Mass Media


The Arirang Mass Games. (All photos: Travis Jeppesen)

IT SEEMS THAT EVERYONE who goes there comes back feeling that they have had the definitive experience, having attained the truest and most accurate understanding of that most mysterious of countries—or at least this is how so many of the accounts read. And yet I, returning now from my second trip, feel less certain, more perplexed than ever before. Which only makes me want to go back again.

Most people are surprised to learn that someone holding a US passport can legally visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, or North Korea, as we are wont to refer to it in the West, but the Hermit Kingdom has been welcoming American tourists—along with anyone else (with the exception of South Koreans and journalists)—since 2010 under the auspices of the state-owned Korea International Travel Company. Three Air Koryo flights a week shuttle planeloads of mainly Western tourists and high-ranking Korean businessmen and government officials between Pyongyang and Beijing, one of the only (legal) portals to the outside world. Tours must be arranged by an outside travel company, the best of which is Koryo Tours, which also runs a Beijing gallery of DPRK art and has produced a range of topical documentaries on the country.

“It’s best to view the DPRK as a Confucian red state,” says my Koryo guide, Christopher Graper, a sprightly thirtysomething Canadian with a clear passion for this country that is viewed by so many as a frightening abomination on the world map. He goes on to explain to our group the standard procedure of tourism in the DPRK: All groups are accompanied by two Korean guides and a driver; you are not allowed to wander away from the group at any point during your stay in the country; you are forbidden to go anywhere unaccompanied by a local guide; please don’t bring in any religious pamphlets; nothing with a US or South Korean flag; no CDs, DVDs, or publications from South Korea; no cell phones, no GPS devices, nothing that requires a SIM card to function. Photography and filming are permitted—with the exception of anything and anyone military—not the easiest thing to avoid in a country where every other person you see is in uniform; when in doubt, ask your Korean guides; any statues or paintings of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il must be captured from head to toe—no close-ups on the faces or any other anatomical parts; in the case of printed matter (newspapers and magazines), you cannot bend, tear, throw out, or otherwise destroy anything bearing the photographic likeness of either of the Kims; don’t photograph images of poverty or anything else that might cause embarrassment to the Koreans or spread a negative image of the country abroad; when in doubt, ask your guides.

Left and right: Outside the Arirang Mass Games.

None of this is news to me. Foreboding as it may sound, I quite enjoyed the company of my Korean guides on my last trek through the country. Anyway, this time around, I’m on a much shorter trip: just off to the capital to take in the Arirang Mass Games. Named after a beloved Korean folk song (which you’ll hear a couple times a day, at least, on any visit to the country), this gargantuan propaganda extravaganza, the Guinness-certified largest performance spectacle in the world, has been held annually since 2002 in Pyongyang’s Rungrado May Day Stadium. Featuring more than 100,000 performers—among them acrobats, athletes, singers, dancers, banner- and flag-wielding marshals—the Arirang Mass Games enacts the revolutionary history of the country in ninety minutes on über-monumental scale, the likes of which simply can’t be seen anywhere else. Or, to be precise, would be impossible to produce elsewhere. (As I heard one overexcited tourist exclaim, “This could never happen in a capitalist country. We’re just not organized enough!”) Inaugurated in 2002 and occurring annually in the autumn months, this year’s edition, which falls upon the centenary of the birth of the country’s Eternal President, Kim Il Sung, will allegedly be the last, with a wholly new performance being planned for next year, details of which have yet to be revealed.

As our flight from Beijing was a bit late, we were transported directly from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport to the Rungrado Stadium, the largest of its kind (by capacity) in the world. The first thing you notice about the DPRK is that people are rarely to be found walking alone on the streets; it must be the most highly organized society in the world, and even seemingly casual scenes, such as that outside of Rungrado prior to the show, reflected this. Several regiments of soldiers stood in line, waiting for their orders to march into the stadium and take their seats. Besides soldiers, the second most ubiquitous group is probably the pioneer-scarved members of the Children’s Union, who are more amenable to smiling and waving at the foreign tourists—that is, us—sequestered at the rear of the parking lot as our guides counted heads and issued tickets. Then, there’s the odd family unit that will make its way steadfastly past. Finally, there is the spectacle of the costumed performers themselves marching orderly toward the rear of the stadium.

The enormity of what we were about to witness became evident the moment we entered the stadium to take our seats, with thousands of blue-flag-bearing marshals lined up on the stadium floor, behind which stood another several thousand young girls in gymnast uniforms; still (and at this point you’re wishing you had a few more sets of eyes in your head to take it all in), the some 20,000 children facing you, flipping color cards in perfect synchronicity to form the shifting backdrops. A coordinating start cue is somehow given, the children shout out, “Hey!,” the marshals on the ground move forward, then back, and thousands of young female dancers in traditional dress come surging forth as the lights dim and the festive symphonic music swells—as does your adrenaline.

Left and right: The Arirang Mass Games.

The narrative begins in 1905, a relatively idyllic time for Koreans, only to be soured five years later when Korea came under occupation by Japan. The Japanese were, by all accounts, ruthless colonialists, banning the Korean language and doing their utmost to abolish all traces of the indigenous culture, while enslaving the locals. It was, according to the official history, only the birth of Kim Il Sung—an event observed in the Arirang as a sunrise—in 1912 that would enable Koreans to rise up against their oppressors and found their own nation-state.

Two pistols, which were inherited by the country’s Eternal President Kim Il Sung upon his father’s death in 1926, also appear “in the cards”; they had allegedly been used by the family patriarch in the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, the success of which would see the formation of a sovereign Korean state that would soon come to be divided by foreign powers. Kim Jong Il would inherit the same two pistols, as, presumably, would current leader Kim Jong Un, thus symbolically legitimizing the filial succession unique among communist countries.

And then, there are the kids. At one point, thousands of children come running across the field, landing in perfect lines and embarking upon a routine of synchronized dance, much to the delight of the squealing audience. “Children,” Kim Il Sung reputedly once said, “are the kings of our nation.” But look at them out there, smiling and moving and just, well . . . perfect. How do they do it? The answer is quite simple: In the DPRK, children aren’t raised by their parents. They’re raised by the state.

Of course, most of the tourists there to witness the Arirang will understand little of the symbolism, and that’s fine also. What’s unmissable is the dynamic symbiosis that emerges in the energy field formed between the performers and audience: The real intended audience, of course, is the Korean people—who simultaneously serve as the performers. In the course of the ritual, any division between “us” and “them,” participant and audience member, is dissolved in the experiential spectacle of mass being.

Left and right: The Arirang Mass Games.

Besides the Mass Games, the most intriguing part of any trip to North Korea is getting to know and befriend your guides (whose kindness, optimism, and generosity of spirit effectively dissipate any notions of cruelty one might associate with the place), relishing the few interactions with locals that are permitted, and trying to gauge how average Koreans live while visiting the many compulsory propaganda sites. “We’re going to establish diplomatic ties with the United States in the near future to provide for the security of our nation,” one of my Korean guides insisted at one point, a tremor of hope in his voice. Two days after I left, American and South Korean soldiers were preparing for their annual military exercises on the border, and the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency condemned “the US imperialist aggressors and the south Korean warmongers,” threatening in retaliation “to deal deadly blows at the enemies in hearty response to the order given by Kim Jong Un and leave the US imperialist aggressors and sycophantic traitors no place to live on earth.” Between these two extremities, a dream and a nightmare, lies the truth; probably everyone on my tour would disagree on exactly where that would be. Visiting North Korea instills within you the occasionally painful awareness that nowhere is reality straightforward and pragmatic, however we may wish for it to seem; rather it’s something that must be pieced together from the mishmash of fabrics stitched with conflicting messages.

North Korea is a place where ideology and performance are one and the same—and Koreans here appear as born performers. Spectacle though it may be, the Arirang nevertheless serves as a stunning display of the DPRK’s greatest natural resources. Or at least 100,000 of them.

Travis Jeppesen