“Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people. To be 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. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren, The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.” – Kim Jong-Il
What are the mass games, exactly? Well, it’s really just a continuation of the “everything’s bigger in the DPRK” theme I previously mentioned. Take 100,000 North Koreans, place them in the largest stadium in the world, add some perfectly choreographed gymnastics, dancing, singing, a heavy dose of propaganda, and the end result is a massive show glorifying the achievements of North Korea and its eternal President, Kim Il-Sung. With their Mass Games, the North Koreans have succeeded in making the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony look like my elementary school’s Christmas plays.
The Mass Games usually run from August to October, but they aren’t held every year. Sometimes they are canceled when, for instance, massive flooding plagues the country and the government decides that the 100,000 performers could be better put to use working on flood alleviation and infrastructure repairs. The Mass Games period is also the only time when U.S. citizens are allowed to visit the country and hand over their hard-earned dollars to the regime. No Mass Games = no visas for U.S. Imperialists.
We saw the mass games our first night in Pyongyang. We were extremely rushed that evening (which, as we would later find out, is par for the course when touring the DPRK). We had 30 minutes for dinner, and then 30 minutes to make it to the Rungrado May Day Stadium. Thankfully, there isn’t much traffic in Pyongyang.
As we pulled into the parking lot, thousands of people streamed into the stadium while groups of gymnasts participated in last minute rehearsals. Two inebriated North Koreans got into a fistfight, which was promptly broken up by a large group of police officers.
The largest gymnastics performance in the world is held in the largest stadium in the world, naturally.
We were divided into groups of three depending on the type of tickets we purchased (first class, second class, or third class). I opted for the cheapest third class tickets, which were a not so cheap 80 euros ($115). As tempting as it was to sit where all the high government officials do, no one in our group went for the 300 euro ($430) VIP tickets.
Our guide led us through the tunnel and to our seats. The massive stadium loomed over us, and on the side opposite us sat 20,000 schoolchildren, each holding a flip-book that contained 170 different colored panels. Together they formed a gigantic mosaic that changed according to the choreographer’s instructions. They were doing a few practice runs before the show started, stamping their feet and shouting in unison. Myself and my fellow tourists were in awe.
“This is just…insane.”
And then the stadium lights were cut, plunging us into darkness. It was 8pm. Time for the most bizarre show on earth.
Instead of giving a blow by blow account of what happened, though, (and to be honest, most of the time I had no clue what was unfolding before me) I will just post a ton of photos to give you an idea of what goes on during the Mass Games.
And the show begins
When I saw the rabbit mosaic, all I could think of was this.
North Koreans like bacon too!
This frightened me
North Korea definitely keeps hula hoop producers in business
Leading up to the finale…
All photos from the Mass Games are here.
If you are interested in learning more about the Mass Games, I would highly recommend watching the documentary “A State of Mind”, which follows two North Korean gymnasts who are training for the Mass Games.