North Korea’s winter military parade full of cold, beatings, and exhaustion

A female military brass band performs for the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the
Korean Workers’ Party on October 10, 2015. Image: Yonhap News Agency

North Korea is preparing to conduct a large-scale military parade earlier than usual to mark the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPW) on February 8. The anniversary of the KPA’s foundation is April 25, and such parades have always been conducted on this date in the past.

Satellite images suggest that broad preparations are indeed taking place. There are also reports that the military parade will involve the mobilization of 50,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, the wind chill factor for the region is bringing the temperature down to minus 20°C.

Daily NK recently spoke with Kim Jong Ah, a defector with past experience participating in North Korean military parades. “This Feb. 8 parade will be the first time in North Korea’s history that it has conducted a military parade in the winter. I imagine that the KPA soldiers are now at the Mirim Airfield practicing for the performance and suffering in the cold,” Kim said.

This year, the North Korean authorities decided to switch the date of the KPA parade, marking a historic first. North Korea’s military parades are usually held on the following dates: April 15 for the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, April 25 for the anniversary of the KPA’s founding, July 27 to mark the Korean War ceasefire, August 15 for National Liberation Day, September 9 for the anniversary of the country’s founding, or October 10 for the anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party’s foundation.

“Even when we prepare for the April 15 parade, it is so cold that moving the military weaponry is a difficult task. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to make those preparations right now. They have decided to move the KPA foundation parade to February this year, but I don’t think that they’ll be able to do the same next year,” Ms. Kim explained.
To prepare for the parades, the military begins planning and training at least six months beforehand. Four months prior to the event, the troops assemble at Mirim Airport to continue practicing. 

Ms. Kim explained the conditions of the training, saying, “They put up tents to house about 7,000-10,000 soldiers. The food, bathrooms, and shower facilities are all inadequate. After living in those tents for four months, many drop out of training for health reasons.”

During one year’s training, Ms. Kim fainted after three months of malnutrition and was unable to participate in the parade.

“There are intense physical examinations to select only the fittest soldiers, but by the end of the training, even the healthy soldiers get worn down by the poor facilities and the constant drills,” Ms. Kim said.

The North Korean authorities select soldiers to participate in the parades based on physical assessments and their songbun (social rank determined by political loyalty and family history). Male soldiers need to be at least 170 cm tall and female soldiers 162 cm tall. However, the authorities always have a hard time finding enough soldiers to satisfy the requirement so they routinely open it up to shorter individuals.

During the physical exam, they check for stomach and intestinal disease, cirrhosis of the liver, malnutrition, hemorrhoids, and cold sores. Those with serious ailments are excluded. It is assumed that those with cold sores are in a weak physical state.

Asked further about the daily routine, Ms. Kim added, “We were waking up at 8 am and staying up until 10 pm at night doing the training. Participating in these drills for over 12 hours is grueling. We had to wear our belts tightened up as well, and we all ended up with stomach pains. The repetitive drills are mind-numbingly boring, and the movements tend to chafe the pelvic area, so some soldiers pee blood.”   

There are many instances of soldiers being physically assaulted during the training. “Every column needs to have 300 soldiers moving their arms and legs in perfect unison, and the officers beat us with a cane in the arm and the head [if we get it wrong],” Ms. Kim said.
In exchange for the arduous training, all the soldiers receive is a uniform to wear during the parade and a month of leave after the event ends. The soldiers are required to write a memo saying that nothing went wrong during training for the parade.

“I shiver when I imagine what the conditions are like for the soldiers right now who are preparing for the parade. And because the training period is not as long, the intensity of the training is likely much greater than normal. The soldiers participating in the parade are being subjected to physical and legal violations of their rights,” Ms. Kim said.

Because there is no tent city set up on the training ground, some think that the number of parade participants may be reduced compared to other years. In regards to this, Ms. Kim said, “If that’s correct, there will probably be a greater emphasis on the weaponry. That’s a way to direct people’s attention away from the fact that there are fewer soldiers participating.”