In North Korea, according to the system of guilt-by-association, three generations of the convicted individual’s family members may be punished. There is an upside to this draconian system: in cases where an individual makes a great contribution to the country, or achieves exceptional results in their respective field and is named a revolutionary hero, three generations of the individual’s family are guaranteed a comfortable life.
Stories about revolutionary heroes are narrated continuously by the state mouthpiece and newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. Articles elaborate on the benefits that heroes receive in order to instill a striving for glory in civilians and soldiers alike. For many North Koreans who find it difficult to put food on the table each day, to become a revolutionary hero is an ultimate dream come true. Under these circumstances, strange forms of loyalty can be seen.
For example, there is the story of an accident in a unit of the Korean People’s Army, in which a grenade went off. At that time, one corporal placed a helmet over the grenade and threw himself over it. As the safety pin had come off the grenade in closed quarters, there was no other way to handle the problem.
At this point in the story, we may think that this would be perceived as a pure act of comradeship and sacrifice on the part of the corporal. However, the corporal was branded an ‘Enemy of the Revolution’ and buried on a hill without so much as a funeral. Even the deceased corporal’s platoon did not escape punishment, and its members were banished into the remote countryside.
Why was the corporal, who gave his life to save his comrades, branded as an Enemy of the Revolution?
It turned out that the accident had bee planned beforehand. Born into a low class with no prospect of future advancement, the corporal had read the story of Kim Gwang Chul in the Rodong Sinmun. Kim Gwang Chul is a figure from the early 1990s, who famously used his own body to shield his comrades from a grenade whose safety pin had come out. He died in the process but had saved his comrades.
After reading this article, the corporal had decided to become a ‘revolutionary hero’ himself. He carried out preliminary research, finding out from his comrades whether one could survive a grenade explosion by covering the grenade with a helmet. He was told he could. The Korean People’s Army Investigations Unit discovered this from his comrades after the incident. The unit therefore convicted the soldiers of his fellow platoon, who had effectively aided him with advice.
North Korean refugees say about the incident, “You can’t limit the blame to the corporal in this story. It’s a tragic product of the North Korean system.”
The tragedy, only one of many symptoms of the extremes of North Korean society, demonstrate the lengths to which individuals would compete to prove their loyalty to the regime.