Nearly every year, North Korea plays host to the largest Mass Games in the world. Although Mass Games were a common occurrence around the world from the 19th century onwards, the DPRK is now the only country to still host them.
The Mass Games in North Korea began in 1961, and are also known as the mass gymnastics, due to their heavy focus on gymnastic performances. Kim Jong Il once said that the Korean style of mass gymnastics is a mixed form of comprehensive physical exercises with a combination of high ideological content, artistic quality and gymnastic skills. The most important part of the games are the tens of thousands of gymnasts who perform perfectly synchronised routines. Those chosen to perform spend all year practicing their routines to make sure they are perfect for the performances. Due to the synchronistic nature of the gymnastic routines, if anybody makes an incorrect step it is obvious to the audience. Most of the gymnasts who perform in the games end up doing this as their job for life, with some of the children starting from as young as five.
However, the games are not just made up of gymnasts. Up to 30,000 school children make up the backdrop, each holding coloured cards that they flip in unison to create different images. Besides the cards, other hand props, including small umbrellas and lengths of cloth are used to draw attention to certain areas of the backdrop. The school children, who all go to schools in Pyongyang, practice for several hours every school day. The children are commanded by a series of signals, given by someone high up in the stadium. The signals are given via flags and a large signal board, so each student must learn the meanings of the different flag positions.
The Mass Games are Juche oriented, and each year they showcase a different theme. Examples of previous themes include “the Era of the Workers’ Party” (1961), “The Ever-Victorious Workers’ Party of Korea” (2000), and “The Glorious Country” (2018). Each theme is meant to illustrate different parts of North Korean history, culture, or politics.
Besides the main Mass Games held in Pyongyang, smaller games were also held in various provinces throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The purpose of these games was to show the pride of each province. Most of these smaller games consisted of about 15,000 performers, but the final one in Nampho City in 1973 involved 32,000 performers.
The first performance of the Mass Games was held in the Moranbang Stadium (now known as the Kim Il-sung Stadium), where they remained every year until the late 1990s or early 2000s. They are now held in the Rungrado, or 1st of May, Stadium. Since the 2000s, the games have also been referred to as the Arirang festival. While there were performances nearly every year from 2002-2013, there was a hiatus until 2018. This year’s games, although originally planned to be the longest running games yet, have been put on a temporary pause.