Infiltrating North Korea Part 7: The Mass Games

Infiltrating North Korea is a two-week series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

My trip to North Korea was only the second time since the Korean War that Americans were allowed into the country. The reason for this rare exception was the Mass Games.

The Mass Games is a wild spectacle of dancers and performers that takes place in Pyongyang’s 150,000-seat May Day Stadium, one of the largest in the world. While the games can loosely be described as a “Super Bowl half time show on steroids,” such an analogy fails to capture even a sliver of the energy and uniqueness that is the Mass Games.

For starters, over 100,000 performers participate in the event. This includes some 20,000 students holding up placards with militaristic precision that puts to shame the student section of any American college football stadium. And they’re not just flipping cards that spell out simple slogans either. The North Korean students create rich, detailed landscapes and portraits often enriched with flowing animation.
Although the card show is impressive on its own, the 240,000 square-foot stadium floor is where the real show takes place. This is where thousands of performers tell the story of how, according to the Mass Games program, “the Arirang nation [Korea], once a colonized tragic people, has become the master of their destiny and faces the world as a dignified nation.”

The result, spread over four acts, combines elements from rhythmic gymnastics, Broadway musicals, and Cirque du Soleil. A rash of brightly-colored costumes and a booming soundtrack enhance the spectacle even further. The most amazing aspect of the whole production, however, is the jaw-dropping, grand scale of thousands of performers working in complete unison, as though a single body.

This is, after all, the philosophy behind the Mass Games. Like the socialist system which created this spectacle, the Mass Games emphasize the group over the individual and illustrates how working together for the common good can produce such works of perfection.

From a Western perspective, the Mass Games are indeed a microcosm of the North Korean nation where everything is perfectly regulated with no room for error or misinterpretation–a place where the individual is lost to the collective amidst a colorful fantasyland where everything appears perfectly wonderful but nothing is really true.

The North Koreans aren’t the only ones to implement such propaganda on such a grand scale. Other communist nations did so as well–such as Czechoslovakia’s Sokol performances that were held in the world’s largest stadium until 1990. Like communism, however, the mass gymnastic movement eventually disappeared from the face of the earth with the sole exception of North Korea.

One day too, it will disappear from Pyongyang as well.

This was my one chance to witness a truly endangered performance and I was therefore eager to purchase the best seats I could. In a typically un-socialist move, however, foreigners are charged mind-numbingly higher prices than locals. If you go, be prepared for only two ticket prices: $150 and $300. I opted for the more expensive tickets–the most I’ve ever paid to see any show–and ended up sitting where Madeline Albright sat when she came to visit. This was the best seat in the house–except for the open area just to my right where Kim Jong Il would have sat had he attended.

When the lights finally dimmed and the Mass Games started, it took only a moment to realize I had made the right choice to come so far and spend so much. The show was as spectacular as I had hoped and I sat through its entirety wondering how so many people could be so perfectly synchronized and expertly choreographed.

And then I remembered where I was.

Yesterday: Art and Culture, Pyongyang Style
Tomorrow: The Cult of Kim