With North Korea’s famous mass games on the horizon for September and October 2019, you might be wondering a bit about where they are being hosted. Plenty of our posts have talked about the “Rungrado May Day Stadium” as the venue. Similarly, we have also described it as the largest all-seater stadium on Earth, that in itself is a staggering thought. But that of course tells us little about it, why is there is a stadium like this is North Korea? What is its story, and how did it become host to the Mass Games events? Here at Visit North Korea: Experts on DPRK travel, we give you all the answers into this mystical “theater of the extremes“, a peculiar North Korean tourist attraction located at the heart of Pyongyang.
As it is with most things in North Korea, the origins of the stadium are political and closely affiliated to the needs of the regime itself. Constructed in the late 1980s, similar to the construction of the Ryugyong Hotel the Rungrado May Day Stadium represented a state reaction to what was a losing battle for international prestige against South Korea in the Cold War struggle to become the ideological champion of all Korea. Indeed, the DPRK’s economy was becoming sluggish whilst its counterpart had rose rapidly from being a poor country to one of the world’s wealthiest. What was worse for Pyongyang, is that in 1988 Seoul was hosting the Olympics. For most historians, it was this event that proved the turning point in South Korea’s ideological “victory” to be the hegemonic “Korea” on the international stage. Pyongyang was falling behind. The result of this situation was an enormous spree of state investment projects in order to desperately buffer the legitimacy and profile of the country and attempt to “out do” South Korea. By building structures of immense size and world record breaking feats, hence the Ryugyong was to be the world’s largest hotel, North Korea would be project the power, brilliance and human achievement of its system.
As a result, the Rungrado May Stadium was built with the ambition of creating the largest all seater sporting arena on Earth, something they could claim they had which Seoul did not. Despite the economic collapse which followed on and struck the country in the 1990s, this feat was accomplished and the stadium was opened. Its name is derived from the “Rungra” island on Pyongyang’s Taedonggang river, as well as the internationally renowned “May Day”- a celebration of international solidarity and socilaism around the world. With a reported official capacity of 150,000, the Rungrado is bigger than all its counterparts, including arenas such as Wembley, Camp Nou, Old Trafford, the Bernbeau and so on. The problem is of course, is that quantity does not always trump quality. For a stadium which is in fact the world’s largest, very few people have heard of it. It does not feature in the public mind, culture or life of sports fans around the world in the way those other famous arenas do, simply because having a huge stadium cannot compensate for being isolated from the rest of the world and in no position to host worldwide sporting events.
This left the stadium for many decades, like most of the megaprojects of the late 1980s, as somewhat of a white elephant. Hardly being used to its full potential. From the early 2000s, however, it gained a new purpose: that is the hosting arena for North Korea’s Mass Games or otherwise known as the “Arirang Festival”. Its immense size provided scope for thousands and thousands of performers, and of course the ability of the North Korean state to engage in the mass mobilization of citizens meant in each instance it could easily be filled. In this regard, the stadium has allowed the DPRK to present the event in highly politically favourable terms, utilizing the arena as a representation of the country’s unity, power, organisation and of course, ideology. The Mass Games are designed to play out the political story of the country in the most illustrative and visually powerful terms possible, sending out its message to the word. Only in a stadium of such grandeur could that be ultimately possible.
If you are interested in attending the 2019 Mass Games and thus the Rungrado itself, please see our available programs here!