On Tuesday, footage hit the web of North Korean troops performing a variety of unusual “feats of strength” and similar displays of physical prowess before a packed crowd and the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Videos of the sort aren’t out of the ordinary for North Korea, or even for more developed nations like China, Russia, and arguably even the United States.
What makes this particular bit of propaganda stand out, however, is that even if you take what you’re seeing at face value… it’s still not actually all that impressive. Rather than looking like hardened warriors, these troops look more like the street performers you’ll find roaming around Bourbon Street right now.
I trained and competed in different forms of martial arts for years, and fought on the Marine Corps’ first mixed martial arts team out of Twentynine Palms, California. From SoCal to Boston, I’ve trained under experts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Pankration, Muay Thai, boxing, scholastic wrestling, a number of Filipino styles, and of course, I picked up my black belt in MCMAP along the way. So, let’s put my experience to good use and break down exactly what we’re seeing in this footage.
If you’re not able to watch the 2-minute or so clip, it opens with one soldier running and drop-kicking a stack of concrete bricks, followed by another soldier smashing similar bricks with his head. From there, we see a highly choreographed martial arts display that transitions directly into four men whacking a guy with large pieces of wood as he flexes and shouts.
Then we get more concrete smashing of varying types, from punches to kicks, to hitting limbs laid over concrete with hammers. It closes with soldiers laying on a bed of nails and then broken glass while concrete blocks are smashed on their stomachs.
Throughout the display, the video cuts to North Korean military leaders and shots of Kim himself as they applaud the soldiers’ apparent willingness to destroy their own bodies as a demonstration… of North Korea’s military might?
A North Korean circus sidewhow in military fatigues
In the interest of being fair, let’s also take a look at some American military propaganda with the same aim as this video: demonstrating the toughness of our military. To be absolutely honest here, America isn’t great at this game either. Because Uncle Sam doesn’t release too many videos of Marines just punching stuff, here’s a Special Operations demonstration held in Tampa, Florida in 2016.
While there’s practical value in this training, doing it with an audience also has a reason. These displays of tactical prowess benefit recruiting, retention, and perceptions of America’s military capability on the global stage. The point is to do something that makes your military look like they shouldn’t be messed with, so the next time your diplomats find themselves in staring contests with contentious world leaders, those leaders will think twice about calling your bluff.
And that’s where this most recent video fails most egregiously. North Korean troops can apparently handle themselves around concrete, but as we’ve seen before, their generals aren’t even very comfortable around pistols. While strength and toughness certainly come into play in the North Korean demonstration, what you see here aren’t combat skills… they’re circus tricks most fighters would scoff at.
Let’s break down a couple to show you what I mean.
The Bed of Nails
Remember this guy bravely laying on a bed of nails to have concrete broken on his stomach?
Well, it turns out, laying on a bed of nails looks rough, but it’s not actually all that bad (I know, I’ve done it). Here’s a video that explains why, but suffice to say, it all comes down to displacing your weight across lots of nails so the pressure on one is never enough to actually puncture your skin.
Breaking concrete with your head, hands, or basically whatever
Most of this video is predicated on the idea that breaking blocks of concrete with your bare hands, head, elbows, or whatever is about as tough as you can get… but like the bed of nails, breaking concrete or bricks is really more about preparation than perspiration.
I trained and competed in martial arts for years, but never spent much time on the concrete circuit because I was focused on winning fights with human people. I do, however, know plenty of folks who have wowed crowds with their ability to smash building materials, and silly as it might seem, it does make for one hell of a show.
The first thing you need to know is that the sort of concrete being used is unreinforced but genuine stuff – most people call them “soaps.” When used the right way, the material can still be plenty tough, but when stretched to a length of 16 inches or so and held on either side, a strike to the center will crack the block like an egg. Don’t just take my word for it, here’s structural engineer and martial artist Isaac Gaetz to explain:
“Crunching some quick numbers, I compute that it would, on average, take about 125-175 lbs of static force to break one of these blocks in this manner. Without any other reference, this may sound like an impressive feet, but consider that this is typically less than the athlete’s own weight; if he simply stepped onto the block it would potentially snap,” Gaetz explains.
“Heavyweight boxers have been know to hit with as much as 1,000 lbs of force, in a more difficult, horizontal direction, while martial artists often go so far as to employ a jump prior to striking the blocks. The biggest challenge for the average martial arts athlete to break a single concrete block is psychological, if he mentally commits and strikes with a full-force blow and has good follow-through after impact, he’ll easily break the block.”
This same logic holds true for blocks that are broken on people as well.
Laying on broken glass
Laying on a bed of nails is one thing, but broken glass? To be clear, here — I’m not even certain that’s not sugar glass like the kind used in movies, but let’s assume it’s not.
The truth is, a bed of glass isn’t all that bad either (again, something I’ve really done because I’ve led a strange life). Like the nails, shards of glass won’t break the skin if your weight is well distributed, and the truth is, most of the glass won’t really bother you at all as long as you’re not moving around a lot.
Laying on glass is easier to do than walking on it, so here’s a video that will teach you to be tougher than these North Korean commandos (if you’re into that sort of thing).
North Korea isn’t very good at modern propaganda
I can’t help but pay attention when entertaining new propaganda hits the web. I’ve studied nations’ use of messaging and narrative control for years, because when you look past the surface of this sort of messaging, you can glean interesting things about a nation’s motives, capabilities, and even cultural relationship with things like reality.
These are all essential puzzle pieces for managing foreign policy and protecting or defending America’s interests abroad. In North Korea’s case, we have a reclusive nation with legitimate nuclear weapons and questionable delivery vehicles to carry them, a malnourished and outdated military apparatus, a subjugated population exposed to near-constant state propaganda, and a Supreme Leader who often seems to struggle to balance his desire to be seen as a modern figurehead on the world’s stage with his need to maintain the image of living god among his domestic population.
In other words, North Korea is a perfect storm for really crazy propaganda.
Videos like this (alongside a broad variety of other messaging types) convey a message on behalf of their nation, and when there’s violence on display, it usually has something to do with military capability in terms of technology or training; like putting a sign in your front yard for the security system you installed. The message is simple: we’re not a good target to mess with.
Nations like China invest billions in American popular culture, from movies to TV, from sports to radio, all in an effort to control how the average American sees their country, and in turn, its government. Russia invests in “super weapons” that garner global press and employs both digital and human troll armies to sway discourse in digital spaces. Both nations also release utterly insane military videos like the one shown above — sometimes firing live ammunition at each other in close quarters or demonstrating advanced martial arts techniques — but these videos usually convey some sort of practical application for the skills being demonstrated, even if contrived.
The best practical application for the skills demonstrated in this video might be the main stage at Ozzfest in 1993… But certainly not a battlefield.