Behind the spectacle, the ugly truth about North Korea’s ‘mass games’

July 31, 2013

The grandeur of North Korea's annual Arirang or "mass games" celebration really is something to behold. Tens of thousands of performers dance and march with smiling precision across the world's largest stadium stage, under fireworks and light shows, as thousands more, many of them children, flash placards with a level of coordination that seems flatly impossible. It's little wonder that every July, when North Korea holds the mass games to mark the anniversary of the Korean War, international media outlets take a rare trip to Pyongyang, and much of the world becomes transfixed.

But there is more to the mass games than meets the eye. For all the flash and splendor, the event is in many ways built on -- and could even be said to perpetuate -- the very worst of the hermit kingdom, from the dangerous militarism to the human rights abuses to the race-based ultra-nationalist ideology underpinning it all. This may be one of the most amazing shows on Earth, but it's also an extension of some of its greatest cruelty.

The mass games are a spectacle of truly amazing performances, but, according to reports from defectors, it's also the result of mistreatment and coercion, including of the children who participate in large numbers. It's true that the citizen-participants do, by all indication, enter the event seeing it as a high honor and privilege. According to compilations of defector testimonies, though, participants are often given little food or even water and, to instill discipline, can be restricted in how often they may visit the bathroom. Reports are worryingly common about child participants developing cystitis or other urinary tract ailments as a result.

(Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
(Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

While it might be easy to dismiss these anecdotal reports -- and, after all, don't children participate in Western ceremonies all the time? -- they are broadly consistent with descriptions of the practices as abusively coercive. Performers who fail or flinch can expect a pin-prick where they've faltered or a whack with a stick.

The event is even more than a culmination of North Korea's everyone-is-a-volunteer-or-else culture. It's an extension and product of its official state ideology. That holds, convincingly for many North Koreans, that they are a pure race, beset by wicked foreigners, who can only survive by absolute fealty to the ruler and permanent readiness for the final war that is always just around the corner. The ideology leads directly to the country's vast and horrifically cruel gulag system, its system of totalitarian oppression, its nuclear-powered militarism and its occasional but uncontrollable attacks on the outside world.

If you look closely, you can see all of this in the mass games: the celebration of Korean racial "purity" that is a byword for superiority, the deification of the leader as a sun or mountaintop and, of course, the goose-stepping soldiers whose similarity to past goose-stepping military parades is no coincidence.

The games are also, most famously, built on celebrating a lie. North Korean textbooks, and the narrative of the entire mass games, hold that the Korean War was begun by U.S. imperialists and their South Korean lackeys but ultimately won by North Korea's brave leader Kim Il Sung. In fact, the Korean War was launched by a surprise invasion from the North and fought to a bitter stalemate only after a million-plus Chinese troops came to Kim's aid.

Still, there's much to be learned from the mass games -- not as a show of human gymnastics but as a rare, unadulterated lens into how North Korea sees itself and its place in the world. To understand that, and the deadly serious lessons we can learn from one of the most spectacular shows on earth, I talked to Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea scholar at Leeds University. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

WorldViews: When most people see the mass games, they see the spectacle, the gymnastics, the color. What do you see?

Aidan Foster-Carter: I see those things, too; certainly they are impressive gymnastics and so forth. But I see two other kinds of things which give me pause. I’m a sociologist, and I worry about how reality is constructed. And I think there are a lot of questions about how this particular, rather strange reality is constructed. Questions like how these people got to be there, what their situation is like, health issues. And then the actual content. People are so full of the wonderful ooh and ahhs of all this that they don’t notice the, to my mind, incredibly pernicious messages that are actually being put across.

In general, there is always totalitarianism, there is a grotesque cult of personality, there is militarization -- people will remember that North Koreans have many thousands of kids, however many it is, flipping colored cards like human cartoons. And there are lots of guns and weapons. But this year, in particular, it’s got a theme. They’re marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War, by any point of view a vicious and horrible war in which some 4 million people died.

It’s also a celebration of things that have happened since the Korean War, right? Isn’t it also a celebration of the North Korean system?

Absolutely, and again I’m sure it is a valuable document for historians who want to look at this regime and to take it seriously, as they should, as the regime itself does, to study the way it portrays itself. They are, of course, masters of propaganda, internally much more successful than externally because they don’t seem to realize that something different is needed outside. So it’s important to have the themes and images.

But, again, they celebrate a bucolic bliss, which is another and very old communist theme among others, and no honest reckoning with what at best they call the arduous march, and which the rest of us call the famine [of the 1990s] which caused something like 250,000 deaths. It’s always breast-beating, "how wonderful it all is."

It’s all part of the infantilization of the people, in a way twice over. They’re all made to do this performance as if they were dancing bears or baboons on roller skates, which is another North Korean specialty. And that which they are made to parade in this infantilized way, again, is that they did nothing -- the North Korean people, who did much -- and that they could not have done anything had it not been for their leaders. So my objections are many-fold.

North Korea of course loves to have Americans and Westerners shown visiting monuments or statues of Kim Il Sung and portrayed as kowtowing before North Korea. What role do Westerners who go to the mass games and sit in the audience play? Are they actively participating in some way, whether they mean to or not?

Clashing perhaps with what else I’ve said, I’m sort of a libertarian on this; I’m not really in the business of ordering anybody else what to do. If I had the chance, I’m sure I would be interested to actually see it. And I think it depends, really. Being used by the North Koreans is something you have to be careful of.

One classic case on the media today: the Associated Press, as you know, has a bureau in North Korea, with KCNA [North Korea’s state media arm]. This has been a matter of some controversy. I, in fact, am among those who on balance are glad they’re there; some interesting things have come out. But I hope that even they will protest that there’s a picture on KCNA right now of [AP’s] vice president, and what does it say? It says he’s come to join in the celebrations in the anniversary of the victory against the U.S. I mean that, that’s outrageous. And I hope they will protest. He’s there as a media person; he’s not coming to join in the celebrations.

So you do have to be a little bit careful. Visiting the statues and such, there’s not a lot you can do about it. These things get used internally to show foreigners coming to bow down to the leader. Not much is left to chance by the regime; they will use you if they can.

You compared, when we were e-mailing earlier, the mass games to the Nuremberg Rallies [mid-1930s Nazi military parades, well attended for their splendor, that celebrated the state ideology]. Of course there are important differences; North Korea isn’t planning on invading and conquering other countries, for example. But what do you see as the similarities?

We have a tendency -- and I suppose this is what I’m railing against -- to pigeonhole North Korea, to file it under “quirky and quaint.” Whereas I’m suggesting we should file it under “foul and fascist.”

In two ways: both in terms of the actual content of these messages and, yes, the totalitarian organization, which takes kids out of school. They don’t apparently have much of a break to go to the loo. Kids get cystitis and so on; defectors have talked about this. So people on any end of the democratic spectrum would find every aspect of this offensive.

But we live in shallow times, and spectacle is kind of everything. I just wish that people wouldn’t switch off their critical faculties in this way. People wouldn’t dream of [so enjoying] a Stalinist rally, if there was one. You can see a color video of a Nuremberg Rally. It’s not as kitsch, it’s not as cute, there’s much more marching -- the North Koreans have much of that as well. We would not turn our critical faculties off for that. Why on Earth would we file this [in North Korea] under “entertainment”?

Imagine I’m a regular person who doesn’t follow North Korea much and imagines it as bizarre and backward but generally harmless, all of which the mass games seem to confirm for me. What would you say to me?

I would say go see it if you can see it, but keep your critical faculties switched on and read a bit about this.

Nothing about this is natural or traditional. This is a performance in front of you, just like this regime, and you should see through it. It is a work of social engineering and a construction. It was created at huge cost.

Do you want me to list the hundred thousand in the gulag, the 4 million who died in the Korean War, which North Korea started, the human rights abuses, the famine, the general totalitarianism, which is all now well documented? You should be aware of all of that.

Is there anything about this performance that’s actually geared not internally but for outsiders?

The question behind the question there is an interesting one, which is, who are they doing this for?

They’ve been having these mass games in slightly smaller forms since I first became interested in North Korea, which was more than 40 years ago. So in the first place, they do this for themselves. But they’ve certainly grasped in recent years, especially during the “Sunshine Policy” era [of thawing ties with South Korea] when even South Koreans used to go see this stuff, that’s there money to be made from it.

But I don’t think they’re mainly doing it for the outside world; it is a very sort of introverted society and it’s mostly about themselves. They don’t make many concessions to us, including in how they present themselves.

It seems like whenever I talk to people who study North Korea about the mass games and what they mean, nobody loves them. But people's views seems to boil down to the performers and whether we see them as participating more out of earnestly felt passion for the cause or more because they’ve been coerced, either through physical coercion or more subtle social and ideological coercion.

I think it could be a lot of those. There certainly are true believers. I don’t doubt that. But because of North Korea’s all-pervasive, Orwellian nature -- as Christopher Hitchens said, sometimes the cliches are so true you just can’t avoid using them -- you [as a performer] might think, yeah, this is the most wonderful thing ever, you’ve been selected for this. And you will work really hard for this. I’m not sure that many think, “Gosh, I am being oppressed.”

But, nonetheless, as the parent of a 2-year-old, I’m very glad that he’s growing up in a society where nobody can make him do anything remotely like this.

It does seem like it can be so hard to draw a clear line between people who are participating by free choice and people who are driven by the system to participate.

I don’t think it’s too hard. Free choice exists slightly more in North Korea than it used to. But, otherwise, North Korea’s gone further than most in making sure everything is either compulsory or forbidden. There is not a whole lot of free choice.

The defectors talk about this. If you skip practice, they find you out, and if you’re unlucky, then your parents get sent away. That’s the kind of regime it is. And people should not just bracket all that out, as they do and are.

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