A year in North Korea -The MASS Games, when the slightest mistake impact the entire group

North Korea's flag
Asia » North Korea » Pyongyang
August 10th 2010
Published: October 23rd 2010
Edit Blog Post

A year in North Korea of which 6 months during which the Mass Games the biggest human choreographed spectacle in the world unfolded itself in front of my eyes from the preparation stage during the bitter cold days in February to the Grand Opening on August 2nd. This blog is a personal testimony of those days, no crispy travel anecdotes nor road trip but personal impression & experience of the life in Pyongyang, North Korea through the Arirang which to this date I have found no equivalent anywhere else in the world.

A few things to start with about the Arirang (Mass Games in North Korea)

Scale: Up to 100’000 gymnasts and 15’000 kids from Pyongyang schools
Duration: 6 months of preparation followed by performances shown 3 to 4 times a week during 2 months
Meaning: Demonstration of the North Korean socialist realism which illustrate the ideology of the State
Medium: A story of the DPRK through performances: gymnastic, traditional dance, taekwondo, the human mosaic & the music, the first one remaining the central element.
Ultimately: Subjugation of individual desires to the needs of the collectivity
One golden rule: the slightest mistake impact the entire group

Reaching out for the sky!Reaching out for the sky!Reaching out for the sky!

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
a few more things …

“ The Mass Games Committee should be staffed with people who are unfailingly loyal to the Party and the Leader and technically qualified” Kim Jong Il

“Developing Mass Games is important in training schoolchildren to be fully developed communist people” Kim Jong Il

Late February 2010 - Discovering the Mass Games

I was driving around town on the week end when for the first time I got to see the mass games gymnasts, mostly kids and teenagers, seated on the floor in an orderly manner. I slowed down but didn’t stop, still working on figuring out the thin line between things “tolerated” and the one that get you in troubles.

In the following weeks, the sight of those gymnasts was quite random. They would normally be trained at the early stage in groups of a few hundred, either outside on some of the numerous square of Pyongyang when the ground was not covered with snow or inside one of its numerous stadium, the challenge being to know on which square (no access to stadium) and at what time.

During the first months, participants train at
and the fireworks!and the fireworks!and the fireworks!

Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea - 2nd August 2010
least two hours per day, in the afternoon for the gymnast who are attending school in the morning and during the week ends.

February days were bitter cold with temperature still way below the minus 10, March…well, still cold with half meter fresh snow which fell early March.

One of the thing which strike me the most is the capacity of locals to deal with the cold which can be even bitter inside the immense sport halls than outside, accumulating thin layers of clothe to better keep warm & silently determined to master every movement to the perfection.

Having myself spent two months training at the Taekwondo official hall, a huge communist style building, bare foot & north Korean style training, I quickly gave up when my toes repeatedly turned blue & legs’ tendons getting injured one training after the other as the warm up exercises turned up to be useless the minute you stop moving. So, yes I am still wondering how those kids & adults manage to go through with it…

April? Surprisingly enough, the never ending winter did end in April, within a few weeks the trees were green, flowers were starting to

Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea - 2nd August 2010
pop up and the Arirang training were about to go on full swing.

June & July 2010 - Understanding (or at least trying to)

Toward the end of May, the rate of the repetitions is intensified and gymnasts now train on a daily basis in the hope to be selected for the actual mass game performance. Not a single square is left empty and the main one the Kim Il Sung square, an open plaza of 75’000m2 of granite at the heart of Pyongyang is literally covered with over a thousand participants practicing week after week.

The gymnasts, aged 8 to 15, occupy the central part of the square, directly facing the stairs of the Grand People’s Study House (library), and surrounded by official governments with on one side the portrait of the eternal Leader Kim Il Sung and on the other side the one of Marx and Lenine (ok and the DHL office right under). Behind them the river and the Juche tower standing on the other side.

Slightly less “shy”, I would now go to see them practicing on Sundays. Car parked a few street away and on foot, camera on hand, not
Arirang TrainerArirang TrainerArirang Trainer

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
so sure whether I will be able to use it or not but keeping it in evidence, I was actually positively surprised by the reaction of the gymnasts and their trainer.

At the beginning, my colleague and I would simply walk along the practice area, creating quite a lot of laughs local style (hand covering the mouth & quick whisper to the other girls around) & then within minutes all eyes will be looking in our direction.
Never been frightened by large group but this was a really strange feeling, no aggressiveness here but simply a lot of curiosity coming from those young girls, but the scale (imagine a thousand eyes pointed in your direction) kind of make you giddy.

Our “outing” to the Kim Il Sung square then became part of the Sunday routine. Still provoking laughs and staring but somehow they started to get used to see us. The lead trainer, a middle age lady, will be standing on the stairs of the Grand People’s Study House overlooking the square, microphone on hand & repeating untiringly the “hana, doul, set …” (one, two, three..) followed by direction. In front of her, a group of about
a rare momenta rare momenta rare moment

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
a thousand young girls now nearly perfectly coordinated doing again and again the same gymnastic enchainement using a hoop.

The “fine line” was now becoming thinner as trainers seemed to have understood that we were actually living in Pyongyang (obvious sign: we were freely going around without a Korean guide to accompany us). We thus asked using the little Korean we know and the universal sign language pointed to the top of stairs and then to our camera to seat a few meters from her. Request was granted with a smile and a movement of the head, and up we went!
The view from where she is standing is even more breathtaking as from there you truly get to understand the scale of the performance. Seated on the stairs, the perfectly synchronized ballet of the young gymnasts was once again unfolding in front of us.

At this moment the golden rule “any individual mistake will impact the collective performance” started to take its whole meaning. Out of a thousand girls, should one make the slightest mistake the entire group will start again the enchainement from the beginning until perfection is reached. From eight in the morning until
Young gymnasts Young gymnasts Young gymnasts

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
six at night, the girls will keep practicing. Piece of rubber or fleece-lined fabrics tied around their knee and back, seemingly tireless & with a disconcerting suppleness they will link up backward roll, splits, jumps, bending backward until their hand touch the ground before going back to the initial position with a simple kick of the legs.

The main group would then break into smaller group of 10 to 20 gymnasts to review once more every single movement in group and then individually. The day was sunny and we decided to seat on the ground a few meter from one of the group, request which was granted in a very subtle way by the trainer. One girl after the other then had to show the series of movement, her gym mate behind her and the trainer in front giving the rhythmic using a short piece of plastic pipe on a wooden box. During the entire demonstration, we couldn’t help but notice the concentration and effort each girl was putting into each movement while keeping her eyes on us. A few smiles were exchanged and that day we really felt that they did the show for us too.

Training for the mass gamesTraining for the mass gamesTraining for the mass games

Pyongyang, North Korea
with locals other than colleagues and staffs working in shops and restaurants is limited if not none existing by principle but smiles or friendly waving do happen somehow more often. Always believe that anywhere in the world there are things that are intrinsic to the human nature.
One of those afternoon spent on the square somehow illustrates the above. Decided once more to seat next to a group of young kids who were half practicing half having fun, while an other group of young girls was seated in circle on the ground a few steps away. All of them were on break, the trainers busy with another group. The two friends I was with decided to seat further away and quite incredulous they witness a few instants where natural curiosity took over. As I was taking pictures of the first group of kids with my numeric camera the curiosity of the second one started to build up, then one of the girl decided to seat a few steps behind me, quickly joined by another one, both looking at the screen of my camera from above my shoulder. Contacts not being allowed, the last thing I wanted was to get them
Training for the mass gamesTraining for the mass gamesTraining for the mass games

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
in trouble so I pretended not to have seen them. Well, it was a good try but curiosity was stronger than any rule and before I knew it I had over ten girls literally all around me, looking at the picture I had just taken, laughing, giggling and speaking to me in Korean and then the sound of a whistle. Before I actually realized it, they were all gone.

August 2nd - Show time!

As with any event, one never knows when it will start or whether you will be able to attend until a few days prior (and for the official celebrations, until literally a few hours before…obviously, you are then supposed to be dressed formal). The opening of the 2010 Mass Games was no exception to the rule, the opening date was confirmed on the Thursday, ticket purchased first thing on the Friday and show on the Monday 8pm! Really got lucky on this one as my assistant managed to secure the coveted ticket for the opening…

The Mass Games previously hosted in the main gymnasium are now hosted within the May Day Stadium, a gigantesque steel edifice circled with grand arches which

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
offers a seating capacity of 150’000.

The sight of groups of foreigners (tourists) was somehow funny, don’t get to see so many foreign face that we don’t know yet (foreign community who live in DPRK is kept to 500 people, of which about 150 non Chinese/ non Russian). As a matter of fact, statistics on foreigners living in Pyongyang (mostly working in embassies, UN & NGO) is a regular subject of jokes and the arrival or departure of anyone an event celebrated at the one bar managed by foreigners (and restricted to foreigners based in Pyongyang). Well, as a matter of fact, outside of hotel bars & two more diplomatic clubs opened in the evening (which I will not call bar), there is simply no night life in Pyongyang.

Back to the Mass Games… the one feeling I will never forget is the one you get when you enter the arena…Staggering would be the one word that come to my mind: walking under the arch, through the corridor and as you enter the terraces area, the one thing you see & hear is the human mosaic made of 18’000 kids right across you shouting in unison while turning
do one with the groupdo one with the groupdo one with the group

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
a “page” of their book in a blink creating a continuous claping sound moving left to right & amplified by the stadium while your eyes start to get the whole meaning of “Mass” Games. Goose bumps were next, definitely in for one in a lifetime type of experience.

One side of the stadium only is used for the spectators as both ends are kept empty (won’t see much from there) and the other half occupied by an immense human mosaic used as a background which illustrates the achievements of North Korea and the revolutionary history. The central area of the stadium is the stage on which during an hour and half over 100’000 participants are going to follow one another.

Often referred to as “The largest painting in the world” the human mosaic is based on a system of signals sent by a conductor standing on the other side of the stadium, above the spectators and made of up to 18’000 kids. Each selected school repeats on a daily basis to master the handling of “the book”, a heavy 75cm by 50cm manual in which each page needs to be opened in total synchronization with the group so that to create this human painting.

The opening of the show starts with those kids, before any gymnasts walk to the central area, they are the central point of attention, somehow warming up for the more challenging paintings which follow later, this introduction ends with the display of the five districts names in Korean from which they come from.
The Mass Games can then start, 8.30pm sharp, the first group of performers in position “hidden” behind a human wall made of participants in white carrying blue flags, when suddenly they move out revealing a human tide promptly covering the entire area.

This revolutionary story in thirteen chapters where each participant becomes one with the group covers different part of the Korean history from the “happy” old times, to the Japanese invasion and occupation followed by the liberation of the country, the success of co-operative farms, the struggle against US imperialism, the “prosperous” country of today & the strive for Korean reunification.

The moment the gymnasts walked in with their hoop, it truly felt like a déjà vu, those were the girls I had seen so many times on the Kim Il Sung square, practicing again
Forward - Training for the mass gamesForward - Training for the mass gamesForward - Training for the mass games

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
and again until exhaustion and perfection. By then, I could already tell which movement will follow next which created quite a surprise from my two local staffs which came with me that day, they knew I had been watching those gymnasts while they were training but now they fully took conscious of just how often I went…

The show would overall be the same from one year to another, with every year one new chapter. This year, the last chapter was dedicated to the friendship between China and North Korea which came to many as quite a surprise, the Arirang being about Korea, the sight of panda, lion dance, “Chinese” drummers in the middle of Korean folk artists is somehow the last thing you would expect but it was done in a very symbolic way & the fireworks that went off above the stadium had everyone literally standing.

This hour and half performance closed a chapter which lasted for 6 months. Initial fascination has been replaced with a more composed attitude toward it, a better understanding of the meaning and role that a performance of such a scale can have.

North Korean Mass Games, a certain way

Just for fun...training blindfolded!Just for fun...training blindfolded!Just for fun...training blindfolded!

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
of life

Behind the show is a certain way of life which is depicted, everyday people fight first against their own weakness than compete with others just like those gymnasts who don’t want to make the slightest mistake in order not to impact the entire group.
Obviously, it would be naïve to think there is no competition in North Korea, there is but in a much more subtle way. One wants to achieve the best marks at school or produce the biggest quantity of goods in the state run factory but every time it will be presented as part of the group effort and ultimately to serve their country. To this effect, it is expected from every North Korean that they should take on any type of work as needed by their country, the bricklayer can then be appointed painter, the surgeon physiotherapist and someone working in one ministry appointed into another. In addition, people who live in the city would go to the countryside from time to time (at least at the seed and harvest time) to help with the national effort.

This notion of group first, patriotic duty & tirelessness is omnipresent in the Mass Games
Well deserved restWell deserved restWell deserved rest

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
just like it is in everyday life of North Korean.

Note: to learn more about North Korea and the Mass Games, I can only recommend the award winning documentary/movie “a State of Mind”, an absolute must see!

Additional photos below
Photos: 44, Displayed: 33



Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang
Human MosaicHuman Mosaic
Human Mosaic

Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea - 2nd August 2010
Human flagHuman flag
Human flag

Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea - 2nd August 2010
perfect synchronisationperfect synchronisation
perfect synchronisation

Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea - 2nd August 2010

23rd October 2010

Quality Entry!
I thought i was lucky to enough to see the Arirang Games at the start of this month, but after reading your article, now i feel only jealousy! :) I really enjoyed reading about the preperations involved and the photos added an extra dimension to your words! Thanks for sharing it!
23rd October 2010

Hello dear, I love your blog! So interesting and well writen! Hope to see you soon in Shanghai! We are planing to go to India with Jessica ,first week of May, Wish you can come with us! I am still not on Facebook,can only read your messages ,but cant answer!! Miss you, Big Kisssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss
23rd October 2010

Thank you
Thank you for this great blog, I am really interested in North Korea since I lived in South Korea 2006/2007...
24th October 2010

Ton témoignage est passionnant! Je vais essayer de trouver le documentaire que tu recommandes. Après un an, peux tu dire que tu as été séduite d'une certaine façon par ce pays et son système hors du commun?
24th October 2010

I see you are dissecting events, even in North Korea.
24th October 2010

nicely written..
24th October 2010

Beautiful pictures and a great account Laetitia! The mass games are very high on my list of things to do, as soon as I can afford it again! Ben
30th October 2010

amazing, cant wait to see you to get the stories from you !!!!! keep going at least I have the feeling you are among us...kiss
25th December 2010

Amazing Entry
Having seen the Games in 2009, it was fantastic to read about the preparations that foreigners normally don't see. It would have been wonderful to walk around Pyongyang without a guide!
25th December 2010
Well deserved rest

This photo says so much.
28th December 2010

Re: Travel Camel
Thanks Shane for your comments and indeed felt like quite a unique experience to witness the entire process...took me lots of time and thinking on how to approach a 6 months period into one blog but glad this entry finally came out as every step says so much about this country...What about you, where are you up to? Lost track since your blog on Ethiopia. Cheers,
31st January 2011

fascinating entry with stunning photos - wow! And thanks for sharing!
20th February 2011

Blog of the year, 2010
Congratulations! :) This blog was nominated one of the best of 2010, in the Asia/adventure category. ''Having visited North Korea I can assure you that Laetitia's ability to photograph and write about the training for the games is nothing short of stunning.'' http://www.travelblog.org/Topics/27154-1.html

Tot: 0.264s; Tpl: 0.032s; cc: 30; qc: 119; dbt: 0.0391s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.8mb