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The Land of the People

DPRK (and Beijing) Day five, part three


View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Welcoming Act

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Flag Hoisting Ceremony

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Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 1: Cheers of the People

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Video: Welcoming Act, Flag Hoisting, Cheers of the People

Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 2: Defending the Cradle

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Act 1: Our Socialist Homeland – Scene 3: Along the Road of Juche

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Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 1: Great Defender

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Act 2: Echo of Victory – Scene 2: Song of the Ever-Victorious Army

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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

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Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 1: The Mettle of Mallima

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Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – Scene 2: Golden Age of Construction

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Act 3: The Land of the People Exulted by the Marshall – My Prospering Country

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[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.

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Act 6: Song of Friendship and Solidarity

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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

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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.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:46 Archived in North Korea Tagged people culture performance dance music north_korea customs dprk pyongyang mass_games ariang

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Comments

I think I am speechless Sarah. Did you choose this week to go to be able to see the Games, or was this happenstance? Of all your travels and all the memories you have accumulated, I expect that evening will remain as one of the longest lasting.

by Yvonne Dumsday

What an amazing experience! It's like a giant marching band and color guard. I can't imagine the work that went into such a spectacle and I also suspect there was a tremendous amount of camaraderie among the performers. The card performers in the opposite bleachers were incredible.

Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

by Beausoleil

We were told that the back-boards were operated by 20,000 children - not sure how accurate that is, but it is certainly a LOT of them. Many elements seem very similar to the ones we saw, and like you we found it breathtaking. So much so, we went back the following day to see the gymnastics one (a slightly different version)

by Grete Howard

The card perform is amazing! You really had a good luck with the seats, you were almost opposite of them :)

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks everyone :) Yvonne, the tour is planned to coincide with their National Day - more on that in a later entry. When we booked last year we didn't even know if the Games would be on in 2019 but luckily they were.

Grete, I think we were just told thousands of children. I tried to calculate approximate numbers but gave up!

And Sally, you may well be right about the camaraderie, although I've read some critical articles saying the people are coerced to participate and the children miss weeks of school. But you can never be sure if such articles are accurate or just out to slam the regime at every opportunity. I try to keep an open mind.

by ToonSarah

I see it was spectacular indeed. Congratulations and thanks for your great new videos!

by Vic_IV

Glad you enjoyed it Victor :)

by ToonSarah

How often do they do this performance? Every day all summer?

by greatgrandmaR

I believe it's all or most evenings a week Rosalie, for several months during the summer

by ToonSarah

Impressive photos and videos!

by Nemorino

Thank you Don :)

by ToonSarah

Sarah, it would be an understatement to say how stunning your photos and videos of the Mass Games truly are! I'm sure this would have been the highlight of a trip to the DPRK for me! It's like a living piece of art!! It was perfect that you came across a printed program of the games to give titles to each part of the performance for that night! The whole thing is quite unbelievably wonderful!

by starship VT

Thank you so much Sylvia The programme was a great find, and almost on the last day of the trip too!

by ToonSarah

Unusually for me I find myself somewhat at a loss for words here, that a is truly unbelievable display.

You have already answered my first question about the children and school. I cannot see how they could possibly achieve that level of precision without months of practice. The same for the adults as well, really.

The human billboard is phenomenal and when you say it is a "challenging job" I would say that is understating the case somewhat. The logistics of the entire performance boggle the imagination. For example, do all the performers come from the Pyongyang area or do they come from all over the country? If it is the latter where do they house them all? The wardrobe and props departments must be the size of several aircraft hangars unless everyone takes their own home.

The marching bands were very well drilled but I could not work out if the female drum majors were trying to be the Grenadier Guards or the Dagenham Girl Pipers! The choreographers and / or Drill Sergeants for the whole event must have worked like Trojans.

Speaking of the music, I was surprised at how Western some of it sounded. The opening segment had a soundtrack that would have passed muster as the overture for a West End musical. I suppose I was expecting traditional Korean opera or folk music with a bit of military band thrown in, which was present obviously.

I do not know what you have in store for us in future posts here but this will take some beating, you are so lucky to have seen it.

by planxty

Thanks for taking the time to check out the videos Fergy :) Yes, I was surprised that the music seemed quite Western much of the time, and the same was true when we got to go to the opera a few days later

by ToonSarah

Spectacular! There's only one word for it. I can't help but have a slight niggle in my mind though as to how much the participants, and card holding kids, would have enjoyed it. They must have been scared stiff not to put a foot or a hand wrong.

That said, you were definitely privileged to have been able to see it.

by Easymalc

You have a point Malcolm, but from what I've been able to glean it's such a huge honour to be chosen that would override any other concerns. And these kids are brought up to perform like this, as you'll see when we visit a kindergarten! Another issue I've seen raised is the amount of schooling they miss, but the North Koreans value education so highly I suspect they still squeeze plenty in! What they will lose out I reckon is any leisure time.

by ToonSarah

The same work ethic applies to South Korean schoolkids as well.
I used to be in correspondence with somebody who taught English over there and she wasn't happy to see them regularly falling asleep in class because there was so much for them to cram in, in and out of school every day.

by Easymalc

Yes, culturally there are a lot of similarities I believe

by ToonSarah

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