As you have probably heard, North Korea’s Mass Games are back for 2019! Sometimes, these games have been referred to as the Arirang Festival, but you might be wondering what exactly does “Arirang” mean, and how does it relate specifically to North Korea and this huge event? More than being just a mere name, Arirang is an ancient folk song which has come to embody the concept of Korea as a whole, with special interpretations for North Korean politics itself. Here, Visit North Korea bring you the story of Arirang- how a love song became the embodiment and symbolism of an entire nation.
The song of Arirang is derived from a folk tale which originated in the Joseon Dynasty of Korea an estimated 600 years ago. The story details the account of a man and woman who fall in love picking blossoms on the banks of a river, only to be separated by rising tides which, according to the according to the version of the story, either drowns the young man or prohibits him from the crossing. The song itself details the sorrow and grief of the woman over the loss of her love.
Over time, the song would gain a distinctly political meaning in Korean culture. It would grow to embody representations of loss and injustice but based on the woman’s dream of seeing her love again, also a sense of hope for the future. Given this, during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 the song became a popular resistance anthem, being sang during the famous March 1st protests which marked the first uprising against Tokyo rule. It would also create many variations on this theme dreaming of liberation.
Owing to these cultural legacies and symbolisms which became embedded within the song and its accompanying story, Arirang became intrinsic to the politics of North Korea, of which established a new interpretation. The story of Arirang is told in the country as a young man and woman who were not separated by a body of water, but in fact by the acts of a cruel landlord. This landlord is an allegory of the United States and its purported role in dividing the Korean peninsula. As a result, the North Korean version of the song more explicitly represents the dream of the reunification of Korea and thus the casting off of the bondage which has pulled the country apart.
North Korea’s Mass Games is thus named the “Arirang Festival” because it embodies this tale in telling “the story” of the country itself. The festival broadly covers the themes of the country’s liberation from Japan, the subsequent division, its titular leadership politics and of course more spectacularly hope for a reunified future. In this sense, Arirang fits as a broad encompassing narrative for everything the DPRK claims itself to be.
If you wish to attend North Korea’s 2019 Mass Games, please see our programs on offer here!