But it is North Korea’s military stunts that often get attention on the Internet. Demonstrations include a combination of taekwondo and charyoksa, a word used to refer to itinerant Koreans who roamed the countryside as part of a traveling circus, displaying their superhuman strength.
The old circus performers drew crowds with dangerous feats such as hammering nails into wood with the butt of their heads 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 militaries of South Korea and North Korea had few sophisticated weapons but a lot of mutual enmity, both countries staged martial arts demonstrations to boost morale. South Korea has largely abandoned demonstrations as its military modernized, sometimes staging them during Armed Forces Day.
In the North, the demonstration of military power remains the favorite genre of propaganda.
Mr. Kim was so proud of his military stuntmen that he invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife to a performance when the couple visited Pyongyang in 2019. When the North wanted to voice its displeasure in 2012 after former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ended inter-Korean trade in response to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, it posted footage of commandos throwing hand axes and knives at Mr. Lee.
These demonstrations are usually carried out by members of the elite units tasked with protecting Pyongyang. Kim and his safe houses and villas all over the country. They are called “human rifles and bombs” by the North Korean leader. The same unit of soldiers arrested Jang Sung Taek, Mr. Kim’s uncle, when he was executed on charges of treason and corruption in 2013.
“In the North, it is said that each of these soldiers is trained to fight and defeat up to 10 people at a time in hand-to-hand combat,” said Ahn Chang Il, a North Korean defector. But like North Korean children mobilized to conduct countless hours of training for the massive Arirang games, the North Korean soldiers behind these stunts are putting themselves at immense risk.
Choi Won Young, a South Korean taekwondo master, smashed a pile of granite slabs with the butt of his head during the 2019 Korea Got Talent TV program. During the show, he warned the audience not to try it at home: “When the plates are not broken, you pass out and then regain consciousness.”