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North Korean soldiers lie shirtless on broken glass

But it is North Korea’s military stunts that often attract attention on the internet. The demonstrations include a mixture of taekwondo and performances of “charyeoksa”, the word used to describe the traveling Koreans who roamed the countryside as part of a traveling circus, showing off their superhuman strength.

Former circus performers attracted crowds with their perilous feats, such as hammering nails into wood with a head butt or bending a steel rod with their bare necks, as the North Korean soldiers did for Mr. Kim Monday.

During the Cold War, when the armies of South Korea and North Korea had few sophisticated weapons but a lot of mutual enmity, the two countries held martial arts demonstrations to boost morale. South Korea has for the most part abandoned the protests as its military modernized, holding them occasionally on Armed Forces Day.

In the North, displays of military force remain a favorite form of propaganda.

Mr Kim was so proud of his military stunt teams that he invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife to a show when the couple visited Pyongyang in 2019. When the North wanted to show its displeasure in 2012 after former South Korean President Lee Myung -bak halted inter-Korean trade in response to the North’s development of nuclear weapons, he released footage of commandos throwing axes and knives on behalf of Mr. Lee .

These demonstrations are usually performed by members of the elite units tasked with protecting Pyongyang, Mr. Kim and his safe houses and villas across the country. They are called “human guns and bombs” for the North Korean leader. The same unit of soldiers arrested Jang Song-thaek, Mr. Kim’s uncle, when he was executed for treason and corruption in 2013.

“It is said in the North that each of these soldiers is trained to fight and beat up to 10 men at the same time in a melee,” said An Chan-il, a North Korean defector. But as the North Korean children mobilized to perform countless hours of practice for the Arirang Mass Games, the North Korean soldiers behind these stunts put themselves in danger.

Choi Won-young, a taekwondo master in South Korea, smashed a stack of granite slabs with a head butt during Korea’s Got Talent, a TV show, in 2019. During the show, he warned audiences to do not try it at home: “When the tiles are not pierced, you pass out and then regain consciousness.”

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