A sociologist can usually write something about the cultural symbolism of a uniform with relative ease, but the exception to this rule are uniforms of the highest-ranking elite members, who often hold special ranks awarded to a few.
The problem is that such uniforms are designed individually, with designs being approved, and sometimes even designed, by their users. A famous Western example would be America’s first General of the Armies – John Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary forces in World War I. A brilliant, if ill-tempered commander, Pershing designed his rank insignia (four gold stars) all by himself.
North Korea features a number of ranks designed for just one person – and basically anyone above the position of full General can qualify.
The first one of these was the position of the Minister of National Defense, created in 1948. In Korean the name for this position sounds much odder than it does in English: minjok powisang literally translates as “Minister for Protection of the Ethnos.”
This was certainly a mistranslation from Russian. The first cabinet of the DPRK’s ministers was created by North Korea’s first leader: Colonel General Shtykov, and it was he who coined the term ministr natsional’noj oborony (Minister of National Defense): the Russian word natsional’noj has much stronger ethnic connotations than the English word “nation.”
The best part of the whole story is that the Russian term was also a mistranslation from English; Shtykov himself borrowed the term from a project for a united Korean government which had once been prepared by the American-Soviet joint commission.
The man to occupy this position was Choe Yong Gon, one’s of Kim Il Sung’s chief aides, who in 1946 had successfully subjugated the North Korean Social Democratic Party to the will of the Soviets and thus had proven himself worthy of a position. The insignia for him – a star with a wreath – were quite simplistic, reflecting the spirit of the age, but yet they definitely were an individual design.
The highest rank – that of Marshal of the DPRK was, predictably, bestowed upon Kim Il Sung
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
When North Korea invaded the South and the position of the Supreme Commander was transferred from Choe to Kim Il Sung, no separate insignia for Kim were created and the latter continued to dress as a civilian until, on 31 December 1952, the rank system was finally introduced for the DPRK officers.
The highest rank – that of Marshal of the DPRK was, predictably, bestowed upon Kim Il Sung. More interesting is that Choe Yong Gon also received a personal rank: that of Vice-Marshal, with insignia, almost unique in history, featuring a coat of arms and nothing else.
It should be noted, by the way, that the very idea of not only the first but also the second person in the state having a separate rank is quite unique. Similar historical examples may include Fascist Italy, although both Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III held the same rank: First Marshal of the Empire.
Both Kim and Choe’s insignia were changed in 1954, with Kim’s now being much closer to that of Marshal of the Soviet Union, which Joseph Stalin wore until his death in 1953. Kim might not have dared to hint that he was equal to Stalin until the latter died, but in 1954 was free to wear it.
Kim became the second Generalissimo in the socialist bloc after Stalin
UP THE GREASY POLE
Choe Yong Gon was seemingly stripped of rank in 1957 and there were no Vice-Marshals in North Korea until 1985. In that year O Chin U – clearly the third most powerful person in the country after Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – was given his own rank. As the Kim Il Sung cult was already in full swing, the rank was renamed: O was made not “Vice-Marshal of the DPRK,” but rather “Vice-Marshal of the KPA,” and the title “of the DPRK” was reserved solely for Marshal Kim Il Sung.
Kim got another, final promotion: to the newly-established rank of Generalissimo in 1992, becoming the second Generalissimo in the socialist bloc after Stalin. Even Mao had the modesty to decline a similar rank when his subordinates tried to confer it on him.
A week after, Kim Jong Il was given his first rank – that of Marshal of the DPRK – and simultaneously O Chin U was promoted to the same rank as well. However, as a mere mortal such as O was not allowed to hold the same rank as the ruling Kim, the rank was split – probably somewhere around O’s death in 1995.
O became a Marshal of the KPA, while Kim retained his title of the Marshal of the DPRK, with insignia for the latter being slightly changed.
Also, despite some claims, all these elite ranks are not divided into army, navy and air force – like inferior ranks are – and images of the insignia of “Vice-marshals and marshals of navy and air force” which can be found on the Internet are fakes.
The Unsurpassed Genius in Military Strategy apparently confused the big star from his rank insignia with the star he wore on his necktie
Traditionally, the European symbol of a marshal is marshal’s batons. However, in the Soviet Union it was changed to a star. From the 1940s, all Marshals were issued a special diamond star to be worn on a dress uniform’s necktie.
North Korea adopted this tradition, and when Kim Il Sung was given his Marshal’s rank, he was given the Star as well (the star itself was probably manufactured in Soviet Union). Vice Marshal Choe Yong Gon – by the way – was not given a star.
Much later, in 1980s, the star system was expanded to three varieties: the Generalissimo’s, Marshal’s and Vice-marshal’s Star. Although North Korea has two Marshal ranks – Marshal of the KPA and Marshal of the DPRK, they both wear the same star, which meant that mere mortals who were promoted to Marshal of the KPA wear the same symbol as the Marshal of the DPRK, i.e. the Leader himself.
If this all sounds complicated, one should not be too upset: it seems that even Kim Jong Il himself occasionally got confused with all these symbols.
As Rodong Sinmun reported on February 15, 2017, the late Generalissimo once said that he valued the Order of the Hero of the DPRK, which he had received from the people and carried on his chest more than the Marshal’s Star on his shoulder.
The Unsurpassed Genius in Military Strategy apparently confused the big star from his rank insignia with the star he wore on his necktie. The mistake was duly reflected in the design of the North Korean Flag of the Supreme Commander. For about ten years, it featured the insignia star on it, while songs about the banner called it the “Marshal’s Star”.
Only in the middle 2000s was the error rectified and the Flag of the Supreme Commander started to feature the actual Marshal’s Star. Whether anyone noticed the error at the time is, of course, another question.