It tells the epic story of a little-understood nation, takes place in the world’s largest stadium and involves more than 100,000 performers dancing in complete synchrony. Introducing the eye-catching propaganda machine that is North Korea’s Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, or simply the Mass Games.
The 2013 Arirang Festival opened in Pyongyang’s 150,000-capacity Rungrado May Day Stadium Monday evening with a focus on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War (or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War as it is known in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The five weekly spectacles, which run through September, pair synchronized dancers with pyrotechnics and dramatic music, and play out against a changing backdrop of mosaics created by flashcard-wielding participants.
Nick Bonner of North Korea specialist Koryo Tours has attended the annual Arirang Festival for more than a decade now, and said the best way to describe it is “Busby Berkeley on acid.”
“Over 100,000 performers in the biggest socialist realism choreographed spectacular makes Broadway shows look like amateur dramatics,” he enthused. Bonner produced the 2004 documentary hit “A State of Mind,” which followed two North Korean child gymnasts and their families for eight months in the lead-up to the second-ever Mass Games in 2003. The New York Times called the film “jaw-dropping,” and it’s credited with exposing the games to a global audience.
Officials pushed the start for the 2013 Arirang Festival, now in its eleventh year, up to honor the July 27 Victory Day marking the armistice suspending hostilities in the 1950-1953 war.
“There will be a big military parade on the day, which tourists will not be allowed to attend, though on previous times we have stood at the side of the road with tourist groups and Pyongyang locals to see the tens of thousands of troops leaving the parade. They are also reopening the War Museum, complete with the USS Pueblo, which has been moved up the River Potonggang to moor alongside the new wing of the museum.” The American ship was captured in 1968, supposedly for spying in DPRK territorial waters.
Koryo Tours had a rough start to 2013 with tensions high on the Korean Peninsula, but Bonner said tourist numbers are back up for the second half of the year. The agency, which ushers in about 50 percent of the roughly 4,000 Westerners who visit the hermetic nation each year, will run 16 group tours during the Mass Games period through Sept. 16, though Bonner said it is possible officials will extend the performances for a few weeks later this year. Koryo Tours also has more than 160 independent tourists traveling to see the Games.
Chris White, travel director of rival agency Young Pioneer Tours, said tensions earlier this year only increased interest in North Korean travel, with customer bookings double what they were in 2012. He’ll take 60 people into North Korea Thursday for a Victory Day-Mass Games trip, one of 13 different group tours the agency will run to the 2013 event, comprising of about 500 people in total.
“Historically, the Mass Games has always been the busiest time of the year for travel to the DPRK,” White said. “The Mass Games is truly one of the most amazing events in the world today and I believe our customers take away a strong feeling of respect for the Korean people for their astonishing dedication to the performing arts.”
Though China has banned its citizens from touring North Korea since the flare-up over nuclear weapons in April, more Westerners than ever are expected to attend the Arirang Festival this year. “More people now know it is possible to visit the DPRK and are interested in seeing it,” White explained. “We estimate that as North Korea continues to open up to foreign tourists, our tours will continue to grow in popularity with record numbers."
Bonner, too, said “it seems tourists still see North Korea as a safe destination and one to tick off on their world travels.” But he cautioned that, while the Mass Games is certainly the busiest time of year for North Korean travel, “by world standards this is still ‘low season’ with under 2,000 Westerners visiting at this time.”
Scroll down for a look at some of the first images the official Korean Central News Agency has released from the 2013 Arirang Festival.