17 February 2022
Dogs, Horses, Flowers
Turkmenistan, North Korea.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Only two countries appear to have escaped Covid-19. Not a single case of the coronavirus has been recorded in North Korea or Turkmenistan. (There have been unofficial reports of a mysterious health-care crisis in the hospitals in Turkmenistan, but there must be some other explanation for it because President Berdymukhamedov had the whole country fumigated early in 2020 by the burning of a herb which produces a virus-destroying smoke.) That isn’t the only thing the two countries have in common; both were in the news this week with dynasty-related stories.
President Berdymukhamedov has been in power since 2006. His term has another three years to run, but he’s just announced that he’ll be stepping down next month. He ordered elections for March 12, when it’s expected that his son Serdar will succeed him. No doubt the country will miss its Arkadag (‘protector’) and the state media’s regular broadcasts of his prowess as a weight-lifter, racing-car driver, sharp-shooter and singer/songwriter. He’ll probably continue as the chairman of the parliament’s upper house, however, and three of his directives have ensured a lasting legacy: a golden 6m high statue of an alabai sheepdog was unveiled in the capital Ashgabat last year (the president adores the breed and has established it as a national symbol); a public holiday was created to honour the akhal teke horse (another national symbol beloved of the president – a song he’d composed in its praise was performed on state television three years ago); and everyone under the age of 40 has been banned from leaving the country.
This and the legacy of the previous president (President Niyazov, who died in 2006, had the capital embellished with a 75m high marble-clad plinth topped by a gold-plated 15m statue of himself which revolved to face the sun, banned lip syncing and recorded music in public and dogs in the capital and gold teeth and ballet and opera and circuses and beards and make-up, and renamed streets and whole cities and even the months of the year after his own family) sets the bar pretty high for the next president. But it’s likely that Serdar is up to the challenge. He’s a deputy prime minister and a member of the state security council; he’s been an MP, a regional governor and a minister; he received the title ‘honoured dog breeder’ from his father and returned the favour last year by banning queuing at shops selling subsidised food because it ‘discredited’ the president.
In North Korea this week, Kim Jong-un took even more drastic steps against those who ‘discredited’ his father, Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-un succeeded his father on Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. The country celebrates Kim Jong-il’s birthday – 16 February – every year as ‘the Day of the Shining Star’, with parades and speeches, and the streets of Pyongyang are festooned with massive displays of the flower kimjongilia, the hybrid begonia created for him by Japan on his 46th birthday in 1988 and grown in his honour ever since as the symbol of his dynastic importance. This year, however, there was a hitch. Some of the growers tasked with producing crops of the red flower for the Day of the Shining Star failed to do so. It seems that the problem was a shortage of firewood for heating the greenhouses. The unfortunate botanists and gardeners have apparently been sentenced to up to six months forced labour.
Another flower – the hybrid orchid kimilsungia – is grown in honour of the country’s founder and first leader, Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un. It was named after the Great Leader by the president of Indonesia in the 1960’s. His birthday – 15 April – is celebrated as an important holiday, the Day of the Sun, with more parades and speeches, and this time the streets of the capital are festooned with massive displays of kimilsungia. 15 April – that’s only two months away. The growers of kimilsungia must already be having nightmares about it. If worries about their greenhouses aren’t keeping them awake all night, that is.
One of the biggest mysteries about North Korea, that country of mysteries, is why the current leader Kim Jong-un doesn’t have his very own flower like his father and grandfather. This is particularly surprising now as, after ten years in power, he seems to have had enough of deference to his forbears after a decade of faithfully observing the niceties of the Kim family cult which has been the foundation of power there for three generations. Officers from South Korea’s spy agency – the National Intelligence Service – have recently reported that pictures of his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il Sung have been removed from government buildings in the North Korean capital. They also reported that the name of a new ideology, ‘Kimjongunism’, has started to circulate among officials, replacing the terms ‘Kimilsungism’ (in use since the 1970’s) and ‘Kimilsungism-kingjongilism’ (in use since the 1980’s). The term ‘Great Leader’ was reserved for the founding president Kim Il Sung, but state media are now beginning to use it for his grandson. It appears that Kim Jong-un has decided that there is room for only one top man in his country, having had to share the position with his deceased forebears for long enough.
Unsurprisingly, the other news stories from North Korea this week were the latest troubling but now routine revelations about his ongoing missile projects. (A secret underground base for storing inter-continental weapons has been identified right by the Chinese border; and an area where underground nuclear tests have taken place has been hit by earthquakes, contrary to its natural geology, increasing the danger of radiation leaks which already seem to be polluting the area.)
Previous attempts at negotiations towards arms limitations have failed, but here’s an idea to smooth any future talks on their way towards a more productive conclusion; why doesn’t President Biden commission a botanist in California – the home of flower power and the peacenik – to develop a new bright and colourful flower, christen it the kimjongunia, and present it to the North Korean leader on his next birthday?