Inside the spectacle and symbolism of
North Korea's Mass Games
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[September 06, 2018]
By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - For the first time in
five years, North Korea is expected to put on a massive performance on
Sunday known as the "Mass Games".
With thousands of twirling gymnasts and dancers backed by an
ever-changing display of images and words glorifying the North Korean
state and its people, past Mass Games have produced some of the most
iconic images of the isolated country.
This year's performances come as leader Kim Jong Un seeks to rebrand
North Korea as a responsible nuclear-armed state more focused on
developing its economy than rattling proverbial sabres.
Sunday's Mass Games will be one of several high profile events,
including a military parade, to mark the 70th anniversary of the
founding of North Korea. It will kick off a month of events designed to
lure foreign investment, attract tourists, and showcase Kim's new focus
on the economy.
Here is how analysts and observers who have attended past games and
study North Korea describe the pageants.
WHAT ARE THE MASS GAMES?
Despite their name, North Korea's Mass Games are a huge art and dance
performance, similar to opening and closing ceremonies for the Winter or
The games have come in various versions over the years, with shows
emphasizing different historic, economic, political, and cultural
Up to 100,000 people are mobilized to perform during the show, an
undertaking designed to demonstrate social unity, analysts say.
But critics say the games white-wash North Korea's human rights record,
and testimonies collected by the defector-run website Daily NK have
described months of harsh training for school children involved in past
Ahn Chan-il, a former North Korean military official who defected to the
South in 1979, said some past games were eventually phased out by North
Korea's leaders in part because of complaints from parents.
Families of participants often received rare items such as color TVs,
and some people compete for the chance to perform, which helps limit
complaints, he said.
The shows are usually performed in Pyongyang's cavernous 1st of May
Stadium, said to be one of the largest stadiums in the world.
Gymnasts and dancers performed on the field, while thousands of school
children sitting in the stadium's seats used colored flip books to
create huge, shifting displays of images and words.
The main theme of the most famous of the Mass Games, Arirang, was the
glory of the nation that North Koreans had built after the horrors of
Japanese occupation and the 1950-1953 Korean War, said Simon Cockerell,
general manager of the tour agency Koryo Tours, who attended multiple
mass games between 2002 and 2013.
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North Korean students practice mass games in central Pyongyang,
November 14, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won/File Photo
"For many North Koreans who went, it was quite touching," he said.
This year's version of the games, Cockerell said, are rumored to be
"So maybe more of a laser show, or computer generated imagery."
WHAT ARE THEY ABOUT?
North Korea researcher Andray Abrahamian has called the Mass Games
"quite literally the official national narrative bundled into a
"Mainly they serve to reinforce the national story while
simultaneously demonstrating very high levels of skill and
coordination," he said, comparing the Mass Games to the United
States' football Super Bowl, with its celebrations of "heroism, the
military and advertising and commerce."
Observers expect this year's games will likely reflect Kim Jong Un's
new focus on the economy and international engagement.
Although North Korea is scheduled to stage a large military parade
in Pyongyang on the same day as the opening of the Mass Games,
military messages may be less of a focus, they say.
After having declared his country's nuclear program "complete", Kim
said this year he would stop testing weapons and make all-out
efforts toward economic development.
"In the past the big theme was anti-Americanism and
anti-imperialism, but this time ... they might talk more about
economic achievements rather than being hostile and accusatory to
other countries," said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University
of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"They will emphasize how peace-loving they are and willing for
(This story corrects in fourth paragraph to say Sunday is the 70th
anniversary of the founding of North Korea, not ruling Workers'
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim.
Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)
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