In our last Mass Games blog we discussed the origins of mass gymnastics outside of the DPRK. In today’s blog post, we’re taking a look at how Mass Games developed in North Korea.
The North Korean Mass Games are an extraordinary spectacle of gymnastics, acrobatics, and dance, that can involve up to 100,000 participants — making it the biggest human performance on the planet. The Mass Games were last staged in 2013 and made a fantastic return in September 2018.
So how did the Mass Games come to be what they are today?
In 2003, we filmed our documentary 'A State of Mind', which is about two North Korean schoolgirls — Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yon — who were training to be in a Mass Games performance in 2003.
During the making of this film, we were able to interview Mass Games organisers. In the interview, they told us that the North-Korean style Mass Games originated from 'Flower Gymnastics', “a work that President Kim Il Sung created in 1930, during the early days of his anti Japanese revolutionary struggles”. They explained that the first North-Korean style Mass Gymnastics took place in 1961, and had the catchy title 'The Era of the Workers Party'.
It seems mass gymnastics can indeed be traced back to the birth of the North Korean state as, during the Korean War, the US army confiscated early North Korean state documents that revealed film footage of mass performances in the USSR – performances that show close resemblance to North Korean mass exercises.
Although mass gymnastic performances took place in North Korea in the early years of the DPRK, the Mass Games Production Company was not formed until 1971. In 1983 this production company established a special school (the ‘club’) where school children could learn gymnastics after school.
When we filmed our documentary in 2003, this school consisted of around 1,500 children, who played a key role in the Mass Games. The girls in our documentary, Pak Hyon Sun and Kim Song Yon, trained at this club.
In April 1987, the country’s former leader, Kim Jong Il, met with a group of Mass Games producers to provide them with guidance for an upcoming Mass Games performance. In his speech, he addressed the rationale behind these mass gymnastics performances. He stated;
“Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people, to be [a] fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities.”
As reflected in this statement, Mass Games are not only a physical exercise but also a social one, with an important ideological component. As in other former communist states, the aim of mass gymnastics is not only to train people’s physique but also train their mind and to socialise children into the political system.
In Kim Jong Il’s 1987 speech, he also addressed other aspects of the Mass Games, including the music, choreography, and how to weave the country’s ideology into the performance. This speech has since become the most important guideline for Mass Games producers.
It is estimated that since 1946 there have been over 120 Mass Games performances in North Korea, in various forms. The most successful Mass Games were the Arirang Mass Games, which first took place in 2002 and were staged annually between 2002–2005 and 2007–2013.
The North Korea Mass Games made a return in September 2018 under the name of 'The Glorious Fatherland'. North Korea tour specialists Koryo Tours brought in thousands of foreign tourists to see the much-anticipated event. It definitely didn't disappoint!
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Check out our Koryo Tours North Korea Mass Games Travel Guide - the ultimate travel guide to the North Korea Mass Games.
- North Korea Mass Games Short History
- Arirang Mass Games North Korea 2002-2013
- 2018 Mass Games FAQs
- Koryo Tours & North Korea Mass Games
- 'My First Mass Games 2002'
The above text is based on our interview with mass gymnastic organisers and booklets produced by the DPRK Foreign Language Publishing House and the Mass Gymnastics Production Company. We also used an article by Lisa Burnett and the book 'Illusive Utopia' by Suk-Young Kim. The photos in this blog were taken while filming 'A State of Mind'.