Spring is upon us, and people all over South Korea are gathering
in their droves to view the cherry blossoms. Do people
in the mountainous lands of North Korea take part in this annual ritual?
According to defectors, trees in the North tend to serve a more
practical purpose amid ongoing food and fuel shortages. Mountains typically remain barren and flowers are a rare sight.
A report released last month by the World Resources
Institute (WRI) paints a sobering picture of a landscape that lost 160,000 ha
of its forests during the years 2001-2012, with only 13,000 ha of new trees planted.
Such destruction, however, has not extended to areas where foreign
tourists are granted access. Certain spots like Mt. Geumgang in Gangwon
Province, Mt. Chilbo in North Hamkyung Province and Mt. Myohang in North
Pyongan Province are heavily promoted by the regime on the basis of their
Last year, the homepage of a North Korean tour operator published details of a new nature park situated in close proximity to Mt.
Geumgang. Here, international tourists
can look forward to a ski resort, a sledding park, a casino and a water park
bearing the Swiss name of “Alpamare.”
On-site lodging, too, is reportedly under construction.
Mt. Chilbo, known as the “Mt. Geumgang of North Hamkyung,”
was designated as a tourist zone as early as 1996 and welcomed its first
foreign visitors in 1999. A charter train service to shuttle tourists
to the site is rumored to be commencing next month, a further example of the regime’s efforts to utilize natural landscapes for tourism purposes.
Finally, at the foot of Mt. Myohang lies a large museum complex
called the “International Friendship Exhibition Hall,” in which foreign
tourists can view an array of items gifted from world leaders to Kim Il Sung
and Kim Jong Il.
For ordinary North Koreans however, draconian travel restrictions render a visit to any of these sites nearly
impossible. In any case, defectors report, most North
Koreans are too preoccupied eking out a living in the face of economic hardship and chronic food shortages.
A former resident of North Korea’s Gangwon Province told
Daily NK on the 4th, “There are only barren hills left in North
Korea, and there are almost no flowers or
trees. Come springtime we used to pack lunchboxes and take a walk up into the mountains,
but as there were no cherry blossoms this hardly constituted sightseeing.”
“In North Korea, azaleas are more common but everyone is so
busy just trying to get enough to eat that they wouldn’t even think to go out and look just for the sake of it,” the source went on, before revealing, “In reality, people either pick
flowers as a food substitute, or use them when making their own alcohol. Flower sightseeing is a total extravagance.”
In spite of such circumstances, the authorities continue to
work hard promoting two types of state-sanctioned flower; the Kimilsungia, a purple
orchid, and the Kimjongilia, a red begonia.
The latter, referred to as the “immortal flower,” was first introduced at Kim Jong Il’s birthday
celebrations in 1998. Competitions
are now held annually in which every
state-run agency, farm and enterprise is expected to submit a Kimjongilia flower they
have personally cultivated.
A second defector hailing from South Pyongan Province
explained, “On the birthdays of Kim Il
Sung and Kim Jong Il, exhibition halls are erected to display the flowers.
They even have exhibitions of the ‘immortal flower’ in regional areas, too. The authorities claim that the
people line up just to get a look, but no one would ever consider such a thing unless
they were mobilized to do so. Flower sightseeing in North Korea is only
ever done for propaganda purposes.”