The Mass Games

 

Saturday September 8, 2012 – The Mass Games

The amazing overwhelming grandeur of the Mass Games.

We were given souvenir style tickets.

The performers were mainly in place but doing some last minute rehearsing when we arrived. This looks over to part of the backdrop where the 30,000 people holding signs were getting ready.

Here’s a close up of a few of the people who made up the ‘wall’ of 30,000 sign holders, before they were ready to start performing.

And here they are actually in performance.

Part of the audio/visual/everything extravaganza is fountains on the sides of the main backdrop.

Jerry and I at the Mass Games.

The Mass Games were one of the major ‘draws’ and reasons for most of us in choosing to go to North Korea.  Imagine, if you can, a giant stadium that can hold 150,000 people, and being filled by 100,000 performers (although not all of them were on stage at the same time), presenting a show that is a curious combination of an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony blended with a Nuremberg Party Rally from the 1930s, and then toss in acrobats, human cannonballs and performers on unicycles as a quirky bonus, and you get some sort of idea of the scope of the event.

Many of the group had read up on the Mass Games prior to arriving in North Korea.  We’d seen pictures, read descriptions, and even watched video clips.  But nothing any of us had come across prepared us for the amazing reality of actually seeing it in person.  No matter how high our expectations, they were all massively exceeded by the reality of the enormously super-sized event.The actual number of performers is a bit of a mystery – there being no official program and program notes for the performances.  Instead, the number 100,000 seems to be generally accepted, although the original source of this claim is unclear.  But negating any concern that this might be a greatly exaggerated number is an alternate claim which appeared on a CNN article in 2010 claiming there to be 120,000 performers.  The Guinness Book of World Records bestows upon it the title of world’s largest gymnastic event.

Whatever the reality, it is clearly a very large number and probably at least 100,000.

We saw performers leaving the games on one evening while we were there – after each group has done their piece, they are free to go – and just looking at the size of the group leaving after one of the many set pieces gave a glimpse of the huge numbers of people involved.

A unique feature of the mass games is the ‘human bill-board’ display.  Approximately 30,000 people (typically children rather than adults) sat opposite us on the other side of the stadium, and each one had a collection of large cards (maybe 2’ x 4’ or something like that) which they held up in front of them, with the cards essentially lining up with all the other cards to create a solid wall of whatever was on the side of the cards facing us.

Some of the time, the cards would be plain white and video would be projected onto them.  At other times, the card performers would go through a series of card transitions to display changing scenes.  This was an amazing thing, and the transitions from one card being displayed to the next usually happened very quickly and precisely.  We did notice though that invariably one or two cards would be out of sequence, but after a brief pause, they would be corrected – we guessed that there were ‘spotters’ on our side who would then phone over to the card holders saying something like ‘Row 27 Seat 45 – your card is wrong’.

We believe that each person has a set of about 170 cards.

The transitions could be as imaginative as those available with a digital video editing suite.  We saw hard cuts, wipes of various types, reveals, and other effects as each picture evolved to the next, adding to the sense of animation.

Each performance lasts 90 minutes, and starts absolutely promptly at exactly 8.00pm.  However, you are well advised to get there at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the show.  The card holders and some of the performers are doing last minute warm up drills and rehearsals in the stadium, so you get a bonus extra bit of entertainment and even a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ impression of things if you arrive early.

Venue

The enormous May Day stadium, seating 150,000 people, as seen from the hotel.

Entering the May Day Stadium

The main ‘stage’ was the playing field in the center of the stadium, giving a necessarily large area for the many thousands of people in each of the different staged pieces.  The stadium itself was oval shaped and although it could hold 150,000 for a sporting event, the rear long side of the oval was taken up by card holders, and the two sides of the oval were not suitable for viewing, so we’d guess that a maximum of perhaps 50,000 people could experience each performance (this number has been quoted elsewhere as well so it is probably about right).

The stadium – known as the May Day Stadium – was opened in 1989 and its 150,000 seating capacity is considered to be the largest of any stadium in the world.  Prior to that, the Mass Games were held at the near by Kim Il Sung stadium, which only seats a mere 50,000, and so, for Mass Games performances, would have had much less stage area and of course, many fewer actual seats for spectators.

Seating

Our seats gave us an excellent, central and unobstructed views with great perspective down to the performing floor and across to the backdrop.

Seats were expensive – the top VIP seats were €300 each.  Some of us chose those; most of us chose the €150 seating, and there were also €100 and €80 options as well (being less well centered and less comfortable seating).  Our feeling was that for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, it would be inappropriate to compromise the quality of the experience and so it was easy to agree to spend €150.

In actuality, I personally felt the €150 seats were better than the €300 seats, because they were higher up, making it easier to look down on the performing area and get a better sense of the overall layout and patterns of the people performing. A couple who attended twice, once in €300 seats and once in €150 seats agreed with me that the €150 seats are just as good and maybe even better.

There is no way to buy seats in advance prior to arriving in North Korea, but as long as you buy tickets reasonably early on the day of performance, you are fairly certain to get the seats you wish.  Our guides took care of buying our tickets for us.

The Arirang Mass Games

Brightly dressed women form changing patterns

Not just women – huge groups of men also go through set piece presentations, in time to musical accompaniment.

Part of the section hailing the wonder of their vinalon fabric.

Another part of the ode to the wonders of vinalon.

The performances have a theme or story that helps to bind parts of it together.  Since 2002 (the 90th birthday of Kim Il Sung), the theme has been the Arirang legend – the story of two lovers who were separated and who yearn to be reunited.  This has a clear parallel to the North’s desire to be reunited with the South – a desire which is increasingly less reciprocated by the South, and a dream that grows ever more challenging due to the growing discrepancy in wealth and income levels between the two nations.

The production (like so much else in the country) is said to have been personally perfected by Kim Jong Il himself.

Set pieces in the presentation range from celebrating industry and even electricity generation to agriculture (showing lots of tractors – things which were seldom apparent on the actual farms) and of course, celebrating the armed forces and the leadership of Kim Il Sung in particular.

We misunderstood one piece as celebrating vinyl – a misunderstanding which temporarily caused us much mirth.  It transpired that it was not celebrating vinyl, but instead, an artificial fiber indigenous to North Korea, vinal or vinalon, and after subsequently learning some about this material and its limitations, the piece, in retrospect, is perhaps funnier still.

There was a year or two where two different Mass Game themes were presented almost simultaneously – Arirang in the evenings and the other in the afternoons.  Because the stadium is open without a solid roof enclosing it, the afternoon performances were massively less spectacular than the evening ones – the bright colors, the lights, the projected video, and the fireworks all require a darker backdrop to play against most effectively.  Even the scene changes are more magical when the lights go down in the darkness rather than in the afternoon, then almost immediately up again and you see the huge playing field has suddenly changed and there are now umpteen thousand different people on it, replacing all the people who were on just a minute before.

Uncertainties in Scheduling, Both Now and In the Future

Trapeze artists fly above the stage, apparently on rocket propelled chariots.

Not quite so high up, but still impressive, are various acrobatic feats.

Contrasting to the rocket propelled chariots are unicycles.

How else to celebrate the nation’s engineering and scientific innovation, than by a pageant of ladies with hula hoops!

Strangely, the government seldom gives much advance notice about when the games will be staged each year.  Traditionally the games seem to be featured in August and September, with a core window of perhaps 6 weeks when the games are most likely to take place, and then extensions beyond that on a seemingly ad hoc basis, and with little warning.

Indeed, this year, it seemed the games would not be extended beyond their season which officially ended on Sunday 9 September, but then, with no advance notice at all, the games extended on for another couple of weeks after that, and at the time of writing it is unknown if any further extension will occur.

Normally we’d suggest traveling to North Korea in later September so as to enjoy milder weather, but because – for most people – a chance to experience the Mass Games is a key part of a North Korean experience, if you want to play it reasonably safe, you’d be better advised to travel in earlier September.  A watershed date seems to be their National Day which falls on September 8 – our feeling is that the games are usually very likely to run at least through that date or the weekend immediately after, and then beyond that, it is ‘catch as catch can’ for if the games will continue or not.

There has been some uncertainty about what will be staged in 2013 and beyond.  Earlier in 2012 there were suggestions that there would be no further Mass Games staged after the conclusion of the 2012 season.  Then we formed the impression that perhaps the Arirang themed staging would end and be replaced by something else.

I use the oblique phrase ‘formed the impression’ because very little is publicly announced in advance – either about the Mass Games or much else that goes on, but there is a very active ‘jungle telegraph’ in Pyongyang that passes on something close to the probable truth – particularly for the Mass Games, involving, as it does, 100,000 or more people (the total population of Pyongyang is only about 2.5 million).  Nothing can be kept very secret about the Mass Games, particularly when the groups start their rehearsing early in each year – they will often rehearse in the open air in public squares.

When we visited in September we were advised by the guides that it is expected that Arirang will be the theme for next year’s games, which are indeed expected to take place, but they said there might be some changes to some of the set pieces in the performance.

There have been tweaks and changes to the performance several times in the past, with numbers being updated or replaced, based either on topical issues or perhaps even on what has proved popular and spectacular and what has not quite lived up to the very high expectations.

So at this point we’re expecting to see something performed again in 2013, and probably somewhat akin to the Arirang performance this year.  But how much longer can such enormous spectacles be staged?  Let’s look at that a bit.

The Cost and Benefit of the Mass Games to North Korea

1107 main performers for this scene, plus thousands more standard bearers around the sides, plus the 30,000 sign holders in the rear.

Another part of the scene above, extolling the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do

Countless tens of thousands of the performers were school children, as seen here, doing a number with balls.

A ‘river’ of brightly dressed women.

With each performance requiring close on 200,000 man hours of labor, to say nothing of the rehearsal time and production/staging investments, there is no way that any country with ‘normal’ labor costs could afford to produce such a spectacle, and who knows for how much longer North Korea will be able to afford (and justify) such extraordinary allocations of resource either.

We estimated there are perhaps 1,000 foreigners at each performance, and maybe that represented in the order of €100,000 in ticket receipts from foreigners.  The ticket receipts from sales to locals are negligible, and not really worth factoring in.  That’s not a lot of return for something in the order of 200,000 man hours of performer time, plus all the other associated costs involved with staging this extraordinary enormous spectacle in the huge stadium; plus of course all the rehearsal time as well.

One simple calculation using these numbers suggests earnings of less than €0.50/hr per performer.  But as paltry as this is, it is actually quite a comparatively good rate of pay if the performers were to get equal shares in the receipts.  Estimates vary hugely, but it seems fair to say that €0.50/hr is actually a moderately good rate of pay for the average North Korean.

Furthermore, a lot of the performers are school children, so the ‘cost’ of these performers is minimal.  Some performers may also be soldiers or other government employee/volunteers, further reducing the number of people who actually need to be paid.

On the other hand, the foreigners who travel to North Korea to see the games are all likely staying for multiple days in North Korea, so the overall benefit to the country is considerably more than merely the gate receipts for the Mass Games show itself.  There may also be some intangible benefits the government values in terms of international prominence and prestige.

So as economically extraordinary as it seems, it would appear that the country can actually afford to continue staging the Mass Games as long as the population as a whole remains under-employed, as long as school children are available in large numbers, and as long as wage levels remain low.

Summary

There was a lot of symbolism and imagery that we as foreigners did not pick up on. For example, this scene accurately depicts the buildings at Kim il Sung’s birthplace (which we subsequently visited).

Presumably denoting the global impact of the Juche Idea and North Korea’s central position in the world.

It might seem extreme to travel all the way to North Korea ‘just’ to watch a 90 minute presentation, and it might seem excessive to pay €150 for the privilege of doing so.

We disagree on both points, and indeed, I met a lady at breakfast one morning – a British lady.  She was on her second trip to North Korea – she’d missed the Mass Games on her first trip, so she was making a special return visit just to see the games.To further support our perspective, we circle back to the analogy we opened with.  The Mass Games are reminiscent of the huge spectacles put on for the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games, particularly this year in London and 2008 in Beijing.  In both cases, many thousands of people did travel many thousands of miles – and also paid many thousands of dollars or Euros – to watch a similar length presentation for the Olympic Games opening.

So there is precedent for the act.  Fortunately, the happy reality is that while the Mass Games will be a huge highlight of your visit to North Korea, there are many other reasons to travel there as well, and overall you’ll find a five or so day tour to be crammed full of many notable and distinctive experiences, and you’ll for sure find yourself quite overwhelmed at the end of your visit, and with lots to tell your less adventurous friends upon your return!

 

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