North Korea Travel: Mass Games in Pyongyang

Part 3 of a four-part series by J. Thalia Cunningham

My visit to North Korea centered around the annual Mass Games in the capital, Pyongyang. The Mass Games, or Arirang, were more amazing than anything I saw in the DPRK, and that really is saying something.



Undoubtedly one of the greatest shows on earth, the Mass Games, which are not games at all, is a grand performance in a stadium that celebrates North Korea's national holidays. The 90-minute event pays homage to the Worker's Party, the military, DPRK founder Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il. The latter, Kim Il Sung's son and the current leader of North Korea, does not lack for titles. Known as “Dear Leader,” he's the Chairman of the National Defense Commission and the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea.



World's Greatest Spectacle

In the Mass Games' dazzling depiction of North Korean history, 100,000 gymnasts, martial artists, dancers, singers, and acrobats of all ages perform one of the world’s most remarkable spectacles. Think about that number -- it’s like having everybody in Portland, Oregon, and, for good measure, Portland, Maine, singing and dancing for you for 1½ hours. What's more, background scenery is created by tens of thousands of students holding cards -- human pixels, as it were. They flash them – sometimes simultaneously, other times in a sequential wave -- for a total of 170 changes during the 90-minute performance.

Guinness World Records notes that this is the largest such spectacle in the world. That's putting it mildly: The Mass Games make the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing look like a dress rehearsal.


Photographs and the Mass Games

Part 4 of this series explains how to visit North Korea without sprinting across the DMZ, but here's one practical matter for now: Having entered the DPRK and attended the Mass Games with a proper tour operator, we got to sit in fairly good seats, a section that included both visitors from other countries and North Koreans. We'd been told we couldn't bring more than a 300mm lens into the country, but when I saw the Mass Games – and some of the other tourists' cameras -- I was sorry I had followed the rules.


For Part 1 of this series click here.

Photos by Thalia Cunningham