Losing clothes, health, and even life for the Mass Games

Performers brave illness, injury and humiliation to make spectacular displays
February 12th, 2014
6

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

This week Jenny in Sydney asks:

What are the training conditions for the child performers of the Mass Games? Why is it held and what are the expectations for this event?


In case you haven’t heard of it, the Arirang Festival might be the most famous mass performance in the world. It is an absolute masterpiece of performance art mobilizing about 100,000 people from kindergarten kids to college students. The Arirang Festival was even listed in the Guinness World Records for its record-breaking scale. However, behind its overwhelming visual spectacle are the painful efforts and hardships of the performers, who must endure the repetitive practices and training.

I haven’t participated in the Arirang Festival, but I did participate in mass gymnastics events in other cities very similar to it that also used ribbon and card (human pixel) systems. When the performance date was approaching, schools would cancel afternoon classes and train students for the upcoming performance. And when the performance was imminent, schools cancelled classes for the whole day. Instead, students gathered in the schoolyard and repeated rehearsals endlessly. The school would not distribute the equipment for the mass games, such as ribbons or cards. The performers were responsible for preparing all those things by themselves.

SACRIFICING MOM’S BLOUSE

I still remember how I once made a very special ribbon for the performance. I had to procure fabric to make a ribbon, which was not easy to get. One day, I came home around the lunch hour to prepare a ribbon for the mass game I participated in. There was no one at home. My mom had gone out to work in the farm that belonged to my father’s military unit. I had to have a ribbon by the afternoon but there was no way to reach her. There was no home phone and of course no mobile, so I started to go through my mom’s closet but it looked like there was no decent fabric left.

“I concluded that I would rather my mother spanked me than be insulted in front of all of the students”

 
After a while, I finally found a lovely purple blouse of my mom’s. She’d had it for a while. Maybe she’d gotten it even before she’d gotten married and brought it with her. I hadn’t seen her in the blouse, and from the many layers of papers that my mom packed it with, I could see it was one of her favorite outfits. I couldn’t bear to destroy it, so I put it back in the closet. But then I thought of my teacher, who would scold me if I didn’t bring a ribbon. I was agonizing over what would be worse between being scolded in front of the whole school and being punished by my mom. I concluded that I would rather my mother spanked me than be insulted in front of all of the students. There was no way I could stand that much humiliation, so I took the blouse out from the closet. I cut it into 1.5-inch-wide pieces and sewed the pieces together to make a long ribbon. I stuck the purple ribbon on a wooden stick and carried it to the training.

What happened when I got back home later? You really don’t want to know. Anyway I think my mom deserved to be angry after seeing her precious blouse torn to pieces.

DUST STORMS AND CARDBOARD MOSAICS

Usually, the training for the mass games took place in the schoolyard. The practice was so grueling that the performers were literally knocked out when it was over. The idea was that a large group of people should be able to move just like a single person, and endless training was therefore a must. Even worse than the very tiring training itself were the dust storms from the ground. The schoolyard was covered with soil, and when a number of people made a series of rapid movements on it, naturally a heavy cloud of dust rose up from the ground. Blinded by the thick fog of dust, it was impossible to look ahead in line. I could not even breathe, suffocated by the dust. When I got home and blew my nose, I could see the black dust coming out. In my mouth, I could feel the grains of sand that had blown into my mouth while we were singing. I think it was a miracle that I did not get pneumonia.

The same went for the card section. It was the performers who had to prepare cards that would be used in the performance. At that time, in North Korea, even toilet paper was hard to procure. To me, it was a burden to prepare several pieces of cardboard. What I did was tear up my used notebooks, separating all the pages from them and gluing them together to make thick cardboard. Then, to make them nice and flat, I’d put them under my bed and slept on them. In the morning, I’d sew the flattened cardboard and put them together like a big notebook. Then, as a final step, I’d color the cardboard.

Once our school collected all of the cards from the students and spread them out in the schoolyard. I wondered what they were doing with our cards. I soon figured out that they invited an artist to draw a huge picture on the grand canvas made of our cards. When I got up to the parallel bars and looked down, the schoolyard, covered with the cards, looked like a magnificent mosaic. I thought of what an amazing spectacle it would be when we finally performed with those painted cards.

Let me explain briefly how the card section works. Unlike rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon, we were trained in the actual stadium of the performance. In the card section, there is a conductor standing in front of the group of performers. The conductor would hold number plates and blow a whistle. When the conductor raised up a number plate with the sound of a whistle, the performers would unfold the color that matched the number. Even though the conductor would show just one number at a time, there would be different colors assigned to the number according to the performer’s groups, so that it would form a huge picture moving and changing when you watched from a distance.

The performers were divided into many layers of groups, like squadrons, companies and platoons, just like a military. For example, I was number 7 in the 3rd platoon, 3rd company in the 2nd squadron. Squadrons were assigned by school location, companies by schools and platoons by grades. Squads, the smallest units, were divided by classes.

“It might feel awful if thousands of students had to start over because of you, so all the performers tried their best not to make a mistake”

 
Because the performers were assigned to their spots according to schools and grades, when anyone made a mistake, it was easy to find out who it was. For example, if a performer named Hong Kil Dong accidentally unfolded the color blue when he was supposed to unfold red, the conductor would call him by name through a loudspeaker, saying something like, “Hong Gil Dong in School A made a mistake. We’re repeating this part again.” It might feel awful if thousands of students had to start over because of you, so all the performers tried their best not to make a mistake.

As a performer, the most painful thing in the card section was the uncomfortable posture I had to bear for such a long time. We had to crouch and hide under the cards for a better picture. The performers sat down, put the cards on their laps and unfolded them following signals from the conductor, but it did not look very pretty if the audience could see the faces of the performers. Therefore, once we put out the cards, everything beneath our eyes had to be completely hidden under the cards. After curling up like that during day-long rehearsals, my legs felt numb and my neck was practically paralyzed. When I tried to stand up after the rehearsals, I could hear the cracking sound from my joints.

I took part in smaller mass games, but I could imagine how much harder Pyongyang’s mass games would be. The most difficult part must be that it has to be accurate and flawless. Just imagine thousands of people moving, but they have to move as one. They have to move simultaneously, depending solely on the sound of music. How would it be even possible? Only endless repetition of exhausting practice and training could increase their accuracy. The burden the Arirang performers felt seemed very heavy. There are thousands of foreign tourists watching them. And they understand that what they are doing is not merely a performance. They know it is an official event to confirm the national status of North Korea in front of the outside world.

I’ve heard of a student who died of appendicitis because he could not leave his spot in the middle of the performance. During the performance his appendix burst but he dared not leave his position. You might wonder how he could bear that pain, but I understand that it might have been unthinkable for him to leave his spot during the performance. Even when the performers are sick, not many of them would think about skipping the performance. They knew they would not be excused even when sick. This kind of obedience must be the result of brainwashing and repressive politics seen in North Korea for so long.

THE PURPOSE OF MASS GAMES

You also asked why the North Korean government has been hosting these events. To answer that question, I have to highlight their political aspects. In my opinion, there are three primary results expected: First, the government believed that, successfully performed, the mass games would elevate the national status of North Korea. North Korean mass games started in the 1970s for honored guests from foreign countries. They disappeared during the era of famine of the mid-1990s, and were then revived in 2000s to attract more foreign tourists. However, there was a far greater purpose than tourism. The mass games in North Korea were designed to highlight the legitimacy and consistency of the regime by showcasing its strong spirit of community for the outside world to see.

“ In societies where individual human rights are respected and freedom of choice is valued, this kind of performance is impossible”

 
Second, these performances were believed to increase the morale and the pride of North Korean people. The government wanted its people to believe that North Korea was the most strongly united country in the world, and the praise that the mass games had earned seemed to inspire pride in the North Korean people.

And, finally, there might have been some economic boost expected from increased tourism. You may or may not like to watch the mass games, but one thing is very clear: North Korean mass games are the grandest circus that you could ever see in the modern world. Mass games may be performed in other countries, but performance like the North Korean mass games, which yield such high profits on such low budgets, may not be repeated elsewhere. In other words, mass games are only possible with North Korea taking advantage of obedient people under a totalitarian ruling system. In societies where individual human rights are respected and freedom of choice is valued, this kind of performance is impossible.

This year, the North Korean government decided to cancel the Arirang Festival. My guess is they cancelled it because they could not afford the minimum budget for the performance to replace old costumes and give snacks to the performers. Since North Korea has been isolated due to its nuclear issues and its tourism has shrunk, it seems to me like the mass games literally went bankrupt.

Mass games in North Korea were created to sell the success of the collectivist system of North Korea. I believe mass games are another product of a totalitarianism system. However, it does not say anything about people who are actually suffering under the totalitarianism government. It is regretful that most North Korean people have not realized that they are victims of their government, being used, exploited and sacrificed by it.

Well, I must say I am glad to hear that this year’s Arirang Festival has been cancelled. At least this year, North Korean students do not have to go through all the tiring training I did. I don’t know whether or not the North Korean mass games could be appreciated as meaningful achievements in performance art, but when I think about the price that the North Korean people have had to pay for them, I really hope they will disappear soon.

I shall do my share to make it happen sooner.


Got A Question?

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Editing and translation by Ashley Cho

Artwork by Catherine Salkeld

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About the Author

Mina Yoon

Mina is an "Ask a North Korean" contributor. She is in her early 20s and left the north-east of North Korea in 2010. She can be reached at [email protected]

Join the discussion

  • Jim Knowles

    Thank you for the insight. Fascinating yet heart wrenching at the same time.

  • Bradley Greenwood

    I always enjoy these. This perspective is the most meaningful way for me to understand NK. Thank You!

  • Xio Gen

    The actual reason why they do these mass games is psychological. When a group of people do things in unison, they emotionally bond and feel more connected to one another. That’s how they can do these things as one, because they really DO feel as one. It means they’re more willing to cooperate and think of each other as a collective unit. One may not be loyal to the Dear Leader, but they can still be loyal to the DPRK.

    And before you think we’re so superior to North Korea in this aspect, every country has a national anthem that we all sing together to build a sense of pride and unity, exactly what nationalism is all about.

  • kodabar

    I do like these, but I’d prefer them with less of a commentary. I can decide for myself what I think is terrible or not. There are plenty of articles all over the internet telling me that North Korea is terrible. What’s unique here is to read about the experiences of an actual North Korean citizen. More of that please – earlier ‘Ask a North Korean’ articles tended to be in that vein.

  • Fayt Strife

    This was a very interesting article. I liked how it it gives insight to how dedicated the performers are. Especially the part about the kid who stayed while his appendix burst. Sad though but very interesting.

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