About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Large groups of North Koreans have begun preparations for a new Arirang-like mass games slated to take place in September, photos taken in Pyongyang earlier in the month suggest.
The photos mark the first evidence that preparations are underway for the new mass games, following confirmation in March that North Korean authorities intend to hold the event this fall.
Tour company Koryo Tours in April said the new title for the event would be Bitnahneun joguk – sometimes translated in the DPRK as “Brilliant Fatherland” – and that the performance may differ from the Arirang Mass Games, which have not taken place since 2013.
Images obtained by NK News, taken at the square at the northeast corner of Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph, appear to show mostly women in line formation wearing white hats, white shirts, and each holding individual-sized jump ropes.
“Any large space such as the Kim Il Sung square, the square behind the juche tower, the square in front of the party foundation monument and even the Pyongyang train station platform are being used,” Rowan Beard from the Young Pioneer Tours agency said.
“We are having a lot of customers coming back for this event too. It’s everything tourists want. Military parade and mass games.”
Groups of people in similar outfits have been known to practice for the Arirang Games in the past at the same spot at Triumph Return Square, as well as the area in front of Kim Il Sung Stadium directly to the east of the Arch.
Other training areas in Pyongyang include Kim Il Sung Square and the Rungrado May Day Stadium – the 150,000-seat stadium where the Arirang Mass Games took place in the past.
Aram Pan of DPRK 360 also on Tuesday posted photos of North Korean women appearing in the same white outfits along the Taedong River near the Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang. In another photo, young men in white and children in black acrobatic outfits were seen practicing in front of the May Day Stadium.
“In the past when Mass Games was a regular thing we would see public practice starting a few months in advance, around April/May for August Mass Games,” Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell told NK News.
“Practice would start small and grow larger… it would be something exciting to see it growing and building towards the main event.”
The most recent performance of the Arirang Games took place in late September 2013, after which the May Day Stadium underwent a major renovation.
Cockerell revealed in 2014 that he had been informed the next Mass Games would not include the large so-called “human pixel” backdrop, though he now says there is evidence suggesting it may indeed return.
“I would expect that the backdrop will be used, they are moving chairs around in May Day stadium already to perhaps make that possible,” he said, though could not confirm any other details.
His comments do, however, confirm that September’s performance will again be held in the same location as the Arirang games.
Cockerell also said that the new iteration of the games may differ from previous ones in terms of size or performances.
“This time it is a new show, it has been 5 years since there has been any Mass Games, so it is a fresh start for almost all of the performers.”
But while foreign tourists seek out the mass games for their striking visuals and uniquely large number of performers, some North Koreans who have participated in similar shows and have since left the country have questioned the training conditions.
“Behind its overwhelming visual spectacle are the painful efforts and hardships of the performers, who must endure the repetitive practices and training,” defector Mina Yoon wrote in a column for NK News in 2014.
She described the task of performing for foreign tourists a “burden” due to their understanding that it was “an official event to confirm the national status of North Korea in front of the outside world.”
Another North Korean named Jae Young Kim, who performed in similar events in a small town outside the capital, wrote in 2013 that participation among young people in various shows was widespread across the country and that citizens participating in the big event in Pyongyang may have seen greater rewards for their work.
“Those who participate in enormous gymnastic group teams such as Arirang received gifts like TVs, fountain pens, watches, ball-pens, and bags. In this way, the children who performed at Arirang would become the object of envy among parents,” Kim said.
The date of the first performance of the new mass games this year has not yet been officially announced, though statements by Koryo Tours have suggested it may coincide with the DPRK’s Day of the Foundation of the Republic on September 9.
Edited by Oliver Hotham