About the Author
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
North Korea’s mass game events in 2015 may, for the first time in the history of the series, be without their signature choreographed human backdrop, sources familiar with artistic performance and tourism industries have told NK News.
The backdrop, which has become one of the key aspects of the performances, will now likely be replaced by a modern, large-scale electronic screen, Norwegian artist Morten Traavik, who regularly hosts cultural exchange events in the DPRK, told NK News.
“Artist colleagues involved in DPRK mass gymnastics productions have recently told me that for next year’s Mass Games there will, for the first time in history, be no human backdrop as part of the show.
“What’s more, according to them, human backdrops will no longer be staged as part of big mass gymnastics performances in the future,” said Traavik. “So from next year on the human pixels will be replaced with giant film/animation projections which are supposed to be more “modern””.
Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company specializing in holidays to North Korea, confirmed to NK News that discussions to drop the human backdrop feature from 2015 mass gymnastic events had taken place.
“It has been suggested that the Mass Games, or what will happen instead of them next year, may not feature a backdrop,” explained Cockerell in an email to NK News.
But Cockerell pointed out that the mass gymnastic event series set to take place in 2015 would unlikely be a rerun of the well known Arirang show.
“Arirang isn’t what will happen in 2015, I think Arirang is done.
“Arirang is a specific Mass Games performance that has been going on since 2002 (and it) has always included a backdrop. If they do one without a backdrop as we suspect in 2015 then it won’t be Arirang, it will be something else,” said Cockerell.
Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours – another company which brings tourists to North Korea – could not confirm that the human backdrop would be gone, but said that discussions over both the staging and format of mass games in 2015 were currently taking place.
“The Arirang committee is currently discussing whether the Arirang festival will continue next year and, if so, what the format will be. As of now, no decisions have been made,” Lee said.
“Apart from my personal disappointment from a purely aesthetic point of view, I find this development really interesting as such a shift necessarily (includes) an ideological component as well,” said Traavik, the Norwegian with artistic connectinos in the DPRK.
“The human backdrop, in my opinion, in many ways was the very embodiment of North Korean ideology,” added Traavik.
While no official reason for the decision not to include the human backdrop in the 2015 event series has been given, Traavik said that there were two possibilities explaining the feature’s absence.
Traavik suggested it may have been cancelled as “segments of foreign opinion finds it totalitarian and therefore backward,” or that “the costs and logistics involved in the rehearsals, materials and design of the images…(are now) viewed as too costly”.
But Cockerell, the Koryo Tours representative, said he thought the cancellation was unlikely related to international pressure. “The reason for this (if it is true) isn’t known, but I can’t imagine it has much to do with international image and HR pressure.”
Mass game events are highly synchronized performances that typically involve over 100,000 participants and performers, for which the human backdrop has always played a significant role.
While mass game events do not always take place year-on-year, 2014 marked the first time since 2007 that the “Arirang” performance did not take place.
An ongoing major refurbishment of the May Day Stadium, the venue in which the performances usually take place, has been cited by tourism industry insiders as the reason the event was cancelled this year.
2015 will see the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule and may feature a special performance to represent that milestone.
Additional Reporting: Chad O’Carroll
Featured Image: Eric Lafforgue