Yesterday came an announcement that North Korea’s Mass Games, the biggest and most famous event of the year in the country, will return in 2019! It is easy for those familiar with the country to get excited, but what about newcomers to this subject? Just what are the Mass Games? And why are they important? Well relax, Visit North Korea: Experts on North Korean travel, bring to you today an elaborate explanation of just what these magnificent performances and why they are important to any understanding of the country and its affairs!
North Korea’s Mass Games, or otherwise called the “Arirang Festival” concern an enormous organised series of performances by thousands of performers together to celebrate the history, legacy and political narratives of the DPRK state. Although they are titled “games”- this is not a competition or sporting event. Rather, it operates akin to a theatrical display. Spectators will witness thousands of performers, acting in perfect discipline and unity, produce a series of displays, images, dances and elaborate symbolisms which tell “the story” of the country on its own terms. In particular, emphasis is often given to the liberation of the country from Japanese rule, the role of Kim Il Sung, the tragedy of national division and of course the dream of reunification.
According to “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics” authored by Kwon & Chung (2012): The Mass Games represents a demonstration of socialist unity and a sacrificial commitment to the collective cause of the by North Koreans. The country’s ideology mandates that the population devotes itself to the patriotic cause as a piety, as if the state itself were an extended family under the parenthood of the leadership. Thousands of volunteers rehearse endlessly and to great depths to prepare for the mass games, which requires in practice great discipline and effort. When the performances are underway, this is reflected in the perfect and flawless unison of the performers when in action.
The book further elaborates that the games are utilized to send diplomatic messages to the world via the slogans and symbols selected for display. For example, a previous Mass Games event titled a message saying “Do not hope for any change in us!“- Thus, not only do these games entail just what North Korea presents it to be, but it relays messages as to “where it is going” in the eyes of the leadership. At such a crucial junction in talks with the United States over its nuclear program, this makes what will be observable in this year’s performance very, very significant.
Spectators get to watch the Mass Games in what is known as the Rungrado May Day Stadium. The Rungrado is in fact the largest all seater stadium on Earth. Its official capacity is specified to be 150,000, although conservative estimates put it around 114,000. Nevertheless, it remains grandeur. The stadium’s name itself is a reference to socialism, with “May Day” representing a time of international socialist solidarity around the world. Rungrado is merely the name of the island on the Taedonggang River in Pyongyang as to which it is situated.
Given this all, the Mass Games are an event of paramount political significance in North Korea. By emphasizing a collective effort to represent and embed oneself into the cause, mission and identity of the state itself, they constitute a “glue” to the country’s ideology and system. In this case, being able to witness the games offer a significant opportunity to grasp the DPRK in its own terms and character. They will also provide us clues as to what to expect from them in the coming months and year. To see a full of list of our 2019 Mass Games Tours, please see here.