DPRK (and Beijing) Day five, part three
04.09.2019 - 04.09.2019
The May Day stadium from the Juche Tower
~ taken some days later
On the evening of our first (very) full day in Pyonyang we were very fortunate to be able to attend the famous North Korean Mass Games. This blog entry about the evening will be more of a photo album with occasional commentary as I took loads of videos and photos and think they can probably give you a much better idea of it all than any words could possibly do! But first, a bit of an introduction for those of you who may not have heard much about the games, or indeed anything at all.
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 – when Kim Jong Un attended the opening performance of this year’s spectacle, the Land of the People, back in June 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.
Shop at the May Day Stadium before the Mass Games
So what are they? Well, 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 (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.
Most of us had opted for the ‘cheapest’ seats available to tourists, at €100 each, although a couple of members of the group went for the dearer €300 ones which secured them a position closer to the centre but, in my opinion and that of the others, not sufficiently better to justify the additional outlay. Certainly Chris and I were very happy indeed with the view we had from our seats!
Waiting for the Mass Games to start
The first sight to greet us as we took our seats was of the opposite stand in the stadium, where 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 which they had to change rapidly on cue throughout the performance! These cards form the backdrop to many of my photos below, so you should be able to appreciate the scale of this task.
Before the opening
The Land of the People loosely tells 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 which 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.
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
Video: Welcoming Act, Flag Hoisting, 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
Video: Defending the Cradle, Along the Road of Juche, Great Defender, Song of the Ever-Victorious Army
Act 2: Echo of Victory – We are the Happiest in the World
Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 1: The Mettle of Mallima
Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 2: 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 this evening 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
Video: We are the Happiest in the World, Mettle of Mallima, My Prospering Country, Reunification - by our Nation Itself, Song of Friendship and Solidarity
Finale: We Have the Great Party
The performance lasted about an hour (a little less than is usual due to the cancellation of the acrobatic element), so by nine we were making our way to the meeting point outside. By the time we reached the bus, had manoeuvred out of the car park and had driven back to the hotel it was nearer ten. We had been out for over 13 hours, my back was sore and I was very weary, but it had been an amazing day!
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.