Soldiers at a summer retreat to a revolutionary historical site in Mt. Baekdu recently. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Three soldiers with a unit under the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti Air Force Command were arrested during a tour of Mount Paekdu last summer after they were caught mimicking dance moves from the video of BTS’s “Blood Sweat & Tears.”

The incident took place at Sokhu Station in South Hamgyong Province on Aug. 5, 2020. A train bound for Hyesan from Pyongyang was carrying soldiers to a tour of Mount Paekdu when it stopped at the station due to a power outage. The soldiers were then granted some recreation time, during which three did the BTS dance. They were instantly arrested at the scene.

A propaganda officer from the Propaganda Department of the General Political Bureau and a section chief from the Military Security Command — both of whom were on the train to accompany the soldiers on the trip — saw the dance and called the station’s security personnel to have the men dragged off.

It was initially believed they were transported back to their unit, but it was later learned they were turned over to the Military Security Command.

They were reportedly arrested for “imitating a decadent dance from South Choson (South Korea) during a trip to Mount Paekdu, a holy site of the revolution, to learn the revolutionary spirit of the patriotic martyrs.” That is to say, they were allegedly imbued with the spirit of “bourgeois delinquents.”

The three were model soldiers both in their ordinary military lives and during training. Nevertheless, at the end of a six month preliminary hearing from August to February, the Military Security Command stripped the soldiers of their “political honor” and their civil rights and sent them to Kaechon Political Prison Camp, operated by the Ministry of Social Security.

Even when they were arrested, people believed they would simply face a dishonorable discharge or six months of disciplinary labor. Their actual sentence, however, far exceeded expectations.

The Military Security Command based its sentence on the following.

Firstly, they made a big deal out of what they deemed a “decadent phenomenon of reactionary ideology and culture” during a trip to the historical site Mount Paekdu, a “holy site of the revolution.” Moreover, not only were other soldiers watching, but cadres from the General Political and Military Security Command themselves made an issue of the dance, too. So the punishment the soldiers received was necessarily severe.

The Military Security Command also took issue with the soldiers’ behavior during questioning. It accused the soldiers of having faulty understandings and attitudes as well. Namely, it said the soldiers dishonestly told them they did not know the dance was from South Korea, inconsistently testified that they learned the dance in their unit but at the same time danced South Korean dances “following trends” prior to their conscription, and protested that the authorities were taking issue now when they had overlooked the dance when they did it during recreation time back in Pyongsong, where they were based.

The Military Security Command thus decided it could not take the matter lightly and sentenced the soldiers to a political prison camp.

Above all, the soldiers represented the first “example” of military personnel being tried for crimes related to “reactionary culture” after North Korea enacted a new law calling for “the rejection of reactionary ideology and culture” in December 2020, when the soldiers were undergoing preliminary proceedings. Authorities therefore had little choice but to come down hard on them.

Within the military, soldiers raised doubts after the incident, wondering how the Military Security Command could accurately name the title of a South Korean song just by watching some dance moves. In particular, they wonder whether the Military Security Command so quickly recognized the BTS dance because they themselves have watched South Korean videos.

The Military Security Command must watch foreign videos for three hours a week as part of their duties, so this would not cause any problems. In fact, the Military Security Command was commended for ferreting out “counter-revolutionary elements” during a military tour to Mount Paekdu.

Meanwhile, the North Korean military responded to the incident by bolstering educational efforts. The General Political Bureau distributed political educational materials to the military on Aug. 8, 2020, entitled “Capitalist Ideology and Culture and the Issue of Young Soldiers of the New Generation.” Discussions based on the materials were undertaken within individual organizational units.

In the materials, the General Political Bureau cited the incident involving the three soldiers, stressing that “the main target of the imperialists’ schemes of ideological and cultural infiltration is the gun-toting young soldiers of the new generation.” It also said “reality demands high vigilance against imperialist schemes to melt down the youth.”

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