North Korea’s military is the fourth-largest in the world, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, with 1.2 million active-duty soldiers. Military service is compulsory for most citizens.
North Korean military indoctrination begins early. “When I was young, I thought it was obvious I should become a soldier,” says Hyun Lee, a North Korean defector. “Each element of North Korea’s student education instills a brainwashing idea of being loyal to the Kim family…” he said.
Anna Fifield’s book “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un” details the ways the regime indoctrinates children early on. “I went to a nursery with a sign across the front saying ‘Thank you, Respected General Kim Jong Un,'” she writes. “Inside, it was decorated with cartoon raccoon soldiers holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sailor ducklings with machine guns.. The toddlers posed with plastic Kalashnikovs while visiting reporters took photos,” Fifield writes.
Lee echoed that sentiment, saying, “From a very young age, we are taught that it is an honor to be in General Kim’s army.”
Military prowess is baked into the Kim family’s narrative; Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, built his mythic status in part on his prowess as a guerilla fighter against the Japanese army during its occupation of the Korean peninsula. And while Kim Jong Un didn’t serve in the military, he pushed the country toward a military-first approach and conducted the first nuclear tests in 2006.
Fifield notes that Kim Jong Un was called “Comrade General” — even by adults — from the time he was ten. She describes him as often wearing a child-sized general’s uniform, too.
He’s not the only one; many photos of Chairman Kim feature children — even toddlers — in military uniform.
And, as Lee described, North Korea’s version of the Boy Scouts (albeit with a more militaristic mindset) sing a song about how they’ll fight — and sacrifice themselves — for General Kim: “3 million boy scouts will be guns and bombs/ We will be guns and bombs for the General,” the lyrics promise.