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Collecting the 'Hermit Kingdom'

A look at the awards from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
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North Korea willfully walls itself off both metaphorically as well as physically from the rest of the world. It is a prime example of a “hermit kingdom.” This also makes it difficult for collectors to not only collect the awards of the DPRK, but to obtain reliable information about North Korea’s extensive system of national honors. Just like the country itself, this system is incompletely understood, confusing and often complicated.

Prior to 1905, the Korean peninsula was called the Korean Empire, but with the conclusions of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the history of Korea was one of subjugation as a colonial territory of Japan. The annexation of Korea ended with the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII. It was at this point Korea was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the North occupied by the Soviet Union and the South occupied by the United States. By 1948, separate governments formed with the socialist and Soviets-aligned DPRK in the North, and the capitalist, more Western-aligned Republic of Korea in the South. It wasn’t long before tension between North and South Korea simmered, since both regarded themselves as the lawful government of the whole peninsula. Under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, North Korea invaded the South and the Korean War broke out. In spite of support by the Soviet Union and China, Kim Il Sung failed to conquer the South. By 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a ceasefire and the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established. It should be pointed out that a formal peace treaty has never been signed.

Illustrated are examples of a 2nd Class and 3rd Class Order of the National Flag. The 2nd Class measures 55mm and the 3rd Class measures 45mm. A 1st Class example would have external rays in gold.

Illustrated are examples of a 2nd Class and 3rd Class Order of the National Flag. The 2nd Class measures 55mm and the 3rd Class measures 45mm. A 1st Class example would have external rays in gold.

The North Korean, or DPRK, awards were first created soon after the government was formed in 1948. This would be beginning of many issued awards over the next 70-plus year history of North Korea. Adding to the confusion is that many collectors have seen photos of DPRK officers wearing a large collection of many medals on their uniforms. One such internet image showed the medals covering both sides of the uniform as well as the sleeves and pant legs. This was later found to be a fabricated online image, but nonetheless the number of awards can be overwhelming for the collector.

The Korean Liberation Commemoration Medal is a 33mm silver medal with the Liberation Commemoration Tower embossed on a rayed background. Laurel leaves are on each side and the word “Liberation” on the ribbon at the bottom in two characters.

The Korean Liberation Commemoration Medal is a 33mm silver medal with the Liberation Commemoration Tower embossed on a rayed background. Laurel leaves are on each side and the word “Liberation” on the ribbon at the bottom in two characters.

The first awards of the DPRK in October 1948 were the Order of the National Flag and the Liberation Commemorative Medal. The Order of the National Flag came in three classes, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class and was established in October of 1948. It was conferred on people who made contributions to the freedom and Independence as well as the construction of the DPRK. Because many of the medals initially were made in the Soviet Union with later issues made in country, serious collectors would be wise to acquire the 406-page standard reference “Military and Civil Awards of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK)” by Warren E. Sessler and Paul D. McDaniel , 2009 or a smaller but concise text titled “Orders, Decorations, and medals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “ by Col. Willam A. Boik, USAR(Ret), 2008. Both explain the rather extensive number of variations of our discussed medals.

The first version of the Military Merit Medal shows a North Korean soldier wearing an overcoat and carrying a rifle with a large North Korean Flag behind him. The current version shows the upper body of a North Korean soldier carrying an AK-47 rifle. A partial North Korean Flag with a ship and two aircraft are found to the right.

The first version of the Military Merit Medal shows a North Korean soldier wearing an overcoat and carrying a rifle with a large North Korean Flag behind him. The current version shows the upper body of a North Korean soldier carrying an AK-47 rifle. A partial North Korean Flag with a ship and two aircraft are found to the right.

Following closely, also in October of 1948 was the Korean Liberation Commemoration Medal. It was created to commemorate the Soviet Liberation of North Korea from the Japanese in 1945. It was awarded to both Soviet and North Koreans who fought the Japanese during World War II.

On June 13, 1949 the Military Merit Medal was established to recognize soldiers with more than 10 years of exemplary service or for distinguished service in combat. It came into two different versions, with the type 1 being issued from 1949-1970s and the type 2 issued from the 1970s to present. Issued at the same time was the Meritorious (Labor) Service Medal. The Meritorious Service Medal was created to recognize those who had achieved excellent results in developing the economy, culture or arts. It was also awarded to individuals demonstrating significant meritorious achievement on national projects. It can be found in both a type 1 and type 2. The type 1 was silver, gilt and enamel with the type 2 made of white medal, gilt and enamel with identical reverses.

There is a distinct difference in the early issue and the later issue of the Meritorious (Labor) medal. The reverse of both have the name of the medal in Korean characters.

There is a distinct difference in the early issue and the later issue of the Meritorious (Labor) medal. The reverse of both have the name of the medal in Korean characters.

Another National Order like the Order of the National Flag was established July 1, 1950 called the Order of the Soldier’s Honor. The Order was created to recognize guerrilla unit members and junior officers and soldiers for bravery in combat. It is interesting that soldiers receiving the medal are promoted to sergeants and Sergeants are promoted to lieutenant. Also if the soldier is wounded and unable to work are entitled to a 50% pension. Most Soviet made issues have a screw back while North Korean made with a pinback. Also the order came in both 1st and 2nd Class versions. As typical of North Korean Orders, it comes in multiple variations.

The Order of Soldier’s Honor is a five-pointed red enamel star superimpose over a larger multi-rayed 10-point star.

The Order of Soldier’s Honor is a five-pointed red enamel star superimpose over a larger multi-rayed 10-point star.

Another wartime medal authorized in August of 1953 was called the Fatherland Liberation War Commemoration Medal. It was created to commemorate the Victory of the Korean People’s Army in the Korean War. It was awarded to members of the Korean People’s Army and security forces who participated in combat. It also included workers, technicians, and laborers who supported the army and to those who contributed to the war effort. It was also issued to officers and soldiers of the Chinese Peoples Volunteers who participated in the Korean War. Even in the type I version of the medal, many variations (up to 10 or more) in the obverse design can be found showing two advancing North Korean Soldiers with a T-34 tank in the background as well as two airplanes. That could include the size of characters, details of the tank, or even the number of buttons on uniforms. The point is that collectors may acquire a second medal and should check carefully for differences.

The Fatherland Liberation War Commemoration medal is often seen in two primary variations. Over the years, many variations in details of the medal can be found for the collector.

The Fatherland Liberation War Commemoration medal is often seen in two primary variations. Over the years, many variations in details of the medal can be found for the collector.

It should be noted that the DPRK does not issue campaign medals since it has not fought any major conflicts since the early 1950s. The reason for a plethora of medals might be that control of the government is mostly by the army and many medals are issued for nation building and for contributions of people involved in major projects. Often, medals are issued for the anniversary of a particular national event contributing to the numbers of medals. Another reason for the number of awards on North Korean uniforms is that they have a three-generation hereditary system and applies to military decorations. Military officers actually wear the medals of their fathers and grandfathers. Most armies do not follow this tradition, and with the country being a militarized society awards are often given completely outside the military sphere.

The Order of the Coal Mining Industry had three distinct classes in all gold, gold gilt center and silver for 1st, 2nd and 3rd class examples. Note the variation in respective ribbons.

The Order of the Coal Mining Industry had three distinct classes in all gold, gold gilt center and silver for 1st, 2nd and 3rd class examples. Note the variation in respective ribbons.

An example of medals awarded to civilians for service to the country is the Order of the Coal Mining Industry Service Honor established Sept 3, 1973. The award was created to recognize coal and other mine workers who contributed to increasing the supply of coal and iron ore and had served a long period in the industry. The medal came in three classes 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and probably was based on years of service. It’s not a particularly rare medal and as usual it is seen in several variations based on materials used, color variations as well as manufacturing variations.

The Order of the Capital City Construction Commemoration is a 60mm wide badge with a gilt star superimposed over a large silver star with rays.

The Order of the Capital City Construction Commemoration is a 60mm wide badge with a gilt star superimposed over a large silver star with rays.

Established in the 1990s was a similar medal called the Military Supply Service Medal. It was created to recognize military personnel for long periods of honorable and distinguished service. It is awarded in 3 classes, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd for respectively 30 years service in gilt, 20 years service in silver with a gilt center, and 3rd class, 10 years service in silver. There were also variations in the appropriate ribbons.

In October 6, 1988 the order of Railroad Service was created to recognize railroad worker who performed distinguished service in the development of North Korea’s railway system. One example shows the five-pointed star with rays between each arm. The classes are easily distinguished by being marked “1”, “2”, or “3” on the reverse and being made in gilt, silver, and bronze respectively for each order.

These examples of the Military Supply Service Medals illustrate a 30-year, 20-year, and two variations of a 10-year service medal.

These examples of the Military Supply Service Medals illustrate a 30-year, 20-year, and two variations of a 10-year service medal.

In December of 1974 the Agricultural Meritorious Service Medal was instituted. It was created to recognize agricultural management workers who demonstrated significant meritorious achievement in surpassing agricultural product levels and spreading farming technology innovation. The medal is typically worn on the left breast.

Major construction projects were often commemorated by a medal. One such medal is the Order of the Capital Construction Commemoration and Medal. Instituted June 24, 1992, it commemorates the brave construction of the capital’s (Pyongyang) constructors at lightning speed and countless immortal milestone like buildings. It is considered one of the highest honors to help in the creation of the city that would be the national center of politics, economy and culture. In both the Order and associated medal you will find the Arch of Triumph, the Tower of the Juche Idea, and the Koryo Hotel. Apparently, the associated medal was awarded showing the same three structures. It’s unclear if both are worn simultaneously.

The Order of Railroad Service Honor Medal is seen in its 1st Class Version. The 2nd and 3rd class versions are easily identified by one, two, or three stripes on the respective class medals.

The Order of Railroad Service Honor Medal is seen in its 1st Class Version. The 2nd and 3rd class versions are easily identified by one, two, or three stripes on the respective class medals.

Two additional examples of major national projects honored by the DPRK in the form of a medal in more recent times of North Korea’s history are the Mt. Kumgang Power Plant Construction Medal (9/11/96) and the Pyongyang-Nampo Highway construction Commemoration Medal (9/13/2000). The Kumgang Power Plant was a huge, epoch-making dream of the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and the medal bearing its name was awarded to People’s Army and construction workers. The Pyongyang-Nampo Highway construction provided a major link between Pyongyang and the port of Nampo. Its medal was awarded to the young workers who finished the highway in time to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Worker’s Party.

The Order of Military Service Honor is more directly military order is one of the DPRK’s newest North Korean Orders. Established in the early 1990s, it was created to recognize military officers and leaders for distinguished service in the Korean People’s Army. It came in three classes.. The 2nd Class had a gilt star with silver rays. It has been found to appear with a rayed back reverse or in some cases with a flat back reverse.

The Agricultural Meritorious Service Medal is a 33mm silvered copper medal with an electrical tower, a tractor, and countryside with radiating sunbeams which symbolize the countryside technological revolution. Medal comes in two variations.

The Agricultural Meritorious Service Medal is a 33mm silvered copper medal with an electrical tower, a tractor, and countryside with radiating sunbeams which symbolize the countryside technological revolution. Medal comes in two variations.

The Order of the 20th Anniversary commemoration of the Founding of the DPRK was established May 24, 1968. It was awarded to people working in government offices and other organizations who strengthened the sovereignty and socialist foundation of the country. This order was issued o every 10 years from its inception in 1968. The example above right is actually the 30th-40th anniversary form of the 1968 medal and had a distinct serial number. Many variations of the medal are seen on uniforms.

The 32mm silver Capital City Construction Medal shows the Juche tower in the center and the Arch of Triumph and two towers of the Koryo Hotel left and right. The Korean characters spell Pyongyang.

The 32mm silver Capital City Construction Medal shows the Juche tower in the center and the Arch of Triumph and two towers of the Koryo Hotel left and right. The Korean characters spell Pyongyang.

Two more medals appeared in 1986 and in 199: the Order of the Three Great Revolutions Red Flag; and The Order of the Fatherland Liberation War Victory 40th Anniversary Commemoration. The Three Great Revolutions Order is awarded to those who support the leadership of the party, and push forward the course of the revolution tasks and support the socialist construction of the society. The Order of the Fatherland Liberation War Victory was given as a commendation to members of the Army and laborers who contributed to victory in what North Korean calls the Liberation War.

Both the Mt. Kumgang Power Plant Construction Medal and the Pyongyang-Nampo Highway Construction Medal illustrate how medals are used to reward workers in a socialist society.

Both the Mt. Kumgang Power Plant Construction Medal and the Pyongyang-Nampo Highway Construction Medal illustrate how medals are used to reward workers in a socialist society.

North Korea gives out many non-military awards and the number of awards is growing. With many of those holding genuine military achievements now dying off, many non-military awards are used. There are many other medals and awards from DPRK, and many of the most common medals have been finding their way into the collector market. 

The Order of Military Service Honor returns to a more strictly military award. In all three classes the medal is a five-pointed pinback star.

The Order of Military Service Honor returns to a more strictly military award. In all three classes the medal is a five-pointed pinback star.

The Order of the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the Founding of the DPRK. Partially visible is a waving red, white and blue enamel North Korean Flag.

The Order of the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the Founding of the DPRK. Partially visible is a waving red, white and blue enamel North Korean Flag.

The Order of Fatherland Liberation (L) and Order of the Three Great Revolutions of the Red Flag (R) are impressive in design and further explain the reason many North Korean officers exhibit many medals on their uniforms.

The Order of Fatherland Liberation (L) and Order of the Three Great Revolutions of the Red Flag (R) are impressive in design and further explain the reason many North Korean officers exhibit many medals on their uniforms.

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