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!
Flag Hoisting Ceremony
Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 1: Cheers of the People
Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 2: Defending the Cradle
Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 3: Along the Road of Juche
Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 1: Great Defender
Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 2: Song of the Ever-Victorious Army
Act 2: Echo of Victory – We are the Happiest in the World
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!
Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 1: The Mettle of Mallima
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
[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
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
Finale: 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.
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