Memories of the first time I attended a Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea
In April 2002 I made my very first trip to North Korea. I have written about this before here, but the highlight of this trip was the amazing Arirang Mass Games – seen on the second night of the tour (first night spent in the now-closed Yanggakdo Hotel basement nightclub).
It’s fair to say I was not fully prepared for this event; I had seen Nick Bonner’s film The Game of Their Lives already and there is a Mass Games section in that, so I had an idea of what to expect. But to walk into the crowded May Day Stadium and be confronted with the enormous wall of tens of thousands of schoolchildren going through the pre-event backdrop practice was just breath-taking, mind-blowing, and discombobulating all at once!
As the lights dimmed and the show began I made sure to sit beside one of the guides to have the narrative and the meanings of each act explained to me; the Arirang version of Mass Games (Arirang and Mass Games are not the same thing, Arirang is just one version of the Mass Games, the one we are expecting to happen in Sept 2018 may be a different one, we don’t know yet) tells the story of the Korean experience during the 20th Century up to the modern day (bear in mind this was 2002, the 21st century was still young, I still had an analogue camera after all) – the bondage of the people and their miserable life under the Japanese, the rising of hope via the metaphor of a bright sun over the forests of Mt. Paekdu (this refers to Kim Il Sung and his guerilla army), Liberation in 1945, the development of various sectors of the country (there were acts devoted to industry, agriculture, science and technology, etc. A military part, a children’s part and so on). I paid attention to the story but was overwhelmed by the spectacle of the event - which is exactly why you should go twice if you have the chance; once to stare in wonder, once to work out what it all means. All my photos were terribly composed, a little blurry, and no doubt taken just as something more interesting and photogenic was happening in another part of the stadium. But I can say it was a wild introduction to the concept of mass events going on in North Korea.
Since that time I have attended the Mass Games literally dozens of times. Indoor Mass Games in 2003 (as seen in Nick Bonner’s film A State of Mind), the opening night of the 2015 event when I was present for the attendance of Kim Jong Il (the first time he ever appeared in front of tourists), the opening of a different Mass Games called ‘Prosper, the Motherland’ which ran alongside Arirang in 2008, and the closing night of the last Mass Games to have taken place in 2013. While the music for the last several Mass Games has been piped in, at the 2002 event it was actually played by a large live orchestra - something that I believe ended that year.
I’ve seen various parts of Arirang come and go over the years as different acts are updated and substituted; the addition of a China section (with dancing pandas and people in rice-picking hats) and a Russia part (full of Cossack-dancing and people playing balalaikas) – made me wonder what would happen in a British chapter; maybe people catching a London bus, watching football, downing pints, and fighting in the queue for a late-night kebab?
Anyone interested in attending the Mass Games themselves should get onto the Koryo Tours mailing list (if you aren’t on there already, drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org) as it is expected to make a comeback after a 5-year break, starting this September – see this blog post for some more info, to be updated when more details are available.