Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of Kim Jong Un
Culture & tradition,  DPRK,  Lens-Artists

The Land of the People

Imagine an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony; full of spectacle and colour, involving tens of thousands of performers. Add a good dollop of overt political propaganda and unashamed messaging. Throw in hundreds of well-drilled cute children, all eager to please. Imagine too that this ceremony takes place every single night for several months. Now you have just a small idea of the scale of the North Korean phenomenon known colloquially as the Mass Games.

The Arirang Mass Games or the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, to give them their official title(s) are a North Korean phenomenon. They first took place in 2002 and became an annual fixture through to 2013 (with a gap in 2006) before stopping for a while to be revived in 2018.

We were lucky that our 2019 visit fell in a year when the games were staged; and that we were here during the summer season. Even so, we might have missed them; in June, when Kim Jong Un attended the opening performance of that year’s spectacle, the Land of the People, he expressed himself so disappointed with its content that the games were temporarily stopped.

The Guardian reported on a statement by the North Korean state news agency KCNA:

‘Kim had “extended warm greetings” to the performers, many of whom were children, but had later called the event’s producers and “seriously criticised them for their wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude”. Noting that artists had “a very important duty in socialist cultural construction”, Kim “set forth important tasks for correctly implementing the revolutionary policy of our party on literature and art”, KCNA added.’

The Guardian went on to speculate about the cause of Kim Jong Un’s displeasure:

‘It was not clear what had irritated Kim, but some observers noted that his portrait appeared at the event alongside pictures of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, whom he succeeded as leader in late 2011. It is rare for portraits of Kim Jong-un to be shown in public, and unlike his predecessors, no statues of him are known to exist.’

Whatever the reason, thankfully any problems he had with the games must have been sorted as they were in full flow again by early September when we were in Pyongyang. Let me share the experience of attending with you this week, as Tina has given us free rein in the Lens Artists Challenge to share a post on any subject we choose.

What are the Mass Games

As I said above, the closest analogy I can come up with is an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony; full of spectacle and colour, involving tens of thousands of performers. For comparison, the Beijing ceremony had 15,000, London about half that. But no Olympic ceremony, however keen to promote the culture of the host country, would be as overtly political as this. The main purpose of the Mass Games, as with all cultural activity in North Korea, is to celebrate and communicate the ideology that drives the country: reverence for the Great Leaders; devotion to the Juche idea of self-reliance; commitment to the future reunification of North and South. And of course no Olympic ceremony has to be staged night after night for several months as this does.

Attending the games

The first sight to greet us as we took our seats was of the opposite stand in the stadium. There several thousand (by my calculations) school children had the challenging job of holding up a succession of coloured squares of card from a book-full. These they had to change rapidly on cue throughout the performance! The cards form the backdrop to many of my photos below, so you should be able to appreciate the scale of this task.

Waiting for the Mass Games to start

The Land of the People loosely told the history of the DPRK from the overthrow of the Japanese to the present day. The detail of the messages was at times lost on me, but the general gist pretty obvious. Later in our trip I came across in a bookshop, and bought, a copy of a programme of the performance. This has helped me work out which scenes are shown in my photos and videos. The following headings are taken from that programme, minus some acrobatic acts which I later learned had to be cancelled because of safety fears in the rain.

Of course, it is impossible to convey the scale and spectacle of the performance in still photos or even in my very amateur attempts at video. I was surprised to find that the latter was permitted; but I guess the North Koreans are keen that their achievement in staging these games is shared as widely as possible. And of course there is no risk that my images may not be ‘on message’ given the themes. In fact, the only instruction we were given relating to expected behaviours was that when images of one of the Leaders were displayed we should all stand in respect.

However I apologise in advance for the quality of the videos; my camera isn’t really intended for night videography but nevertheless they are the best way of conveying the impact of the evening.

Anyway, let me try to give you some idea at least of this incredible experience!

Welcoming Act
Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of a man and young girl
Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of children
Welcoming act

Flag Hoisting Ceremony
Women in white dresses carrying a blue and red flag

Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 1: Cheers of the People
Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of Kim Il Sung
Cheers of the People

Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 2: Defending the Cradle
Round stage with soldiers
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop

Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 3: Along the Road of Juche
Performers in a stadium dancing with hoops
Along the Road of Juche

Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 1: Great Defender
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Performers in a stadium with a red backdrop
Great Defender

Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 2: Song of the Ever-Victorious Army
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Song of the Ever-Victorious Army

Act 2: Echo of Victory – We are the Happiest in the World
Children performing in a stadium
Children performing in a stadium
Children performing in a stadium with a colourful backdrop

Remember, every one of those small coloured squares in the backdrop above is being held by a child. And every child is ready to switch to the next one in the sequence in unison when prompted!

We are the Happiest in the World

Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 1: The Mettle of Mallima
Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of a flying horse

Unfortunately I have no decent images of the next scene, the Golden Age of Construction


Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – My Prospering Country
Performers in a stadium with a backdrop image of a field of corn

[at this point we should have seen a performance by the Wangjaesan Art Troupe and, forming the start of Act 4, an acrobatic display entitled Self-Reliance – A Treasured Sword. But as I already mentioned, we learned later (from one group member who loved the games so much she went again on the last night of our trip, foregoing the final group dinner) that this was cancelled because of the wet weather]


Act 5: Reunification – By Our Nation Itself
Two women on a round stage singing

This act emphasised the DPRK’s desire for the two Koreas to become one and included a song about reunification sung by two women. The irony is of course that both of these women are from the North, and the South has a far weaker desire for reunification, if any at all.


Act 6: Song of Friendship and Solidarity
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop

Finale: We Have the Great Party
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Performers in a stadium with a colourful backdrop
Song of Friendship and Solidarity, and We Have the Great Party

The finale’s title can of course be interpreted two ways. It could refer simply to the spectacle on show. Or it could be a statement about the party leadership of the country. I’ll leave you, as we were also left, to choose the interpretation you prefer.

Reflection

The whole performance lasted about an hour (a little less than is usual due to the cancellation of the acrobatic element). As I left, I reflected on what it must mean to those chosen to participate. It is a great honour, yes, and I’m sure most view it as such; but it is also a huge commitment. The children miss days of schooling to rehearse and then must perform every evening for several months. Or do they perhaps have several ‘teams’ that alternate? And for the adults, again, a massive amount of time must be devoted to rehearsals to create performances this slick. Do they resent this I wonder? None would ever say so of course; but I suspect for some at least the sense of honour must fade as the weariness of nightly performances starts to consume their lives.

Even so, most of the performers seem to me to be genuinely proud to have been chosen, if their expressions are anything to go by. And some at least, I am sure, find the challenges outweighed by this sense of pride, of obligation to their country and – who knows? – maybe even genuine enjoyment.

I visited North Korea in 2019

21 Comments

  • Leela Gopinath

    Well…the sheer magnitude of the event surprises me. As you rightly said, its difficult to know what goes on in the minds of the performers. We must keep one more thing in mind. We always compare ourselves with others. In this case, the lack of exposure to other countries may keep this comparison in check. If one does not know what one is missing….one will not crave for it!…that’s probably the secret of the happy faces.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You have completely hit the nail on the head Leela. If you have no concept of how things are in other countries, this will seem completely normal. In fact, they are drilled from birth in the belief that theirs is indeed the best and ‘happiest in the world’ and only a few of them ever get the chance to learn that it may not be everything they are told. So why wouldn’t they be happy to have been chosen to celebrate that at such an important event? Even if it is tiring (it must be) and takes over their lives for months, the honour of the occasion probably outweighs any other concern. Plus, from all we saw, the people here do genuinely enjoy music and dancing, and are taught to perform from an early age 🙂

  • CliffClaven

    Strange, it seems more lively and colourful than I remember from my visit to the DPRK. My memory tells me that it was more ponderous and heavier on militaristic propaganda when I was there about 12 years ago. Perhaps Kim Jong-un has offered invaluable advice and direction on freshening up the choreography!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s interesting Michael. Remind me when you were there? Certainly there was very little militaristic here, apart from two scenes – Defending the Cradle and Song of the Ever-Victorious Army. And even those weren’t heavy – there was lots of upbeat music, the display of karate skills (very impressive!) and even some dancing 🙂 Of course it was all very full of propaganda but in a celebratory way, extolling the wonders of the country. I am sure the Dear Leader has offered invaluable advice as you say 😀

  • maristravels

    Michael Palin eat your heart out! Truly amazing and such a good and informative read. Poor kids, I feel for them. When I think how I complained when I had to join the school procession in honour of the teachers, once a year, I realize what an ungrateful child I was! Very colourful. You will have been grateful that we’d reached the age of digital cameras and no long have to buy slides! Think of the cost at an occasion such as this.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha yes, this is something Palin didn’t get to see on his visit. He was there the year before us and the Games weren’t held that year! You had to process in honour of the teachers? That’s not something we were ever expected to do, although in my day you did always have to stand up when they came into the room! And you’re right about digital v slides – I took so many photos in addition to loads of video (which back then would have required a separate camera).

  • wetanddustyroads

    My goodness! It is pretty amazing I must admit … but for several months? The scenes are truly something, but those kids in the background with the boards – they must be exhausted after each performance … I wonder what happens when someone does something wrong?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right, it must be so tiring for the children. I have a feeling the odd mistake would be forgiven. The children try so hard to please, judging by the performances we witnessed elsewhere, and so well drilled, that I doubt there are many mistakes made!

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Astonishing! 😮 When I was growing up in Yugoslavia, we did it once a year, for Tito’s birthday in May. I have a memory of running into the stadium as one in a crowd of participants. I believe we all had to take part, but it was fun, we didn’t mind it. But for a month? 😮 You raise some important questions. These kids cannot be doing much else but train for this event. Thank you for including the videos, they made it even more real.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Manja, I’m glad you found the videos helped to convey the atmosphere 🙂 So when you participated in the Tito birthday celebrations were you drilled for weeks beforehand as these kids were? Or was it a more informal show?

      • Manja Maksimovič

        It’s strange because I don’t remember much drilling at all. I think it was more about the numbers than technique. 😀 I think we were simply to run on the grass in the middle, do some simple routines (I think we had to be dressed the same) and then leave again.

  • e573958727

    Sarah, this is such an incredible post but for some reason I cannot comment on your post using my blog ID. If you’d use the Lens-Artists Tag it would be so much easier! This one doesn’t appear in any of the reader categories, and usually I can go there to comment but not this time – even when I search on your blog name or the post title. It’s a shame because I’d love for more people to see this, it’s amazing and you’ve done such a great job documenting it! Kind of frightening actually truth be told, but you have to admire the commitment! Tina of Travels and Trifles.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much for making the effort to comment Tina. I have no idea why you had problems – as you can see, other people have manged to do so OK. I have used the tag I always use, Lens_Artists_Challenge so I also don’t know why it was so hard to find, but if you have ideas how I can make it easier I’d be grateful for them!

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