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For founder’s birthday, North Korean cities ordered to decorate streets with flowers

To celebrate the April 15 birthday of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, authorities have ordered cities and towns to decorate the streets with flowers for the first time in three years, two sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

The holiday is a big deal in North Korea, where it is known as the “Day of the Sun.” Together with the “Day of the Shining Star,” the Feb. 16 birthday of his son, Kim Jong Il, the holiday perpetuates the personality cult surrounding the Kim family, which has ruled the country for three generations.

Normally, the capital of Pyongyang and other major cities are decorated with flowers and new propaganda paintings and slogans are splashed across the cities ahead of the Day of the Sun, but that stopped about three years ago in most places due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Authorities want to bring the flowers back this year, even in rural towns and villages, a company official from Pochon county in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“It seems like an attempt to change the mood in the province, which has gone sour due to ongoing food shortages and a lack of daily necessities,” the source said.

North Korea’s food situation was already dire prior to the pandemic but it got worse when authorities shut down the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade for more than two years. Although rail freight between the northeast Asian neighbors has resumed, North Korea has not yet fully recovered. 

Flowers play an important role in the Days of the Sun and Shining Star because both of the late leaders have flower species named after them, a strain of orchid named Kimilsungia, and a strain of begonia named Kimjongilia, although it wasn’t clear if this year’s decoration orders called for either species.

People walk in the street decorated with colorful flowers on the occasion of the 110th birth anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2022. Credit: Associated Press

Paper flowers to make up for shortfall

To adorn the streets of Pochon county with flowers, the landscaping management office has had to get creative, making paper flowers to make up for a shortfall of real ones, the source said.

“They are growing as many fresh flowers as possible to decorate the center of the town and supplement them with paper flowers if they don’t have enough,” said the source. 

“The landscaping management office operates a small vinyl greenhouse but it is difficult to keep the temperature constant, so they have not been able to grow many flowers.”

The greenhouse’s temperature is maintained by firewood brought in by employees from the mountainside, it hasn’t been working well.

“The office therefore distributed five flower pots to each employee who lives in decent conditions to grow the flowers in their homes,” the source said.

Chongjin scramble

In Chongjin, one of the country’s largest cities, authorities are scrambling to grow flowers fast enough. 

They haven’t had to prepare flowers for the Day of the Sun in three years, and the order took them by surprise, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“This year the Central Committee issued instructions to decorate the roads with flowers to create a festive atmosphere, so the landscaping management office of each district of the city, as well as the city’s flower office are struggling to prepare fresh flowers,” the second source said.

“Keeping the right temperature inside the greenhouse is key to growing flowers quickly so that they can be ready for April 15th,” the second source said. “Currently, landscaping management offices and flower offices are spending money that they barely have to buy firewood from the market to maintain the temperature.”

This could turn out to be problematic down the road, as the central government has not told the local office that they would finance their firewood purchases, the second source said. 

Most residents could care less about the festivities or the flowers, the second source said.

“[They] are busy making a living every day have no time to appreciate or think about flowers,” he said. “The authorities’ order to set the holiday atmosphere with flower decorations for the ‘Day of the Sun’ is just a makeshift measure to try to end the dark atmosphere caused by hardships in life.” 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.