Inside North Korea’s Mass Games | The Strangest Show on Earth
The DPRK wants you to know that they come in peace
Photo: Dan Medhurst
Our guides direct us to our seats as the crowd surges into the stadium round us, jostling for position. People do that meerkat look around as they enter the arena, trying to pick out friends in the upper ranks, while others chat noisily, share snacks, or tut as late-comers make whole rows stand up.
Across the far side of the pitch, things are much more orderly. Rows of identically-dressed schoolchildren - 17,000 of them in total - walk in in single file, and quickly take their seats. A shout rings out, and 2,000 young voices respond in unison. The callers work their way along the length of the stand, taking the register, one whole school at a time. And then the lights dim, the music starts, and our side of the arena falls silent. Let the games begin.
The Mass Games are among the most famous tourist attractions in North Korea. One glance at the images on this page makes it easy to see why. Part-Olympic Opening Ceremony, part-Trooping the Colour, part-West End show, this spectacle is quite literally like nothing else on earth.
After being held almost every year from 2002, the Mass Games were stopped in 2014. Earlier this year however, it was announced that they would be coming back, with a special program running for a month to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. Kim Jong Un himself turned out for the opening of the run, and while no photos were permitted at that event, Amuse was lucky enough to be able to witness - and photograph - one of the subsequent performances.
So it is that we find ourselves spending 90 minutes watching tens of thousands of identically-dressed North Koreans take turns performing a variety of patriotic-themed dances, marches, and athletics displays. Behind them, in arguably the most eye-catching piece of choreography of the whole lot, those ever-disciplined kids in the stands turn themselves into human pixels: Each holds up a giant flip-book, turning the pages as one to create an ever-changing, animated backdrop.
The overall effect is a bewildering riot of colour; the scene constantly shifting as performers group and regroup, lights flash, and music blares. Every five minutes or so, there’s a brief respite as the song comes to an end - the stadium goes black, and the stage is reset. And then, a new group of performers runs on, with another equally kinetic display.
Named “The Glorious Country,” this year’s show apparently aims to retell the nation’s proud history, but with so much going on, it can be hard to keep up. Even if you don’t speak Korean, however, or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of their quasi-fascist national myths, there are a few themes that anyone with a passing knowledge of communist iconography will recognise: Groups of happy peasants joyfully celebrate a bountiful harvest; there’s a dance to celebrate the electrification of the country; and at one stage, a group of athletically-built metal workers strides on, twirling their long, looped sticks to celebrate the North Korean steel industry.
Unsurprisingly, given the importance North Korea places on its military (it has one of the world's largest standing armies, and an incredible 20 percent of the population are part of the army reserve), a lot of the sections have a martial theme. Marching bands, complete with drum majorettes, parade across the stadium. At one point, the whole arena is given over to a taekwondo display, the performers smashing wooden bricks with their hands and their heads, while the backdrop shows 100-foot high Streetfighter-style characters duking it out.
There’s also a lengthy section dedicated to the Fatherland Liberation War (what the West calls the Korean War). Nine concert pianists are wheeled on playing identical grand pianos, while flame graphics are projected around them to represent the devastation of the American bombing campaign. A brave mother staggers forward holding her dead child... And then, a group of Korean People’s Army soldiers grab their guns, raise up their flag, and dance a dance of victory and vengeance.
The overall effect is surprisingly camp, like one of those finger-clicking fight scenes in West Side Story. But what it lacks in menace, it more than makes up for in terms of sheer scale. At any one time, there are literally thousands of performers on the pitch, with many more waiting in the wings. Perhaps the most arresting of the whole lot are the groups of kids, who stack themselves up into human pyramids, ride unicycles, rollerskate around, or perform the splits in perfect rows.
These children’s sections inspire some of the biggest cheers of the evening, provoking a large part of the hundred-thousand odd strong audience to whip out their mobile phones (yes, plenty of North Koreans have mobile phones). The other huge cheers are reserved, inevitably, for the images of the leadership.
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il flash up on the human backdrop at appropriate points on the historical narrative. Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, is shown in a video sequence greeting South Korean leader Moon Jae-in at their landmark meeting earlier in 2018, and inviting him to step over into North Korea.
It’s one of several relatively-sophisticated uses of tech throughout the performance. At another point, light-up drones fly over the stadium, forming the North Korean flag. But more interesting than the technology on display is the message of peace that the video is clearly intended to convey.
The desire for re-unification has always been a part of North Korean propaganda. (The official line is that American imperialists are holding back their South Korean brethren, who would love nothing more than to reunify under the leadership of the North). But there’s a surprisingly heavy emphasis towards the tail-end of the performance, when the narrative gets up to the present day, on peace.
At one point, there’s a dance for international friendship, and the human backdrop displays messages in English: “Solidarity, Co-operation, Good Neighbourliness, Friendship,” reads one. “Multilateral Relations,” says another. While a third expresses a desire for “Independence, Peace, Friendship.”
The Mass Games are principally designed for a domestic audience. As with a lot of entertainment in the country (museums, art galleries, and even funfairs) many North Koreans are bussed in with their colleagues in factory or office groups. But the organisers of the games are well aware that they’re an international tourist attraction as well, and clearly have one eye on the foreign audience.
If it wasn’t obvious enough from their recent overtures to the South - or that meeting with Trump - the writing is quite literally on the (human) wall here: North Korea would like a more normal relationship with the rest of the world.
Cynics would say it’s all for show, and it may well be - recent reports suggest that far from getting rid of their nuclear capability, as Trump apparently expected, North Korea’s leadership are busy upgrading it. You could equally argue that it’s silly to look for statements of political intent in the equivalent of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo (albeit on steroids). But it’s still interesting that the lines about peace and reconciliation are given such prominent billing in this kind of state-sponsored public display. Early editions of the Mass Games were, by all accounts, far more belligerent in tone.
Whichever way you look at it, there’s a long way to go before relationships are normalised. Despite what might be the best intentions in the world, the optics of the Dance of International Friendship are definitely wide of the mark. Zooming in on one of the 'representatives of African nations', Dan, Amuse’s senior photographer, turns to me and says: “Err… that’s just a Korean bloke who’s blacked up.”
It’s yet another bizarre element to what’s been a singularly surreal evening’s entertainment. But for all the Mass Games are strange (occasionally offensively so), they’re also hugely impressive. And as the firework-driven finale reaches a climax, we can’t help but rise to our feet and clap along with the rest of the audience. I’m reminded, I say to Dan, of what George W. Bush famously muttered to Hillary Clinton at Trump’s inauguration: “That was some weird shit.” But still, what a show!
Tristan and Dan travelled to North Korea with Koryo Tours. Based in Beijing, they’re one of the oldest and best-respected North Korea tour operators in the business. See koryogroup.com for bookings and more info.