But it is North Korea’s military stunts that often draw attention on the Internet. The demonstrations include a mix of taekwondo and performances of “charyeoksa,” the word used to describe itinerant Koreans who used to roam the countryside as part of a traveling circus, showing off their superhuman strength.
The old circus performers attracted crowds with their dangerous feats, such as driving nails into wood with a headbutt or bending a steel bar with their bare necks, as North Korean soldiers did for Mr. Kim on Monday.
During the Cold War, when the armies of South Korea and North Korea had few advanced weapons but a lot of mutual enmity, both countries would stage martial arts demonstrations as morale boosters. South Korea largely abandoned the demonstrations as the military modernized, occasionally hosting them during Armed Forces Day.
In the North, kick-and-smash displays of military prowess remain a favorite genre of propaganda.
mr. Kim was so proud of his military stunt crews that he invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife to perform when the couple visited Pyongyang in 2019. In 2012, when the North wanted to show its dismay after former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak stopped inter-Korean trade in response to nuclear weapons development in the North, it published images of commandos carrying hand axes and knives after the name from Mr. Lee threw.
These demonstrations are usually carried out by members of the elite units assigned to protect 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 Mr Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek when he was executed in 2013 on charges of treason and corruption.
“In the north, it is said that each of these soldiers is trained to fight and defeat as many as ten men at a time in hand-to-hand combat,” said An Chan-il, a North Korean defector. But like North Korean children mobilized to practice for countless hours for the Arirang Mass Games, the North Korean soldiers behind these stunts were at great risk.
Choi Won-young, a taekwondo master in South Korea, broke a pile of granite slabs with a headbutt during Korea’s Got Talent, a television program, in 2019. During the show, he warned the audience not to try it at home: plates are not broken, you darken and regain consciousness.”