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Berlin wildlife mourns Kim Jong-il

BEHIND THE PRINT: North Korea’s press has bestowed myth-like qualities on Berlin’s birds, while the ambassador fishes illegally.

Image for Berlin wildlife mourns Kim Jong-il
Ana Garcia de la Blanca

Continuing our series of Berlin-based stories that are in the news in other parts of the world, this month Exberliner looks at how North Korea’s press has bestowed myth-like qualities on Berlin’s birds while the country’s ambassador to Germany was caught fishing illegally.

W hen North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died in December, crowds in Berlin mourned the great leader’s demise. Masses gathered outside North Korea’s embassy to weep, and in a ‘rare phenomenon’ even the birds and flowers reacted to the death of the Supreme Leader.

If you don’t remember this, it’s no wonder, because it didn’t happen. But that hasn’t stopped North Korea’s media from spewing this exact story to its populace.

The country’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency said on its English-language website on January 19 that a titmouse bird settled at the entrance to the North Korean Embassy in Berlin on December 20, the day after Kim’s death was announced, and pecked at the glass.

“Witnesses said: It was a rare phenomenon which was not observed before. It seemed that upon hearing the sad news of the demise of the outstanding great man, the bird flew to the mourning station to express condolences and flew away after standing vigil,” stated the report.

It went on to claim that “there were visits of an endless crowd of people to the mourning place, but the bird was staring at it for an hour before flying away.”

Even plant life was moved to a show of respect for Jung-il, as “an Asian fruit tree on the embassy grounds came into bloom in such cold winter day [sic] in token of mourning his demise,” the report declared.

An official at the North Korean embassy told Exberliner that it was all true: “Of course it is true. We at the embassy saw it,” said a man who would not give his name.

A South Korean citizen living in Berlin who did not want to be named due to the prickly nature of North/South Korean relations, added that the story was aimed at North Koreans, not foreigners.

“I don’t know whether North Koreans believe this story, but the reporting of North Korean press about Kim Jong-il is already like ritual or religious testament. This story is not a press report but a kind of ceremonial preaching,” he said.

Former South Korean border soldier Jae Hyun Yoowho is based in Berlin and has written books and exhibited art pieces on the subject is not surprised: “No one knows if North Koreans believe these stories, but I can imagine that many do, because Kim Jong-il was loved – kind of the way the British queen is loved, as a symbol.”

Jong-il had been presented to his people as a father figure and a demi-god ruling the country of about 23 million with a one million-strong army – thought to be the world’s fifth largest.

All aspects of daily life in North Korea are strictly controlled by government, with daily food shortages, acute power cuts and poor infrastructure the norm. Maybe the country’s food shortages explain why, as the Berlin birds were busy mourning the Supreme Leader, the Berlin fish were being poached by the North Korean ambassador to Germany.

Ri Si Hong was caught illegally fishing in the Havel River in Spandau on January 19, the same day the country’s official news website posted the story about the plants and birds.

According to press reports Hong waved away police who found him and carried on with a grin, citing diplomatic immunity. Police officers challenged the ambassador because he had no fishing licence but eventually were obliged to let Hong flout the law once he proved that he was indeed an ambassador.

Normally convicted poachers can face a jail sentence of up to two years in Germany. The spokesman at the North Korean embassy hung up the phone when asked to comment on this matter.