What President Moon Will See at the Mass Games

The new edition of the North Korean Mass Games, Glorious Country, might be the most spectacular artistic performance in human history. This may read like hyperbole, but several days later, this author struggles to describe it any other way. I saw it on the opening night, when the stadium crackled with the tension and energy that comes when Kim Jong Un is in attendance.[1] I also viewed it the next night with a camera in an attempt to better digest the performance. Kim will likely view it again this week, hosting President Moon Jae-in and his 200-strong South Korean delegation.

The previous version, Arirang, ran more or less uninterrupted for two months annually from 2001 to 2013. Like its predecessor, the new show presents a distillation of the country’s national narrative and is meant to awe and inspire. It still features 17,490 schoolkids forming “human-pixel” backdrops with colored cards on one side of the stadium and tens of thousands of other performers on the floor. However, while Glorious Country also charts the state’s vision of its own history and current policies, it tells a significantly more positive, forward-looking and less militaristic tale than Arirang. The following are some key takeaways.

Children dream of future careers. Photo courtesy of Koryo Tours.

Positivity

The event is slightly more affirmative than it used to be and takes its time wandering through the achievements that the state would like to emphasize. Glorious Country clocks in at an hour and forty-five minutes, roughly half an hour longer than Arirang.

Arirang was a tragedy at heart. It opened with colonialism causing the suffering of Koreans and ended with the pain and suffering of national division. While the middle section portrayed a march towards military and economic progress behind the singular genius of the Kim family, the tragic bookends framed the performance.

Kim Il Sung, founder of the DPRK. Photo courtesy of Koryo Tours.

This spirit is absent in the new Mass Games. It skips colonialism and jumps straight into land reform and nationalization of industries under the spirit of building a new country. The war chapter, a piano-driven piece visually led by red-clad performers representing flames, is brief. The resolve of students, citizens and soldiers is demonstrated, leading quickly to a backdrop that reads “we started on empty ground” following the American bombing. It then launches quickly into reconstruction, the development of agriculture, and the creation of the “monolithic ideological system of the party” while approximately 750 young women do a hula-hoop-based dance.

Postwar “we started on empty land.” Photo courtesy of Koryo Tours.

There is a brief bit of drama as global socialism falls, with Kim Jong Il having to act as the “Great Defender.” But then it is back to the state’s self-perceptions of the current era, with scientific progress, 12-year socialist education for all, ski resorts and other such developments.

The performance captures an idea Kim Jong Un made explicit in his very first speech: the era of hardship that followed the end of the Cold War is over. In this vision, his grandfather built and rebuilt the country; his father defended it through hard times; Kim Jong Un will now be taking it towards a better future. (The performance doesn’t address some of the upcoming policy changes that will need to take place for the DPRK to truly see rapid wealth creation, but that isn’t a surprise.)

Technological Upgrades

The country’s call for greater scientific and productive capacity was embedded in the technology of the show itself. Arirang was, if not simple, far from cutting-edge. The new games are now opened and closed with a dramatic synchronized drone display above the stadium, not dissimilar to the ones used at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. (This is probably no coincidence.) The spelling out and then 360-degree rotation of the name of the show elicited gasps from foreign and local viewers alike.

The stadium also now has a gigantic projector/underfloor system for displaying animations. Those sequences featured an aerial sweep of Mt. Paektu, laser-like lines performers ran on, and an extremely effective projection of waves onto hundreds of people dancing under white cloth to look like the churning seas of capitalism that Kim Jong Il protected the country against while European socialism collapsed. It also briefly projected a 50-meter wide image of an atom.

“Highest civilization, highest standard.” Photo courtesy of Koryo Tours.

The Current Line

The image of the atom remained on the floor for perhaps three seconds. In the time it took this viewer to see it, unlock his camera and frame the image, it was gone. Perhaps more significantly, it appeared in the context of a chapter about science and technology, rather than the military section. Moreover, unlike later editions of Arirang, not one single image of a missile appeared either on the floor or on the background during the performance.

Arirang ended with a nearly desperate call for unification, appealing to the “world’s conscience.” The new version saw a far more upbeat unification chapter focusing on the current efforts of the two Koreas to forge a more cooperative spirit. The only appearance of Kim Jong Un in the performance was when gigantic images of him together with Moon Jae-in were projected onto the backdrop. These scenes were met with huge applause—the emotional high point, both when Kim was in attendance (during which there was a lengthy standing ovation) and even when he was not.

At one point, the backdrop read: “From now, a new history begins” and celebrated the April 27 Declaration signed in Panmunjom during the first Kim-Moon summit. This reiterates the image Kim Jong Un seeks to project both to domestic and international audiences: the state is defended by missiles and nuclear weapons—no need to go on about them too much—so now is the time to guide the country out of isolation and into an era of cooperation. (After all, this week he outpaces his forebears in summits with Seoul and he’s also already accomplished what Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il craved most—meeting a sitting US president.

The concluding friendship chapter, which used to be devoted entirely to China, was also considerably different. Along with Chinese language, backdrops also appeared in English, with messages such as “Diversifying Foreign Relations” and “Solidarity, Cooperation, Good Neighbourliness, Friendship.” The show featured music from Europe, Russia, China and Cuba. The accompanying dancing was relatively sexy compared to traditional Korean dance routines, and elicited giggles from the crowd. (A brief—and by western standards extremely unfortunate “African bongo dance”—also drew laughter.)

“Solidarity, Cooperation, Good Neighbourliness, Friendship.” Photo courtesy of Koryo Tours.

Glorious Country strongly reflects Kim Jong Un’s new strategic line and its focus on the economy. It is too early to tell if this shift truly spells the end of “military-first” politics. Much is contingent on whether or not Kim can get sanctions lifted, achieve a breakthrough with the United States and actually diversify the country’s foreign relations.

Still, the Mass Games—as before—are the DPRK’s key propaganda set piece, requiring the marshaling of massive resources to show it to well over one million people over the next two months. It conveys the state’s current priorities to its people and given the tone of the two concluding chapters and the presence of international media and dignitaries on opening night, it was more intentionally outward oriented than it used to be.

The sheer scale of the spectacle and the carefully choreographed imagery have an impact that is difficult to convey to those who have not experienced it. The opening chapter, for example, focused on the DPRK’s flag and elicited tears from some of the locals sitting nearby. One stirring number seeing workers, soldiers and students come together literally gave the author goosebumps. Psychologists have long understood that emotions can overwhelm logical reasoning. In that sense, the show is an extremely potent piece of propaganda.

Its emotional power can temporarily sweep away cynicism in viewers, even those who understand the darker side of the DPRK. It is no wonder that the regime, despite the opportunity costs of staging such an extravaganza, has revived it. One also wonders about the impact it might have on the political and business luminaries from South Korea who will see it this week.


  1. [1]

    This is the official translation of 빛나는 조국. “Bright Shining Fatherland” would be mine.


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