About the Author
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The final show of the year for North Korea’s “grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance,” often referred to as the ‘mass games,’ was held at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang on Tuesday, tour companies told NK News.
This year’s version of the propaganda show — titled “Land of the People” (or “People’s Country”) and involving tens of thousands of participants for near-nightly performances — ran from June 3 through October 15, with one short break in the first month.
Tour managers with the companies Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, which both specialize in trips to North Korea, told NK News the event on Tuesday did not include any new elements or special finale.
No VIP foreign delegation was in attendance for the final show either, unlike last year, which concluded on back-to-back special shows.
The ten-day break in performances for this year’s mass games came in mid-June after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un criticized the show’s creators on opening night.
“After the performance [Kim Jong Un] called creators of the performance and seriously criticized them for their wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude, pointing to the contents and forms of works,” a state media report said on June 4.
Kim reportedly “set forth important tasks for correctly implementing the revolutionary policy of our Party on literature and art” following the opening, but it did not take a hiatus until June 10, tour companies told NK News at the time.
It then returned on June 20 for a special China-centric show titled “Invincible Socialism” with President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in attendance, and has been running almost every day until the final show this week.
Tour companies revealed upon its return in June that the contents of the show had not changed significantly, and Kim’s point of contention from opening night is still unclear.
Notably, the Land of the People event this year premiered with and has maintained a section featuring what is believed to be the official painted portrait of Kim Jong Un in the style of those of his father and grandfather ubiquitous throughout North Korea — seen as a significant step in the process of incorporating the young leader’s cult of personality in line with his predecessors.
But controversy has also arisen in recent months over what NK News understands were changes to the ticketing process, with a new rule requiring tour companies to commit all of their tourists to paying to view the show prior to entering the country.
This change was reportedly first implemented towards Chinese tourists — the overwhelming majority of foreign visitors to the DPRK — with payments required upfront before receiving visas, and later with western tourists required to commit but not pay until the day of the show.
Human rights activists have also raised concerns over the treatment of performers, the age of the youngest performers, and the long hours required for practicing the hour-long event, which tells the official propaganda narrative of the DPRK’s history and ideological priorities.
Arguably the most prominent North Korean defector, former diplomat Thae Yong Ho, has also called for a boycott of the event by foreign visitors.
He said earlier this year that the shows are “inhumane displays” and “a forced exercise,” with long practices that mean “children, aged from six to nine, cannot go to school for six months.”
Nonetheless, it remains a popular attraction for foreign tourists, who often praise the synchronicity of the performers and the complicated routines on show.
Last year’s show, titled “The Glorious Country,” was the first mass games in five years, premiering much later than this year — on the September 9 national foundation day — but also finishing later.
In 2018, a Chinese arts delegation was treated to a special performance including the portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 17,000 student-operated flipcard backdrop on November 4, and Kim Jong Un and the visiting Cuban president took in the finale together on November 5.
It remains possible that this year’s event will be revived for another special performance, but it is unlikely to return for an extended run given the colder weather which has arrived in recent weeks.
It is yet to be seen if it will return next year, but performers are expected to begin practicing in public outdoor spaces in Pyongyang in the weeks prior, possibly as early as April if another June start is in order.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Koryo Tours