Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea 2013

The Mass Games in Pyongyang – Impressive & Frightening

Derek North Korea 41 Comments

Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea 2013

On the second night of the trip, our group had the opportunity to witness the Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. In fact, when I had signed up for the trip to North Korea, one of the main reasons I chose these particular dates and this particular itinerary was because it did indeed include this experience.

The Mass Games is a synchronized spectacle of gymnastics, acrobatics, dance, drama, music and special effects that has been held every year since 2002 in North Korea, between the months of August and October, as part of the annual Arirang Festival. It involves over 100,000 participants (yes, 100,000!), some as young as five or six years old, who practice for months leading up to the event. The performance lasts for 90 minutes and takes place inside of the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, which is the only stadium where the Mass Games are held in this country and it also happens to be the largest capacity stadium in the world.

The focus of the event is on the story of North Korea, with a perfectly, and unsurprisingly, fine-tuned message that highlights the North Korean race’s superiority and their triumphant victory in the Korean War, while praising the national party, their leaders and the country’s founding principles throughout. There are acts that also focus on North Korea’s friendship with China and Russia as well as dramatic scenes that portray the folk story of Arirang, in which a young couple in love is separated from each other due to the actions of their landlord, naturally representing the division on the Korean peninsula (the couple) and the perceived outside interference of the USA (landlord).

What was taking place on the field during these 90 minutes was simply surreal, with not a single performance involving less than several thousand people it seemed. From our vantage point, the performance was absolutely flawless and these were not simple routines. They were complex, difficult and often involved such feats that few of us would ever attempt (let’s just say that there were a lot of people flying through the air).

However, perhaps the most interesting portion of the Mass Games is what takes place at the back of the stadium, directly opposite from those in attendance. This is where 20,000 students between the ages of 15-16 sit as they play an integral part of the show. Each of these students has a book with dozens and dozens of pages, each page with a different color or pattern displayed on it. Throughout the 90 minutes, these students constantly, and simultaneously, change the pages of their book while holding them in front of their faces. This creates massive mosaic ‘pictures’ that stretch along the entire back of the stadium that change according to the part of the story being told on the field below.

Mass Games, North Korea 8

I must say, though, that I’m not sure if watching these disciplined students create these images (or even watching the performances on the field), working together in incredible unison, is unbelievably impressive or unbelievably frightening. While being chosen to participate as one of these students is apparently a great honor for the individual and their family, the training required is reportedly extremely intense. From what I was told, the group spends three months practicing every day for five hours after school and then they practice another three months during the summer, every day, all day, until the Mass Games officially begin. And the conditions/treatment to which they are supposedly subjected to in order to ensure they perfect their routines have also been labeled controversial. It’s certainly not surprising when you actually observe the perfection that is achieved. Imagine trying to convince 100,000 of your own countrymen and countrywomen to participate in such an event, and to undertake the months of practice required, all without getting paid, strictly for the love of the nation?

The night we attended the Mass Games, there were thousands of North Koreans around us, including dozens of highly decorated members of the military, as well as a hundred or so foreigners. And I had no idea what I would witness when I took my seat and waited for the spectacle to begin. When the stadium eventually went dark and the first note of music was blasted through the speakers, and the first mosaic picture was created by those 20,000 students, I leaned forward in my chair, turned on my camera and opened my eyes wide…

Here’s a few short videos and some photos of what I saw:

Mass Games, North Korea

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Mass Games, North Korea 3

Mass Games, North Korea 4

Mass Games, North Korea 2

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Mass Games, North Korea 9

Mass Games, North Korea 6

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And that’s a sample of the 2013 Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea.

On a different note, some people have written to ask me how on earth I managed to go to North Korea in the first place. So I just wanted to say that just about anyone is welcome to visit this country but you do have to go as part of an organized group through an agency that specializes in North Korea tours. The agency takes care of your visa and it’s much, much easier than most would imagine. I went with Koryo Tours, who did cover the cost of my trip, which I briefly wrote about at the end of my previous post about North Korea.

What do you think of the Mass Games?


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Comments 41

  1. David Hart

    It’s been said that no other country on earth could produce the Mass Games other than the DPRK…could you imagine trying to get 100,000 Americans to go through the grueling rehearsals, hours a day, every day for months, and then perform almost every day from August until October for no money at all? It boggles the mind. I saw the Mass Games twice on my tour there in 2011 with Koryo Tours. It was one of the most impressive and beautiful events I have ever witnessed.

  2. Dan

    Wow, I just read both your North Korea posts, amazing stuff. Never seen anyone blog about it before and had no idea it was so easy to go there! Always figured you would have to pay 1000s to the North Korean government just for them to consider you. Definitely want to check this out some day.

    Btw I see you are in Romania right now, I just got back from there a few days ago. If you haven’t already make sure you wander down to a place in the far south east corner called Vama Veche, I absolutely love the chill out atmosphere of that place. Also wrote an article about it if your interested:
    http://thestupidforeigner.com/amazing-places/vama-veche-maybe-the-coolest-beach-in-europe/

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dan – Thanks for the suggestion and I’ve actually been using Romania as my base for almost two years, so I’m quite familiar with Vama Veche. I’ve been both summers that I’ve been here, definitely a cool laid-back destination.

  3. Bama

    Ahh, I knew there was something controversial behind those perfectly choreographed performances. However I think everyone would definitely agree that it is a very breathtaking show, regardless of what happened behind the scene. Quite an amazing trip you had, Earl!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ryan – There were very few restrictions on photography. We could not take photos of checkpoints or soldiers on duty but that was really it.

  4. Stefania

    This is beyond incredible! It’s also interesting to read about visiting North Korea per se and that you think it’s helpful for the country, overall. Keep up the good job!

  5. YJ @ thefancyvoyager

    Love your post on your visit to North Korea, very fascinating. The mass games certainly look impressive, but at the same time pretty much daunting. Can’t imagine how much training they had to go through to ensure everything goes on smoothly, or what would even happen if something goes wrong!

  6. Pingback: August 22, 2013: Kuala Lumpur, Mass Games, New Zealand, Hyatt promo, TBB impact | TravelBloggerBuzz

  7. lien pham

    Thanks Earl for sharing this unique experience. Talking about indoctrination and complete control, frightening indeed!

  8. Deia

    A couple of years ago, I was so obsessed with North Korea that I watched countless documentaries about it. I’ve seen footage of the Mass Games, but I imagine actually being there would be really different. I would love to see it in person someday.

  9. Andy

    Turning individual humans into cogs in a well-oiled, dehumanized, automated machine. That’s the essence of totalitarian collectivism and that’s maybe one of the reasons why systems like North Korea love to produce such spectacles that symbolize their very nature. Certainly an impressive sight to behold though.

    I haven’t been to NK but I’ve been to Cuba… which is a bit of a highly “watered down version” of it. In theory, it’s the same, but in reality, it’s Latin America so things are much more lively and easy-going. Beneath the surface though, there’s is a lot of dirt going on… Package tourists never see that, of course. You have to go astray, speak spanish and connect with the regular people. Something that you can actually do, as opposed to North Korea.

    And… I think it’s good when people visit such places, despite what some may say about the governments cashing in all the revenue. Come on, they’d do it anyway via taxes. But every single visit and interpersonal exchange that occurs is a small statement against oppression and prejudice. It’s what travel and cultural exhange is all about in the end.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Andy – I do agree with that line of thinking as well about it being good for people to visit. And the amount of money that is actually earned via tourism is such a tiny amount that, while some does go to the regime, it’s not something that makes a major difference at all. In my opinion, that tiny amount of money spent is more than overshadowed by the interaction (regardless of whether it is natural or organized) that takes place. Everyone in that country, while they might spit out the propaganda they are required to speak all the time, still have brains that think and must process the information they hear or what they see from foreigners. And that can only be beneficial.

  10. Brian

    Hi Earl,
    Reading your last couple of posts on North Korea and the one about visiting places with poor human rights records I’m left wondering whether your original reasoning holds in this instance. You argued that

    “Avoiding a country altogether just seems like a far less effective ‘protest’ than bringing your own beliefs, aligning with the portion of the population who believes the same and hopefully engaging in conversations in which all ideas are shared and discussed.”

    But clearly North Korea is not a place where “all ideas are shared and discussed” internally. So the potential for such interactions to bring about change seem exceedingly limited. Meanwhile your controlled exposure to this country lead to a series of balanced, but still remarkably favorable, articles about a place most objective journalists have described quite differently.

    Is it possible that your reporting is doing harm by helping to soften the image of the North Korean regime in parts of the world where public opinion matters while doing nothing to change the internal dynamics of an oppressive regime that disregards the public opinion of the locals you hope to influence by sharing ideas?

    Regards,
    Brian

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Brian – Those are all good points however, I do believe that visiting this country is beneficial for North Koreans. The cultural exchange is valuable because even though all ideas are not shared and discussed, many ideas actually are discussed over there. Many people I encountered (North Koreans) asked questions about my life, about where I live, they asked to see my photos of places I’ve visited, of my home country and they asked to listen to any music I had from the outside world. So there is cultural exchange taking place and even on a small scale, I do think it’s helpful, as do almost all of the experts on North Korea, who generally agree that traveling to this country benefits the people much more than avoiding it. Just seeing foreigners and observing how they act, noticing what they carry with them and having limited conversation, certainly opens up their eyes to what life is like outside NK. They know that life inside North Korea is no paradise anymore and even among the controlled population, you do notice a tiny bit of yearning for what’s on the outside. The more of the outside world they see, the more intense that yearning will get.

      I’m not dumb, I know all about the regime and what goes on in North Korea but at the same time, I really do believe that visiting this country brings about more change than people think (and again, so does almost every expert). Also, as I did clearly stated in my first post, I will be writing another post about the ethical issues of visiting this country as soon as I have time. So it’s not as if I’ve said everything I’ve wanted to say in these two posts, one of which (this one) was just to show what it was like to attend the Mass Games and nothing more.

          1. Brian

            Thanks for the links. I had seen one of these but not the other. I have many thoughts but will just express one. The author of the Asia Time’s article (and the others as well) too easily dismisses the North Korean government’s understanding of its own best interests. The DPRK may do many things badly but holding on to power is not one of those things. If the government believes it’s in its best interest to allow these controlled tours, I’d at least hesitate before second guessing them.

            I do sympathize, though. I, too, want to give myself license to travel everywhere in the world. And because of that desire I know how easy it is to accept Andrei Lankov’s arguments without question. But it’s precisely because of those biases that I believe a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.

  11. Jonny Blair

    Great post yet again Earl. Really love the photos and the detailed insight you provide here – I knew about the holding up of cards at the Mass Games but never considered the work load for the young North Koreans to train for that. It’s a valid point. The show looks spectacular but you have to wonder whether something of this scale is disguising an inner truth about a country that sadly, whether we’re shown it or not is probably behind the times and denied access to certain foods and drinks that the rest of the world take for granted. Safe travels. Jonny

  12. Scott

    uh, strictly for the love of the nation? Or scared to death to not participate and suffer the consequences? Nothing like a good dose of propaganda to keep people in line….(not that we are much better, as we have our own “spectacles.”

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Scott – Exactly, that’s my point. It would have to take some intense intimidation to get so many people to participate in an event like this.

  13. Dominic Cowell

    Fantastic article and videos, Earl! Would love to travel to the DPRK, but for now the tours are simply too expensive – 1500 euros for a student for a five day trip is certainly a lot of money!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dominic – Understandable, it is a bit on the pricey side. But hopefully your studies will pay off and you’ll be able to go after your done.

  14. Ryan @ Tallkid Travels

    I imagine that just getting to North Korea is quite the spectacle, let alone having the opportunity to witness this first hand. The photos are great but cant imagine what it was like to watch live. Looking forward to reading more about your trip!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ryan – Actually, getting into North Korea is quite easy. You have to go through an agency and your trip must be organized as a tour, complete with local guides at all times. But apart from that, anyone is welcome to visit the country and the agency will obtain the visa for you, something that surprisingly takes very little effort at all!

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