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August 9, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Capital A: Arirang—North Korean Mass Game are the Illest

Arirang—North Korean Mass Games are the illest

North Korea fascinates me. A country of contradictions and frightful distortions of fact, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is also home to the world’s largest display of coordinated gymnastics in the world. The Mass Games, or Arirang as it is locally known, takes place annually in Pyongyang’s 150,000-seat May Day stadium and sees more than 100,000 gymnasts and performers take to the floor for a 90-minute synchro-spectacular that former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once referred to as “an Olympics opening ceremony on steroids”.

Often referred to as “the hermit kingdom”, North Korea is one of the world’s least-known societies and is practically sealed off from all outside influences. As a single party state it is one of the last remaining Stalinist vestiges, and follows its own set of communist ideals called the ‘Juche’ ideology, developed out of reverence for the almighty Kim Il-sung, their Eternal President—a man who, despite passing away in 1994, remains its eternal Head of State.

Currently, the country is under the care of that lovable puppet Kim Jong Il, who has maintained a controversial ‘Military First’ policy that sees a quarter North Korea’s GDP spent on maintaining the highest percentage of military personnel per capita anywhere in the world. Controversial indeed, when you consider up to three million of North Korea’s 23 million inhabitants have starved to death while its authoritarian head continues to spend ludicrous amounts on nuclear development and the upkeep of events such as Arirang—which annually drains ridiculous amounts of man hours for what is viewed by many as an hour and a half of spectacular political propaganda.

The Arirang version of mass games has been practised more or less annually since its beginnings in 1946, and takes place during the summer months. The performances have grown ever more lavish and fiendishly choreographed over time, although occasionally political unrest and national emergencies have disrupted the proceedings. After six to eight months of intensive training and rehearsal (an estimated 100 million man hours) the games normally take place four times a week over an eight-week period in the summer months, when tourists from outside of the republic are actively welcomed to tour Pyongyang and its surroundings.

Historically, massive coordinated gymnastics displays have held pride of place in the communist calendar. Dating back to at least the 19th century, Czech nationalists observed a similar practice in Sokol Slet, and Eastern bloc nations like Romania found the tradition an excellent and demonstrative way of expressing and reinforcing their ideology. After the Soviet Union collapsed, many of these nations discontinued these practices, although their influence can still be seen today as many of these countries still hold unrivalled dominance in the sport of gymnastics. The North Korean version is the only ongoing event of such magnitude and, as such, offers a genuinely unique opportunity to witness the power of mass synchronicity.

The festival involves over 100,000 participants which includes about 80,000 interchangeable floor gymnasts who perform the spectacularly complex and impeccably choreographed routines to the sound of Korean orchestral classics. Without the aid of floor markings, gymnasts and acrobats dance, jump and tumble with unfathomable precision, performing wretchedly complicated arrangements from blooming flowers to intersecting shapes that swell, subside and flow into each other in perfect time with the group. There are no flailing limbs, no off-beat individuals or unbecoming breaks to divert your attention from the “patterns of perfection”.

In addition to this display of coordination, a backdrop is constructed from up to 20,000 young school students who collectively make what is (unsurprisingly) the world’s largest man-powered jumbotron. By holding up single colour pages from a 170-page booklet and coordinated by semaphore, the students are trained to alternate the pages of the book with exceptional adroitness to create moving animations across an entire wall of the stadium. Subjects for display include triumphant North Korean soldiers taking to their southern counterparts with bayonets, a flying kick from a Tae-kwon-do champion and a magnificently radiant image of “the Incarnation of Might Displaying Infinite Creative Ability”, himself, their almighty leader, Kim Jong-Il.

While it’s easy enough to be dumbstruck having witnessed this gigantic human TV via short clips on the interwebs, what struck me most was the incredibly saddening thought of thousands of schoolchildren holding up an image they can’t see. However, in A State of Mind, the seemingly well-balanced BBC documentary on the games, we are presented with a much more ambivalent stance which appeared to show that the mere participation in the world’s largest man-powered jumbotron is reward enough for the participants. A regime that can at times appear maddeningly sick to us can simultaneously appear infinitely wonderful to its participants.

But for those of us without the unwavering adoration for a 5’2” madman, exactly what is it about such large-scale and extravagant coordination that gets us all going? While it is easy enough for us to get lost in the incredible injustices that are occurring at the same time as this maniacal exhibition of power and discipline, perhaps there is something more to this decidedly false Utopian image of the DPRK that we can take away.

For those of us who have been raised in the western world it is easy to misunderstand or miss entirely the purpose of the Arirang festival without any explanatory context. Taken at face value the games are a perfect example of the state’s ideology: the subordination of the individual’s desires to the needs of the collective. The author of Korea Bug, J. Scott Burgeson, invites us to set aside the event’s authoritarian undercurrents and to consider Arirang as “a case in which the sum is greater than its parts”. He also calls for us to view the spectacle as an example of collective artistic achievement as opposed to a tyrannical display of order and submission. This ultimately fits well with the North’s desire to market the games as “A triumph of human creativity that on a purely aesthetic level trumps all political or ideological underpinnings.”

What can be certain is that the games, with their newfound position on the international tourism calendar, present those curious enough with a rare opportunity to travel to the heart of the world’s most secretive state.

Should you have any compulsion to witness such a spectacular show (as I certainly do), you can buy a ticket to the festival that will see you seated on the Dias reserved for the Illest dictator around for about NZ$600. For those of us without sugar daddies/mummies you can still get the economy ticket for around $150. As a side note, it is worth checking to see if you can actually get a visa before investing. If a trip to North Korea is a bit of a mission you can always just watch the watered-down version on Youtube or alternately buy a kaliedescope and attend a local gymnastics competition in the Hutt.

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