They Dance for Kim
Few pieces of entertainment are so spectacular that they are forever logged in the pages of history. In a few moments, one of those shows is about to begin. With no exception, today has been eagerly anticipated by the country’s entire population. In addition to the thousands of live spectators filling the giant amphitheater, countless more crowd around televisions at home. Journalists gather from around the globe, preparing for a rare peek into the secluded kingdom from which they are normally forbidden. Behind the scenes, performers and production crews actually outnumber the attending crowd, despite being in the largest sporting stadium on the planet. During the next twenty days, they will repeat their presentation forty times. In the end, millions of people from around the world will witness this massive spectacle.
Looming in packed hallways tucked beneath the colossal structure, platoons of costumed gymnasts take their places like droves of invading soldiers. Teams of technicians behind endless terminals make final checks on lighting, sound, and pyrotechnics. Like a human beehive, thousands of trained school children prepare to act in precise unison, behaving as a single organism for the next two hours. Almost every person involved, especially the young performers, have been preparing since last year’s performance ended. They must feed the infinite cycle of discipline and preparation.
For them, the honor of performing tonight is their purpose in life. Every element of the production has been perfected, but it has not been for the massive crowd. If the seats were empty and the cameras turned off, the performance would still go on, without a single mistake. The sum of this collective effort is for only one man, the beloved President of their nation. Sadly, he will not witness this show, or any other, because he has been dead for over twenty years. Tonight’s performance is the annual Arirang Festival Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea, and the man they celebrate is Kim Il Sung, their deceased but all-powerful leader. More than simply an athletic demonstration, North Korea’s Mass Games are deeply significant to the nation’s culture, and one of the most important pieces of the government’s authoritarian machine.
Currently, North Korea has one of the most unique governments in the world. The isolated country’s revolutionary leader, Kim Il-Sung, died on the 8th of July, 1994. Following the mandatory three-year public mourning of his death, he was granted the title of “Eternal President,” effectively making him the permanent, transcendent ruler of the nation. Since his death, administrative leadership of the country was first inherited by his son, Kim Jong-Il, and then his grandson, Kim Jong-Un. To this day, the North Korean Constitution lists the deceased Il-Sung as the actual Head-of-State (CIA). Despite being the living definition of a totalitarian dynastic dictatorship, North Korea describes itself as a ‘people-led democracy.’ In English, the nation’s official title is The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. Colorfully inaccurate language like this decorates nearly every aspect of North Korean life, thinly concealing the facts. Technically speaking, Kim Il Sung’s descendants did not inherit the leadership; they were democratically chosen in open, public elections. They always run unopposed, and the country only has one actual political party, but it’s the thought that counts. In truth, any political opposition is quickly silenced with a death sentence, or internment in a labor camp along with one’s entire family. Simply suggesting displeasure in the government is illegal, so the formation of an opposing political party is exceptionally tricky.
It may appear superficial, but the government’s wordplay is more than skin deep. The illusion of freedom, convincing or not, is a massive web of propaganda that has been woven throughout the country’s culture for more than fifty years. They have created a cult of personality so pervasive, that Kim Il Sung has been deified in the eyes of the population. Not only is it illegal to speak poorly of the government, but citizens that don’t vocally support the government enough can be imprisoned for life (Abt). Following Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011, one highly distinguished and loyal general was executed for consuming too much alcohol during the state-mandated mourning period (Ghosh).
The oppressive nature of the government and its absolute control of outside information has created an alternate reality within the borders of North Korea. History has been rewritten to attribute everything positive to Kim Il Sung, and he is also the author of every book (Abt). A religious superstition has arisen surrounding his life. Not since ancient Rome has a political leader been worshiped like a god. Even Adolf Hitler, who transfixed an entire nation into madness, remained a mortal in his follower’s eyes. Most importantly, his power died with him. Kim Il Sung engineered for himself a way to transcend death. In a profound way, Kim Il Sung’s presence still flows throughout North Korean culture, and every year, another generation is born into the machine that still churns in his name. To the people of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung is very much alive.
Comparing Kim Il Sung to a Roman Emperor may not be completely accurate, but they do share some similarities. Roughly two thousand years ago, the Roman Colosseum was one of the most impressive pieces of architecture ever conceived. Created to be the greatest amphitheater in the world, it stood as a symbol of the Roman Empire’s limitless power. The gladiatorial games held there were not simply entertainment, but rather served the purpose of uniting and controlling the masses. Rome’s rapid growth led to mobs of unruly citizens that threatened the stability of society. Not only were they captivated by the violent exhibitions, but the strictly layered social classes of ancient Rome were even reinforced by the seating arrangement of the crowd. Nobles and politicians were separated from women, peasants, and non-citizens. Most obviously, every grisly public death was a reminder of what happened to enemies of the Emperor (Mueller). Today, the Colosseum’s modern equivalent is the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyonyang, North Korea. Based on its seating capacity of 150,000, it is currently the largest stadium in the world (Gordon). Other venues can claim to occupy more space, but none other can put more people in that space. Despite the dire economic conditions in the country, this type of grandiose architecture is not out of place in Pyongyang. The center of town has Greek-style theaters, a replica Arc de Triomphe, numerous statues, towers, and a giant (unoccupied) hotel topped with rotating restaurants. If not an image of ancient Rome, the city would certainly pass for Las Vegas if draped in a few neon lights.
Although some conceptual similarities to ancient Rome can be found, the Mass Games of North Korea are an entirely different monster than any spectacle once seen in the famous Colosseum. One element that sets the modern games apart is the extensive use of young children. Not only are many of the performers school-aged, but children have been integrated into the surrounding visuals. Where any other venue would utilize complex electronic devices, the resource-hungry nation has substituted thousands of tiny hands. Behind the stage looms a gigantic screen, hundreds of feet across. What appears to be a static painted image on the massive stadium wall springs to life. Vibrant pictures depicting historical events and symbolic figures flash across the wall, changing in a fraction of a second. Just like the image on a television screen, the picture is composed of thousands of tiny colored squares.
Yet rather than being generated electronically, these squares are painted cardboard held by more than 20,000 young children. With dozens of images displayed during the show, many including moving elements, each child has a stack of cards arranged like an oversized storybook. They have rehearsed endlessly, following directions from a flag-waving conductor much like an orchestra. When signaled, the children simultaneously flip to the next page of their book, composing a new image for the audience (Gordon). Their precision and speed is absolutely astonishing. In the United States and much of the West, much less is expected from the average eight-year-old. A mostly-successful performance of a thirty minute school play will be met with the enthusiastic applause of dozens of proud parents. The kids in North Korea are no older, and number in the thousands. They sit attentively for hours, following the signals of a single man. A similar accomplishment would be nearly impossible in the United States. The supervision of 20,000 children would require dealing with about 40,000 entitled American parents. Any public school teacher can explain why this might be worse than death.
If this grand display of discipline and coordination were not enough, the actual show is going on below. Droves of gymnasts flock together in formations so giant, the appear more like schools of fish from the seats. The scale of the production is nearly incomprehensible to a foreign viewer. The world’s largest marching band boasts over 800 members; the Mass Games will showcase 70,000 individuals from beginning to end. Not only are the colossal formations performed flawlessly, but they are synchronized with lights, music, pyrotechnics, and the giant child-powered display. They tell the tale of Arirang, a folkstory that serves as a metaphor for the division of North and South Korea by the imperialist United States. Nearly every visual is symbolic of this struggle.
Granted, this grand presentation has been equated to child abuse by some. The little performers sacrifice nearly all of their personal time to accomplish this level of discipline. Not only do they train during time normally spent with family, but prior to a performance they miss a significant amount of school as well. This has drawn attention internationally, appalling many in the Western World. Although extracurricular activities are common in the United States, parents would rarely remove their child from school to intensively rehearse what they consider a hobby. The Korean children practice several hours daily, year round. For some, it is their entire life outside of school (Gordon). Some might call the Mass Games a frivolous display of power: an absurd waste of time, resources, and the lives of these children.
Nearly all of this criticism is probably true, but these festivals are not a frivolous, narcissistic exhibit. Although they may seem like the bizarre result of a cult-like society, they are not an effect of North Korea’s totalitarian culture, but one of the contributing factors. The most obvious benefactor of the Games is the military. Military service is mandatory for most males and many females, feeding the fourth largest army in the world. After training religiously for several years as a gymnast for the Mass Games, military boot camp is the next natural step. To a Westerner, it would be difficult to see the difference in the first place. Just as the televisions we use to babysit our kids prepare them for their arduous futures as mindless consumers, The Mass Games help turn young individualistic minds into obedient, selfless Communists.
North Korea is not the global empire that Rome once was, but events like the Mass Games still illustrate the nation’s greatest strength: its devoted population. This message is for the international community as much as it is for the people of North Korea. The closely knit unity of the game’s performers is a symbol of the country’s solidarity; a silent warning for the United States, which they still believe may invade at any moment (Gordon). North Koreans have been taught from childhood that they must display strength and unity if they are to avoid being consumed by the American tyrants. The country’s many prison camps and desperate defectors give the impression of a captive society, held hostage by the iron grip of a military dictator. The truth is more disturbing, as it gradually becomes clear that much of the population is part of this complex regime, not simply controlled by it. This level of indoctrination has never been seen before, because no dictatorship in history has ever evolved from such controlled circumstances. Rather than the forceful subjugation of an existing society, North Korea’s government and people were born almost simultaneously, when the peninsula was divided following the Korean War.
Interestingly, the young Kim Jong Un may end the country’s long tradition of the Mass Games. The Arirang festival was canceled in 2014 and 2015, and the future is uncertain. He just recently ordered a complete remodel of the record-setting Rungrado Stadium, allegedly with ambitions to host international sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games (Harress). At first glance, this may seem like the youthful leader using his infinite power to explore his own personal interests. However, if the Mass Games are as important to the Communist society’s culture as evidence suggests, replacing them with competitive sports could have profound long-term effects on the country’s development. Kim Jong Un, the grandson of North Korea’s Supreme Undead Ruler, may be unintentionally re-writing his country’s reality for the better.
Abt, Felix. A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2014. Web Accessed 25 Oct, 2015
CIA. The World Factbook: North Korea. 2013-15. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 24 September 2015. Web accessed 20 October 2015.
Fisher, Max. “Behind the spectacle, the ugly truth behind North Korea’s Mass Games” The Washington Post, 31 July 2013. Web accessed 22 October 2015
Ghosh, Palash. “North Korean Army Official Executed As Kim Jong-Un Continues Bloody Purge” The International Business Times, 24 October, 2012. Web Accessed 20 October, 2015.
Gordon, Daniel, Dir. A State of Mind. Perf. Hyon Sun Pak, Song Yun Kim. GoMedia Digital Media Group, 2004, web accessed 20 October, 2015
Harress, Christopher. “Kim Jong Un Wants to Host Soccer World Cup and Olympic Games Despite Crippling Poverty” The International Business Times, 07 October, 2017. Web. Accessed 23 October, 2015.
Mueller, Tom. “Secrets of the Colosseum” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2011. Web accessed 22 October 2015.
Alex Koss was born in Colorado Springs, CO, where he lives with his girlfriend Sarah and her teenage daughter. He is currently an art student at Pikes Peak Community College, where he is making preparations to pursue a BFA. Alex enjoys sculpture, writing, illustration, and painting. He also claims that he can cook, and he loves the outdoors although he spends much of his free time on the couch.