North Korea Thanks Its Schoolchildren for Building Such Nice Rocket Tanks

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Everyone in North Korea serves the military -- even, according to boastful state propagandists, kids.

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Multiple-launch rocket systems on parade in Pyongyang. KNCA via Reuters.

North Korea's official propaganda outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, recently declared the state's appreciation for all those young school kids who "helped" manufacture rocket-shooting tanks for the People's Army. The announcement, which coincided with a military parade in the country's second-largest city to show off the vehicles, also thanked the "Democratic Women's Union":

Multiple-launch rocket systems "Sonyon-ho" and "Nyomaeng-ho" manufactured with the assistance of school youth and children and members of the Democratic Women's Union of Korea (DWUK) across the country were presented to units of the Korean People's Army (KPA) with due ceremony at Hamhung Square in South Hamgyong Province on Thursday to mark the 80th anniversary of the KPA.

Those rockets are associated with their will to remain true to the Party's Songun revolutionary leadership generation after generation and their patriotic desire to make contributions to bolstering the nation's defence capability.

Multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS, in military parlance) are serious pieces of equipment, meant to fire guided or unguided explosives over dozens or miles. That they were apparently built in part by school-aged kids is a reminder that North Korean society is so militarized -- and so exploited -- that even children are skilled and practiced at constructing sophisticated mechanical and electronic weaponry. That the state would actually boast its use of child labor for building tanks is a reminder of the extent to which military nationalism has twisted North Korean society.

It's the kind of oddball story that gives this country its cartoonishly villainous image, but it's also a neat encapsulation of the North Korean system and its improbable survival under three generations of rule. North Korea, the most specialized society in the world, perhaps in history, has been engineered by the Kim family to do exactly two things very well: militarize and enslave.

In building one of the largest militaries in the world, it deters other countries from attacking and occasionally attacks them itself as a means of coercion. The MLRS are one of many ways that Kim Jong Un holds us all hostage. Its missiles could possibly hit the New York-sized South Korean capital of Seoul. If it did, the world couldn't attack North Korea without risking millions of deaths in an all-out war, which means there's little we can do to stop them. This is how one of the world's poorest countries gets away with pushing the rest of us around.

In enslaving its own people, dousing them with amazingly effective propaganda and the ever-present threat of the gulag, the Kim regime gets 25 million people working on behalf of the state. Because the North Korean state's only two real functions are enforcing citizens' servitude and building up the military, the regime uses military nationalism to connect the two. The military is the embodiment of the glory of the nation, the protector of the family from hostile and ever-present threats, and the ultimate end of society. Within the system, it makes perfect sense to celebrate children who give up school to build rocket-firing tanks. If servitude and militarization are the only two values that matter, what could be more glorious?

Update: The children may not actually be physically building the tanks, says U.S. academic and North Korea-watcher Adam Cathcart. The original propaganda report, from Korean-language state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, describes the children as "mobilizing around" the military vehicles, according to Cathcart, perhaps by raising funds or collecting raw materials. Either way, the state is using children to build its military, something its propagandists seem to see as a point of pride. Cathcart's Twitter feed is a great resource for all things North Korean.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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