Although there is a significant number of people interested in uniforms and military insignia, when it comes to the DPRK, there is yet to be a comprehensive study of the subject.
The problem was that every single bit of information related to it is classified.
It wasn’t always like this. From 1952 until the late 1950s, North Korea did publish some uniform-related material, but this practice was soon ended. Still, North Koreans who served in the military are familiar with rank and insignia structure and one can ask them for information.
Another source would be North Korean films: if a guy with one stripe and one star on his shoulder is called “comrade junior lieutenant,” it doesn’t take exceptional deductive skills to surmise that these are, indeed, a junior lieutenant’s insignia.
Furthermore, North Korea has one tradition which is very useful for a historian: soldiers participating in military parades are usually dressed in a uniform they used to serve in and sometimes they seemingly are deliberately dressed in a uniform of an older design. Hence, by observing parades we can make some observations about uniforms as well.
Military uniforms in communist countries can be roughly divided into three groups: those that mimic a uniform of another communist country (usually, but not always, the Soviet Union), those stressing independent national traditions, and those that stress the communist idea of an egalitarian army. The latter group was the smallest, comprised of Soviet Russia (1917-1922), the early Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in 1965-1988.
Soviet dominance in the communist camp resulted in uniform similarity between a significant number of communist countries. A uniform is a symbol, and crafting it in the image of a patron state not only made joint military exercises easier, but also served as a manifestation of political loyalty.
For example, the Laotian uniform mimicked the Vietnamese, which in turn, mimicked the Soviet one. Usually, when a country began to drift away from the Soviet Union, they eventually changed their military uniform to a less Soviet style.
There had been, however, one exception: North Korea. Despite breaking loose from Soviet political control in the late 1950s, neither Kim Il Sung or his heirs ever implemented any dramatic reforms regarding the uniform. Perhaps they considered it, like Nikita Khrushchev’s plans to restore old revolutionary-style Soviet uniforms, but, even if they did, such plans were never put in motion.
The Korean People’s Army, being an isolated social unit in an extremely closed state, evolves much slower than most other armies. This slow speed of change fully applies not only to its social structure, but also to its uniform, which to a large extent is similar to that of 1948.
Until 1952, the North Korean had no officer ranks and the insignia symbolized an officer’s job instead
The series of decisions which ultimately defined the North Korean uniform for decades were taken before the DPRK even existed: in late 1942 and early 1943. War with Germany was ongoing, and Stalin felt that the Soviet people would more willingly sacrifice their lives for their motherland, rather than for Communism.
Propaganda started to point at the USSR as the historical successor of the Russian Empire with most talented commanders, like Generalissimo Suvorov and Field Marshal Kutuzov no longer being portrayed as the Tsar’s vicious bloodhounds, but as noble defenders of the Motherland against foreign invaders. The uniform was also radically altered – from revolutionary collar tabs to imperial-like shoulder marks.
Soon after the Axis was defeated in 1945, the Soviets started to organize their occupation zone of Korea in a proto-state. A state needs an army, and various militias were being reorganized into proper armed forces.
The whole process was closely supervised by Soviet Politburo, who gave the permission to create a proper Army only in early 1948. The army’s uniform was almost exclusively based on the Soviet one with one notable difference.
By that time the division of Korea was yet to be completed and both North and South hoisted a traditional flag of Korea, which is now used only in the South.
The flag’s central component was a yin-yang symbol: as a result, it was featured on the first head gear of North Korean soldiers.
The combination of the yin-yang and a red star looks bizarre now, but in early 1948 it made perfect sense. A symbol of Korea – the yin-yang – combined with a sign of communist military – a red star – what could be better?
The emblem, however, proved to be short-lived. On July 10th, 1948, North Korea adopted its own flag, and thus yin-yang became to be associated with the South and was quickly removed.
SLOW PACE OF CHANGE
Until 1952, the North Korean had no officer ranks. A similar system was practiced in the early Soviet Union and in China during the Cultural Revolution, as ranks were perceived as “capitalist” and “bourgeois.”
Such system lasted until the final stages of the Korean War, when at the last day of the year 1952, ranks were introduced. This system which resembles, but is not identical to the Soviet one, survives until this very day with only minor reforms being implemented.
In middle 1950s North Korea briefly experimented with collar insignia. A detailed and a colorful scheme for each military arm was introduced but very soon abolished – probably because in made the troops look too cartoonish.
The military arm was instead to be marked by a special symbol put on one’s insignia, here are a few examples.
After Kim Il Sung’s death, however, Kim Jong Il abolished all these marks and the former infantry mark became a universal symbol of the ground force. As a former military man explained to me, this was done for security reasons: enemies and outsiders wouldn’t know to which arm the particular soldier belongs.
The exception to this new rule are Panmunjom border guards, who have their own unit mark, which is supposed to be attached to one’s sleeve. It features the word “Panmunjom” in Korean, Paektu mountain, a star and two partially painted submachine guns.
In general, the army under the second Kim became somewhat less formal. This happened both in terms of uniforms (regulations regarding hats for top officers quickly became ignored) and traditions: now a military man can salute when he does not wear a hat (it used to be a complete breach of protocol both in USSR and earlier DPRK).
The army is not the only organization in North Korea which has a military-like uniform. Both ordinary and secret police have ranks and uniforms too. Less common is the rank system present amongst railway and metro employees, even less so is ranks for miners, who even have collar insignia!
Unlike other branches, ordinary police never use collar insignia, only shoulder ones. There is even a saying among police officers: “The police are the support unit of the Party and thus our shoulder insignia symbolizes that we are always ready to shoulder responsibility.”
The secret police’s insignia are almost identical to that of the military: to the point that some of my informants have said they are actually the same. It seems, however, that there is a difference in shade: secret policemen’s insignia are darker than that of military men.
Pyongyang metro workers have two uniforms: one, identical to that of the army, for exercises and one, black, for service. Railway workers have blue uniforms with black insignia and the miners’ uniform is also black, like those of the navy and Pyongyang metro employees.
Yet despite all the changes, the basic design on the uniform can still be tracked back to Saint Petersburg of the 1850s, when Emperor Nicholas I introduced it to Russian Army. The design, although altered, has managed to survive centuries and still persists in a foreign country born of ideology rejecting absolute monarchy – but yet eventually embraced hereditary rule. If only Emperor Nicholas knew.
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Featured Image: North Korea - Kumsusan by Roman Harak on 2010-09-05 03:27:22