The 2019 People’s Country Mass Games, or otherwise known as the Arirang Games or the simply the Mass Games, is currently being held in Pyongyang after kicking off last week. At the Rungrado May Day Stadium, thousands and thousands of local performers work to produce an immense display of gymnastics, imagery and colour to set out the key political legacies and messages of North Korea. This years games was recently attended by Kim Jong un, who criticized the “spirit” of the performance and requested a re-hash, leading to a temporary reprieve in June. Nevertheless, Visit North Korea were lucky enough to be able to attend the ceremony on Friday evening and witness what this years event has in store! Although the games focused on the usual stories concerning Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il, this years performance nevertheless placed a heavy emphasis on foreign relations and economic development, let’s explore more.
The Mass Games is contacted in a format whereby thousands of school students from Pyongyang, acting on immense discipline and unity, display a variety of cardboard placards to the audience depicting a number of key political messages and posters, whilst hundreds of volunteers conduct their performance on the stage. This is of course a given. However, there were some notable additions to the show this year to enhance its visual appeal. As the ceremony kicked off, hundreds and hundreds of lit up electronic drones gathered above the stadium roof and formed an assemble spelling out “inminuinara” (The People’s Country) along with an accumulation of fireworks. Alongside that, the performances utilized projections onto the stadium floor to create surreal special effects. This included interesting stunts such as the projection of an ocean onto hundreds of volunteers underneath a giant white sheet, creating 3D moving waves, or even fires. It was certainly well prepared.
But what of course, of the messages? As is the case with every annual enactment of the mass games, the performance illustratively set out the “story” of North Korea and its legacies. This of course involves the life and history of Kim Il Sung in liberating the country from Japanese rule, the establishment of the Worker’s Party of Korea, as well as the subsequent Korean war and its aftermath. From there, it moves to place coverage on the purported birth of Kim Jong il at Mount Paektu and his contributions to such. These events are narrated in full flow to constitute the “Korean Revolution”. When the respective images of each leader appeared on the placard screen, the audience would roar into an applause.
Once these standard aspects were completed, the games moved onto more specific messages. This involved a theme of economic development. Several performances placed emphasis on the development of agriculture, depicting farms, potatoes, cattle, fruits and vegetables. Fishing also featured. Following on to this was the country’s key diplomatic messages. First of all, the performance set out the inevitable dream of reunification and the bid to bring Korea again. In doing so, it celebrated the Panmunjom declaration set with South Korea last April. Reporters noted however, that direct images of Moon Jae in had been removed from last year’s performance. Critically, the ceremony avoided emphasis on nuclear and weapons development, showing despite tensions with the U.S in the aftermath of the failed Hanoi summit, a continued bid for a diplomatic charm offensive.
In doing so, it is worth noting that the diplomatic messages were also translated and displayed in Chinese too, something that was not mirrored in any other area of the People’s Country Mass Games. The messages included “multilateral foreign relations”, “solidarity”, “cooperation”, “good neighbours” and “friendship”- things which given the language were obviously aimed at Beijing. In doing so, hundreds of performers on the ground were dressed in costumes depicting the people’s and cultures of the world, all dancing together. Remarkably, some North Koreans had their faces painted black to resemble Africans, something bound to cause a stir if done in the west.
These messages coincide with the DPRK’s overseas diplomacy to various countries and express a commitment for it to continue, save that circumstances change pertaining to the US. Seeking to break out of isolation and also secure their economy in the face of sanctions, Pyongyang is signalling that they are reaching out to the rest of the world and creating political space for their cause, as well as for new business opportunities. Recent diplomatic missions excluding the key players (China/US/SK) have involved: Cuba, Venezuela, Nigeria, Mongolia, Singapore, Vietnam (individual meetings held beside the summits), Russia and Laos.
Overall, this probably means that the Games are ending on a positive note pertaining to the peace situation on the Korean peninsula! However, that is of course without knowing how they will be rehashed and how drastic the proposed changes may be. Either way, the performance was elaborate, surreal and impressive regardless of your political disposition towards them. If you want to see the Mass Games yourself in 2019, please check out our available programs here!