru, who guides say presented it to the then North Korean leader.
His father had previously been honoured in 1965 with the Kimilsungia, a purple orchid named after him by Indonesian leader Sukarno.
A total of 30,229 blooms were arranged into displays, many of them featuring the Mount Paektu camp and others the flag of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
A few highlighted development – with one showing a train and others the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital – but the rockets and weapons that have been prominent at past shows were absent.
In the centre of the main hall lay a giant map of a unified Korea, with an illuminated star identifying Pyongyang as its capital.
“National reunification is the strong desire of all Korean people, so whenever I see a map of our country I want to unify our country,” said Ri.
“Our country is a single nation, with one blood and one culture and one language.”