By Kang Hyun-kyung

Diplomats are replaced every three or four years. However, this relatively fast departure and arrival of old and new faces, respectively, have little impact on their countries’ cultural links with Korea because a group of dedicated people, such as the Seoul Garden Club, who help smoothen the transition.

Veteran florist Im Hwa-kong, 92, is a towering figure in the Seoul Garden Club, having played an incomparable role in strengthening the cultural connections between Korea and foreign countries through her flower arrangement classes.

Her five decades of dedication was recognized during the Garden Club Flower Show on May 6 at the Raemian Gallery in Seoul.

Helen Paterson, the wife of Australian ambassador to Korea Bill Paterson and president of the Seoul Garden Club, lauded Im for her endeavor to bring Koreans and diplomatic spouses together through flower arrangements.

“We diplomats come and go, but the Korean ladies have remained the same. This continuity sustained the Seoul Garden Club’s aims and activities,” she said during a speech at the reception for the flower show.

“The flower show is the brainchild of our dear friend and long-serving patron Im Hwa-kong, who tirelessly gives her time, ideas and supervision each year, encouraging and motivating us to do the show. ”

The garden club members, about half of whom are diplomatic spouses, have been organizing the flower arrangement exhibition since 2013 to commemorate Im’s legacy in cultural diplomacy after she retired from teaching flower arrangement classes in 2012.

The members meet once a month and share their knowledge of indigenous plants and flowers in their countries as a way to deepen their understanding of one another’s culture.

Lee Chung-sook, a garden club member and the wife of the late former foreign minister Lee Beom-seok, said the monthly gathering offers a rare opportunity for members to broaden their understanding of the flora and fauna of various countries, many of which they have never visited before.

“I think the role of Ms Im in transforming the garden club into a useful gathering for strengthening our understanding of the gardening culture, flowers and plants of other countries cannot be overemphasized,” she said.

For 50 years, Im taught diplomatic spouses, whom she met through the Seoul Garden Club, flower arrangements. The florist used to teach them in her office in Hyoja-dong near Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential residence and office. Every year, her students would showcase their floral projects at the Westin Chosun Hotel in Seoul, according to Lee.

Im first became interested in the world of flowers when she was in high school. Her doctor aised her to take an interest in flowers, as they could help distract her from her illness at the time. The young Im later became the first florist in Korea, the first to introduce floral arrangements to the country.

Her talent was soon discovered by the officials of the presidential office. Im worked as a presidential florist from 1961, shortly after the May 16 military coup, through which President Park Chung-hee, the father of President Park Geun-hye, took power, until 1979.

During that period, she went to the presidential office twice or thrice a week to create flower arrangements.

“I witnessed two funerals in Cheong Wa Dae while working as a florist there,” Im said. She was referring to the assassinations of President Park and his wife, Yuk Young-soo, in 1979, and 1974, respectively.

None of her neighbors or friends knew that she was a presidential florist because she, her husband and their two daughters did not talk about her job with anyone.

Im’s policy of keeping her job secret at the time and her reluctance to talk about her experiences with the public may have been because of her humble character She has declined numerous interview requests from several media outlets, reiterating that she didn’t want to brag about what she did.

Cheong Wa Dae would send a vehicle to her house to pick her up. Im said she felt uneasy whenever the car approached her place because she didn’t want her neighbors to know that she worked for the presidential office. So, she would ask the driver to park some distance from her house so that no one would know that the car was there for her

Whenever she went to Cheong Wa Dae, she would always wear a white shirt and a black skirt, prompting security officials in the presidential office to tease her that the outfit was her uniform

She taught flower arrangements to former first lady Yuk and Park Young-sook, the late wife of veteran politician Kim Jong-pil. Im declined to comment in detail about her students, simply saying all of them were eager to learn.

Her dedication and role as a civilian cultural ambassador have prompted her students to organize the flower show every year since she stopped teaching.

During the May 6 flower show, the diplomatic spouses showcased their flower projects featuring the colors, culture and characteristics of their countries.

Their national flags were placed near their projects.

Avazeh Kasrai, the wife of Iraqi ambassador to Korea Khalil Al- Mosawi, used yellow and blue color flowers and plants for her project.

“The yellow color reflects the desert. Blue means rivers, which is the lifeline of Iraq. The branch of this plant also has a green element, as you can see here,” she said, pointing to a small green bud on the branch. “I brought them together to represent Iraq because life and death coexist there.”

Chafika Derragui, the wife of Algerian ambassador to Korea Mohammed Elamine Derragui, presented her project, consisting of a teapot and three glass cups near a palm tree with dates, to demonstrate Algerians’ custom of drinking green tea with dates.

Ambassadors Elisabeth Bertagnoli from Austria, Bill Paterson from Australia, Koro Bessho from Japan and Krzysztof Ignacy Majka from Poland attended the flower show reception to show support for their spouses.

At the show, Ambassador Bessho also displayed his Korean calligraphy, which summarizes the tranquility of a Chinese author after the rain.

SOURCE: The Korea Times