Armies usually have ranks. Colonels, lieutenants, and sergeants are generally perceived as a natural part of a military: such as, for example, divisions or squads.
Yet in the communist world it was not always so.
Soviet Russia and its successor state, the Soviet Union, did not have military ranks until 1935. Communist China did not have ranks before 1955 and between 1965 and 1988. And Albania, following the Chinese example, abolished ranks in the 1960s and only reinstated them in the 1990s.
North Korea did not introduce ranks for officers until the final days of 1952, a result of the country’s turbulent first few years and the secretive beginnings of the Korean Peoples’ Army.
ORIGINS OF THE RANKLESS DOCTRINE
One of the most definitive traits of an army is the division into officers and soldiers, creating a natural inequality which is almost impossible to find in any other social institution. A sergeant major with two decades of experience will still have a to call a second lieutenant “sir” and follow his orders – even if it has only been a few days since the latter got his commission.
The origins of this system lie in feudalism. An officer in the medieval army normally came from royalty and a soldier from the commons. Inequality in the army was merely an extension of inequality in civilian life.
This is why during the World War I far-left parties in the Russian Empire – especially the Bolsheviks – had a special hatred for officers. “Golden epaulet men,” as they were nicknamed, represented the apparent evil and injustice of the old army.
So when the Bolsheviks took power, there was no place for officers in the new order they were building. For the first few weeks, Lenin even thought that there might be no need for any army at all – the world revolution was about to begin, after all. Petrograd toyed with the idea of “arming all the working people,” before ultimately deciding that the socialist motherland needed the Red Army.
An army cannot operate without a chain of command. But since introducing officers or any kind of the pre-revolutionary hierarchy into it was out of the question, the Bolsheviks implemented a new structure. Ranks were abolished as they were replaced by military positions – like “company commander” of “regiment commander”.
Apart from serving ideological goals, this allowed the Bolsheviks to exercise more control over a military man: if a colonel was dismissed from the position of a regiment commander, he still remains a colonel. In the Red Army, however, dismissal led to becoming just another civilian.
THE SYSTEM CHANGES
Under Stalin the USSR began to present itself more as a nation-state and less as a homeland for the international proletariat. The army also was influenced by this tendency.
One of the most definitive traits of an army is the division into officers and soldiers, creating a natural inequality
In 1935, the USSR reinstated personal military ranks, creating sort of mixed system, as, for example, a rank immediately superior to a colonel (полковник) was that of brigade commander (комбриг). In 1940, however, the system was brought back to the old standard, with generals replacing brigade and division commanders and admirals replacing “flagmen” (the original name for the highest position in the navy).
Finally, during the war with Germany, Stalin reinstated the word “officer” to the Red Army and in 1943 changed the uniform to the old Russian Empire style. The new uniform included the accursed shoulder insignia, thus making officers of the Red Army of Workers and Farmers the once-hated “golden epaulet men”.
But despite having been phased out in the Soviet Union, this system did appear in other countries. China (and its satellite Albania) abolished ranks during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s – insignia were abolished, too, which was obviously very inconvenient for military men.
In North Korea, this system was also used during the first few years of its history, and this fact continues to influence life in the country.
The problem that Soviet authorities faced when they were creating the Korean People’s Army was that they could not acknowledge what they were really up to. The creation of an army would have been perceived by the Americans as a hostile act at a time when both Moscow and Washington were supposed to be working towards a united Korea.
As a result, military units were given names like “guards”, “railway defense corps,” and other similar designations.
In 1947, soldiers were given Soviet-style insignia, which, however, corresponded to the military positions of the personnel, not their ranks – just like in the old Soviet Union.
The creation of an army would have been perceived by the Americans as a hostile act
The introduction of ranks was seemingly done in two stages – not that dissimilar from the USSR. Ranks for the enlisted personnel were seemingly quietly introduced in 1949, while officers received their ranks on December 31, 1952.
This system proved to be quite stable – apart from the introduction of the rank of Colonel General in 1955 and rank in Senior Soldier being split in three in 1998, all together reforms were strictly limited to the highest ranks and usually linked to the promotion of one of the Kims.
However, there are at least two parts of North Korea where the old Soviet system still survives: on North Korean railroads and, surprisingly, miners.
Both use insignia which look very similar to the military ones, although neither of the organizations actually has any military ranks. Like the army in the old times, they use positions like “station chief” or “squad commander.”
In the railroad ministry, this system was reportedly implemented in the 1980s by Kim Jong Il, who wanted it to look like an army, but knew it could not be completely militarised. Kim knew about the history of the army, taking the 1940s system and implementing it at the Railroad ministry – in a sense reviving it after decades of obscurity.
The Railroad ministry is thus run as a paramilitary organization. Workers are divided into “cadre” university graduates, who wear insignia similar to KPA officers and “non-cadre,” whose uniform is similar to non-commissioned personnel of the Army.
There are at least two parts of North Korea where the old Soviet system still survives
However, instead of ranks, they have positions – like in the early years of the DPRK: a man with two stripes and three stars on his collar is not a “colonel”(상좌) but rather a “station chief”(역장).
When North Korea’s leadership implement changes, it is not uncommon for them to resurrect something from the country’s past.
This unusual system of quasi-ranks is just one example of such a policy: contemporary calls for the “parallel development of strategic weaponry and economy” even echoe similar rhetoric from the 1960s.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2018-01-10 04:20:49