The North Korean
Mass Games: The Greatest
Show on Earth

Koryo Tours' founder Nick Bonner on North Korea's Mass Games extravaganza

Truly the Greatest Show on Earth

No matter what you have seen in your life you will have not witnessed any performance on this scale - 100,000 performers, Busby Berkley on acid. It is one of those sights that will probably be one of the last memories you ever have…it is an event that disturbs so much of the visual cortex that you will have this on your mind when you draw in your last breath.

Mass Games represents the sacrifice of the individual to the collective. A backdrop of 20,000 book-holding school kids making up the largest pixelated changing artwork in the world, the musicians and the performers.

My first visit to North Korea was in 1993 to attend the anniversary of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. There was a military parade on Kim Il Sung Square followed by Mass Games in Kim Il Sung stadium. It was simply put the most incredible choreographed performance and as you can imagine very militaristic- models of US planes crashing down from the stadium roof and parachutes, the backcloth of battles and victories reflected with the gymnasts performing on the stadium floor – today how much is imagined I cannot say but it certainly left an impression.

In 2003 we filmed two gymnasts and their families for a year for an indoor Mass Games (to celebrate 55 years of the founding of the Republic) for the documentary A State of Mind. For the participants the training is tough, practicing all hours on concrete.

From Hyon Sun, one of the gymnasts featured in A State of Mind:

At first, mass gymnastics was exhausting, so I just went out every day and played, then came back in the evening and told my mother that I’d been [to gym]. I did that more than a few times. Then I got found out by my mother and my teacher. So I got a good telling off and after that I started going to gym practice. Then we got to take part in the indoor [mass gymnastics] event to mark the General’s birthday. When we train here we always fall over. I don’t get bruises now. I used to get bruises on my knees and arms, but they’re all gone now.

I was in a coffee house in Pyongyang this year and the woman serving was one of the gymnasts sisters we filmed! A couple of years earlier the mother of one of the gymnasts ran alongside me for 50 metres during the Pyongyang Marathon complete with her shopping encouraging me to speed up!

The permanent move for Mass Games from Kim Il Sung Stadium to the May Day Stadium was set during the Arirang Mass Games 2002 to 2013. In Pyongyang this week we have seen school and student groups coming together on large open spaces to coordinate their performance. Only the very best performers make it to the final presentation. If a group fails to make the grade, it is replaced with a different troupe. In the composition of the formations, those schools whose pupils are the most disciplined and skilled are positioned at the centre.

A final word from Hyon Sun:

When I first joined the club I couldn’t do well so I learned a lot from the older girls and teachers. But as I grew older it seemed as if my technique improved automatically. So this time the teachers praised me, saying that I was good, so they decided, with the head of the school, to set me in the centre. I was really happy to stand in the centre and thought that I should perform better in this honourable position.

The last Mass Games was in 2013 and we thought that was the last ever. The Mass Games are back for 2018 and set to run from 9-30 September. Simply put, do not miss this, because of changes in the country and more pressure on education than taking time for mass games it might well be the last.

You can find a list of Koryo Tours' Mass Games tours here.

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