For a nation with so much bad press, North Korea gets a break in the media when the nation’s annual Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang (or Arirang festival) rolls around.
The reason is simple: the spectacle is amazing. Further, the mass gymnastic feats and mind-boggling synchrony are performed by the oppressed North Korean people themselves. Aside from international sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics, Arirang – named after a popular Korean folk song – is the one time each year when ordinary North Koreans can show the world what they’ve got.
“A lot of the participants work very very hard to be included in the performance,” Simon Cockerell, a veteran tour leader to North Korea from the Beijing-based Koryo Tours told The Diplomat. “This is something they dedicate much of their lives to and it means a great deal to them.”
He added, “The most impressive part I think is the backdrop – 20,000 school kids opening books of colored pages to create a stadium-sized shifting mural, like nothing else I have seen anywhere else.”
Andray Abrahamian, Executive Director of the Choson Exchange, a Singaporean NGO that promotes business development for young North Koreans, just returned from a trip to Pyongyang last week and was duly impressed by what he saw. “The new Arirang was very interesting indeed,” he told The Diplomat. “North Korea can do this like no other society. This mobilization and perfect synchronization is to some people, disturbing, but the artistic design and use of those incredible numbers is often breathtaking.”
While Mass Games were only held on special occasions in the past, in 2005 the event was annualized and continues largely the same today. Last Monday, in Pyongyang’s 150,000-seat Rungrado May Day Stadium, more than 100,000 performers kicked off this year’s five-week-long Arirang festival by dancing, marching and performing mass calisthenics to the beat of dramatic music, before a giant backdrop that tells the Hermit Kingdom’s patriotic story in a series of mosaics formed by an army of flashcard-wielding performers who execute perfectly choreographed movements. All of this transpires amid a vivid pyrotechnic display. Photos of the event can be seen here, while a brief video clip can be viewed here.
“Spectacular scenes were presented, depicting heroic soldiers during the Fatherland Liberation War backed by effects of the colourful light rhythms, lighting and flame fireworks,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency declared in its report on last week’s opening performance.
Scenes and slogans showering praise on Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il had a heavy showing last Monday. While Kim Jong-Un’s forefathers have passed on, some long-time Western DPRK observers had the chance to attend the games while Kim Jong-Il was still alive.
“I attended the Arirang Mass Games in August 2005,” Curtis Melvin, editor of North Korean Economy Watch, told The Diplomat. “Kim Jong-il was in attendance. It was surreal to see how the audience of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reacted when he arrived.”
“I have been dozens of times – maybe 50 or more times – to see Arirang,” added Cockerell, who is attending this year’s festival as well. “I was there in 2005 when Kim Jong Il attended and the atmosphere at that time was like nothing I have ever felt before – a quarter of a million people yelling, screaming, a lot of crying, a lot of adulation. It was scary and impressive all at the same time.”
This year’s festival was pushed forward the start of this year’s festival to July 27, honoring the 60th anniversary of the armistice that marked the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which leaves the Korean peninsula divided at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to this day. Unsurprisingly, the interpretations of the war’s outcome vary between North and South. North of the DMZ, the war is referred to as the “Fatherland Liberation War” and July 27 is called “Victory Day”.
A dramatic parade was also held on Saturday, featuring goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and missiles filling the streets of Pyongyang, to celebrate the North’s “victory”.
Increasingly, the sights of Arirang are reaching viewers far beyond the borders of the enigmatic nation. According to International Business Times, despite tensions that flared earlier this year, foreign tourist numbers to the North have bounced back and actually doubled for Young Pioneer Tours, which will whisk some 500 foreigners to the games during this year’s Arirang festival. Cockerell estimates that Koryo Tours will take some 1,200 travelers eager to catch a glimpse of the epic show, which runs until September 9.
“The numbers have been rising over the years from a few dozen in the 1990s, to hundreds about 10 years ago, to a handful of thousands of foreign tourists these days,” Cockerell estimated.
Alongside this increased attention from outside, organizers of the event are also reaching out by expanding their “friendship” section to include not only China, but now a Russia chapter as well. The performers even formed the image of an olive branch during a chapter aimed at the entire world, possibly suggesting hopes to form more peaceful relations in general.
There is undoubtedly a positive side to this gesture of reaching out, albeit in a limited way.
Cockerell said, “I think the festival has deep intangible value in terms of entertaining people and providing an event for people to be proud of. It’s the only one of its kind after all.”
He added, “People from Pyongyang will inevitably know someone in the show, people from the countryside will be blown away by Pyongyang in general and often just sort of stare in amazement at the whole thing.”
However, as with all things in North Korea the role of the agenda of Kim’s authoritarian regime must be considered. For one, many consider the games a waste of resources in a country that is already struggling just to feed its people.
Abrahamian said, “That’s not an invalid criticism, though neither were the complaint about the cost of the London Olympics, which were very costly and organized during a time of recession.”
After attending the 2009 edition of the festival, Melvin made another troubling connection between the true purpose of the games and an observation in the economic history book Time on the Cross, by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, on slavery in the Southern United States.
Melvin wrote: “In the book, the authors discuss the strategy of plantation owners to create a number of cottage industries and tasks which were not terribly economical, however, they kept the slaves occupied so they did not have time to organize or pursue other sorts of goals that could lead them to ‘trouble’. I am beginning to feel the same way about the Mass Games.”
He continued, “Kids who are not in school are ripe for trouble-making and the development of individual pursuits, so why not keep them busy all summer producing ‘wholesome’ goods like the mass games?”