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Bigger than the Super Bowl: North Korea’s Mass Games

by Michael

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.


Earlier this month we attended the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. With over 100,000 performers it is billed as the biggest show on Earth by no less than Guinness World Records. The Mass Games are a combination of gymnastics, circus high-wire act, mass dancing, drama and all wrapped up in a veneer of self-promoting “long live the Fatherland” type of propaganda.

Over 20,000 of the performers holding books filled with multi-colored pages sit opposite the audience. They flip the pages in the books on cue to reveal stadium-sized murals highlighting everything from nature to people to weaponry. (This is a military-first society after all.) The show takes place in Rungrado May Day Stadium that reputedly holds over 105,000 spectators. When we attended the majority of them were wearing dark green army uniforms. During some portions the show felt very much like a military rally.

It’s really hard to describe the Mass Games so for once I’ll shut up and let the video and pictures do the talking:




The next part was a little freaky because the child performers looked to be about seven years old. While their performance was uniformly impressive, seeing kids this age being so obviously coached and trained was sort of like watching a Stalinist version of Toddlers & Tiaras:


This next section included the Tae Kwon Do performance, a sport in which North Korea is a world leader:



The stated purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birth. He was born in April, but for some reason the games are held in August and September. When the mural shown below flashed in the stadium I was surprised that the applause wasn’t as unbridled as I expected. I wonder if this means anything for the future of North Korea.

The “Great Leader” done in flash cards.

By the way, this was a difficult post for me to put together because the treble-heavy patriotic music started to drive Larissa a little crazy, but I hope you enjoyed this window into a totally different world.  Next year is the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth so the show should be a real doozy. You can only visit North Korea as part of a pre-approved group tour, the most experienced company is Koryo Tours. It is run by a Nick Bonner, a Brit based in Beijing.

Click the link for more stories about our trip to North Korea.

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MissElaineous September 29, 2011 at 7:38 am

WOW! Pretty spectacular stuff… puts flash mobs to shame. Maybe without the kind of distractions we’re used to in the West, Organized Flash Card Dancing is the national pastime ( cuz they’re pretty good at it….) A North Korean version of Synchronized Swimming??? I pity the fool who wants to change his seat!

Michael September 29, 2011 at 7:54 am

I never thought about the changing seat aspect. The card turners also must have excellent bladder control.

John Discepoli September 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I know more about North Korea than I ever thought I would, thanks to your interest.

I wonder, and perhaps you can comment, who is making out well in this environment? Someone must be treated well – are those dancers and card holders revered? Someone must be profiting. Someone besides the exalted Leader and politico’s. Without a doubt there are folks being taken advantage of, however there has to be someone who is happy and economic gain of some sort taking place.

The answer is probably in one of those recommended books, however I am curious of your perspective.

jerry September 29, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I think they should be in charge of next year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

Michael September 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Probably not. The Super Bowl seems to prefer ageing British rockers.

a listener October 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm

From every account that I have read the children are denied drinking anything prior to the ceremonies. Children who must urinate do so on themselves during the performance.

Michael November 21, 2012 at 4:39 pm

A recommended book to read about North Korea is “Nothing To Envy” which I reviewed at:

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