The country has never been known for its subtlety, and martial art stunts have long been a mainstay of its propaganda designed to instill national pride and stoke fear in enemies.
SEOUL — A soldier rams his head through a stack of tile strips. Another stands unfazed as others smash his arm, thigh and head with wooden bars. A shirtless commando lies on broken glass with a thick slab of granite on his belly that is smashed with a hammer. North Korea has nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles and even intercontinental missiles. The country has yet to retire scenes of brawny men performing stunts as part of its military propaganda intended to instill national pride and whip up fear in its enemies. When the North presented one of its biggest exhibitions of missiles and other weapons on Monday, the show included gung-ho military masculinity with a special demonstration by soldiers who have been trained to do the unthinkable. In one instance, soldiers put their forearms or hands in stacks of gray roof tiles, which their colleagues broke by smashing the soldiers limbs.
If the enemy Dares to invade our land, these soldiers will turn into cast-iron fists and lightning-speed monsters to protect the peace of the motherland, a female announcer said on the North's State-run television broadcast of the demonstration. The crowd cheered and the North s leader, Kim Jong un, sat in the stands as others vigorously clapped. His sister, Kim Yo-jong, the leader of the country's propaganda efforts, stood proudly behind him looking at the sun. The Kim family has ruled North Korea since the country was founded at the end of World War II. Its state-run propaganda machine permeates the lives of all North Koreans, affecting every book, film and work of art produced in the country. And it has never been known for its subtlety.
Nor does North Korea's military stunts earn much attention on the internet. The demonstrations include a mix of music taekwondo and performances by charyeoksa, the word used to describe itinerant Koreans who used to roam the countryside as part of a traveling circus, showing off their superhuman strength The elderly circus performers attracted crowds through their perilous feats such as driving nails into wood with a head butt or bending a steel rod with their bare neck, as North Korean soldiers did for Mr. Kim on Monday. During the Cold War, when the militaries of South Korea and North Korea had few sophisticated weapons but plenty of mutual enmity, both countries would stage martial art demonstration as morale boosters. South Korea has occasionally abandoned the demonstrations as its military modernized, slowly staging them on Armed Forces Day. In the North, kick-and-sample displays of military power remain a popular genre of propaganda. Mr. Kim was so proud of his military stunt squads that he invited the Pyongyang s leader Xi Jinping and his wife to a performance when the couple visited China in 2019, at the time of the visit. When the North was in 2012 to show its displeasure with the North s nuclear weapons development, when the former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak stopped inter-Korean trade in response to the North's nuclear weapons development released footage of commandos throwing hand axes and knives at Mr. Lee's name. These demonstrations are usually carried out by members of elite units assigned to protect Kim and his safe house and villas around Pyongyang, Mr. Kim and the country's elite units. They are called human rifles and bombs for the North Korean leader. An identical force of soldiers executed Jang Song-thaek, Mr. Kim s uncle, when he was arrested on charges of treason and corruption in 2013. It is said in the North that each of these soldiers is trained to fight and beat as many as 10 men at the same time in a hand-to-hand battle, said An Chan-il, a North Korean defector. However, the North Korean soldiers behind these stunts put themselves at great risk like North Korean children mobilised to perform countless hours of practice for Arirang Mass Games. Choi Won-young, a taekwondo master in Korea, broke a stack of granite slabs with a head butt during Korea s Got Talent, a television program, in 2019. During the show he warned the audience not to try it at home: When the slabs are not broken through, you blackout and then regain consciousness.