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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The field of Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium has been covered in white sheeting in recent days, according to satellite imagery, mirroring preparations for the running of the “mass games” last year but taking place months earlier.
The work inside the stadium (also referred to as the May First or Rungrado Stadium in North Korea) took place between April 17-21 this year, medium-resolution imagery courtesy of Planet Labs shows.
Signs of preparations outside the stadium were also evident in the latest imagery, suggesting the “grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance,” as North Korea refers to the event, may begin earlier this year compared to last year’s September 9 start.
By comparison, similar signs of preparations outside the May Day Stadium first appeared last year in early June, while the field was not covered until late July, a review of satellite imagery shows – ten weeks before the first public performance.
This could place the first show of 2019 as early as late June or early July, though the early preparations could also be in connection with a rumored visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in May.
“I’m hearing more details emerge that Xi Jinping will be making an official visit to Pyongyang next month and the Koreans will host him at a special Mass Games event just for his entourage,” a source told NK News earlier this week.
Last year’s run of performances ended on October 6 with a special show put on for a group of visiting Chinese artists, which prominently featured a portrait of Xi Jinping displayed by the thousands of card-flipping students making up the show’s backdrop.
Young people were also recently observed elsewhere around the capital practicing for the mass games as well as a torch march, sources said this week, following the pattern displayed in past years.
In 2018, for instance, similar preparations near major landmarks in Pyongyang such as the Arch of Triumph and Kim Il Sung Square began in early May.
“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 at the time.
An April start to such practices in Pyongyang’s public spaces could, then, signal a start in early August, as was the case at least from 2010-2012.
In those years, the performances often continued into October, while in 2013, the Arirang mass games started a bit earlier on July 22 and ran until September 9.
A July- or August-to-October run this year could also bring in increased revenues for the country from the spike in foreign tourists, though the vast majority of the seats are typically filled by North Koreans.
The mass games began in 2002 and were put on for a limited run every year except for 2006, before taking a hiatus from 2013-2017 and finally returning last year.
The event is described by North Korea as a display of the “force of Juche Chosun’s single-minded unity and development of Juche arts and culture to boast to the entire world.”
Critics, however, point to the long hours of forced training sessions for young students and missed class time as evidence of a much more troubling event, said to be used primarily to push state propaganda.
This year’s event was confirmed last month by foreign tour companies, though no official start date has been released and it is unclear if it will retain the “Glorious Country” title from 2018.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Sogwang