Available information about North Korea is very scarce, a fact that anyone who has studied the country knows well. As a compensation mechanism, the research community has developed an interest in small details, as by examining them one can hope to reconstruct parts of the bigger picture. In this regard, the symbols of the North Korean army present a good opportunity.
Militaries often amass an enormous number of symbols: flags, insignia, uniforms etc., and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is no exception – although the number of military decorations in the DPRK is, notably, smaller than in most nations.
Yet over 70 years of its existence the KPA has had a number of flags, and analyzing their design can offer some key insights into how North Korea’s army, and the country as a whole, has changed.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
The original flag of the KPA appeared on the day of the army’s founding in February 1948 and was similar in appearance to the flag of the DPRK, with the major difference being a golden coat of arms replacing the star.
The coming of the flag signaled that the Soviet had essentially decided to create a state separate from the South: it was based not on the traditional Korean Flag of the Great Extremes (태극기), but rather on the new flag from the still-unenforced constitution. There were efforts in 1948 to prevent the division of Korea, but this flag alone showed that by that time they were doomed.
The golden coat of arms was replaced with a full-colored one on January 7, 1981 – likely on the orders of Kim Jong Il. Another change occurred on May 13, 1992, when the coat of arms on the flag was again changed to include Mt. Paektu in the background.
The modern design of the flags appeared in 1993
The mountain is considered by North Korean propaganda to be the official birthplace of Kim Jong Il (in fact, he was born in a village of Vyatskoye in the USSR) and both the fact that he was the one who ordered the changes to the flag and that the new design included his “home” mountain (and not, for example, the official birthplace of Kim Il Sung) hinted at his growing power.
The modern design of the flags appeared in 1993, when Kim Jong Il replaced the flag of the KPA with three separate ones for the army, navy, and air force.
The design, as can be seen below, featured a number 4.25: symbolizing April 25 – the alleged date of the creation of the “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army” – the organization, which, DPRK propaganda asserts, had defeated Imperial Japan.
The idea to feature the date was likely picked up from the Chinese army – which has the numbers “8.1” (八.一) written on its army flag. The difference, is of course, that Chinese flag commemorates the very much real Nanchang uprising, while the North Korean one is based on an ahistorical myth.
However, the fact that the DPRK used the Chinese idea for the flag design shows that despite the strained relations between Pyongyang and Beijing in the early 1990s, North Korea remained, to some extent, influenced by its neighbor.
Ground forces flag
Air Force flag, variant 1
Air Force flag, variant 2
The air force flag was featured in two variations: with wings below and above the KPA emblem. It should be noted that, despite some claims, there has been no design for a unified flag for all the Armed Forces since: the DPRK occasionally, however, uses the Ground Forces flag as a substitute to symbolize the entire military.
This signaled the new, and more intense propaganda of the “songun age”
Since then, their design was changed a number of times, but these changes targeted only the slogans written on the flags.
For example, in November 1997, Kim Jong Il ordered the slogan “Let us defend the leadership of the revolution, headed by beloved and respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il at the cost of our lives” be placed on the flags. Apart from proving once again that Kim was the world’s most modest man, this signaled the new, and more intense propaganda of the “Songun age,” in which the DPRK focused on hailing the military, asserting its utmost loyalty to the Supreme Commander.
Modern flags usually feature a more modest slogan “for the unification and happiness of the Fatherland and the freedom and happiness of the people.”
NEW FLAGS ON PARADE
A military parade in Pyongyang on February 8 understandably garnered a lot of international coverage, but some aspects, seemingly, remained unnoticed. Notably, it was apparently the first time North Korea showed off new symbols for several recently-created military branches – and by analyzing them, one can get some insight into Kim Jong Un’s style of governance.
Originally, there were three branches of the Korean People’s Army: Ground Force(륙군), Navy(해군) and Air Force (공군). The Strategic Forces (전략군) were separated into their own branch in the early 2010s and, after a few years, the special operation forces (특수작전군) became a separate branch.
Video footage of the parade shows that new symbols have been adopted for these military branches, further symbolically distancing them from traditional branches and stressing their importance and independence within the chain of command.
The design of both standards shown on February 8 is similar to the design of the other three flags: the KPA’s emblem in the middle, a symbol surrounding it and two slogans in the upper and lower parts of the canvas. The flag of the Strategic Forces is green and the flag of the special operations forces is dark blue. The soldiers guarding the flags wear a special dress uniform, which, as can be seen, differs from the Ground Forces.
All these numbers are symbolic
The reverse of each of the five flags shows the emblem of the Workers’ Party of Korea and codenames of the branches: unit 425 for Ground Forces, unit 415 for the Navy, unit 216 for the Air Force, unit 108 for Strategic Forces and unit 506 for Special Operations. The numbers 425, 415, and 216 were assigned by Kim Jong Il on November 22, 2000, while 108 and 506 were assigned by Kim Jong Un.
All these numbers are symbolic: 4.25 (April 25) commemorates the alleged establishment of the “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army”, 4.15 (April 15), 2.16 (February 16) and 1.08 (January 8) are the birthdays of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un respectively. The latter shows the importance the young Kim pays to strategic forces: they were directly referred to “Kim Jong Un’s branch” (김정은 군종) by the announcer.
The most interesting detail, however, is the number 506. 5.06, or May 6, is neither the birthday of anyone in the family or a military-related day. In fact, it likely commemorates the starting date of the WPK’s Seventh Congress in 2016.
A congress is a major Party event, of course, but elevating its opening date to the level of Leader’s birthday and the official date of the army’s foundation is unprecedented. Since only Kim Jong Un could have assigned this number, this shows the Congress was really important to him – at least to the same extent as his birthday.
All this goes to show that, despite what feels like an information black hole when it comes to North Korea, there is still a lot of information circulating around – and even such a seemingly obscure thing as military flags can be a valuable resource for studying the country.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Available information about North Korea is very scarce, a fact that anyone who has studied the country knows well. As a compensation mechanism, the research community has developed an interest in small details, as by examining them one can hope to reconstruct parts of the bigger picture. In this regard, the symbols of the North Korean army present a good opportunity.Militaries often amass an
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.