NORTH KOREA 2010. We were sitting in Pyongyang's May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world. Across the huge field on the opposite side of the stadium facing us, the background scenery for the just starting Mass Games performance was changing. This was accompanied by a low level thunder-like rolling clap. Mystified at how such a huge video like background was achieved, I asked the man sitting next to me about it. This was Herman, a Dutch man in his late 30s, who was part of our tour group, and had been to North Korea last year for the Mass Games. "How is the scenery accomplished?" I asked him. "It does not look like a gigantic movie screen."
Herman explained that there were approximately 20,000 schoolchildren sitting on the opposite side of us in the stadium. All of the children had specially made oversized books with many designed and colored pages. The children would hold up the books displaying a particular page for a specific scene. It was the pages of these books, all held up together, which made the scenic backgrounds we saw, Herman continued to explain. At the time for a scene change came, all the children upon a given signal, simultaneously turned to the particular page specified for the new scene. Since the books were huge and the pages of a fairly hard material, the simultaneous turning of 20,000 large hard pages created the low level thunder-like rolling clap.
"That's amazing" I replied to Herman after his explanation. "That scenery is really made by thousands of schoolchildren turning pages of a big book in perfect unison," I asked incredulously, "And they are all actually sitting there in such discipline?" "Yes indeed it is," Herman said. Then turning to me, he remarked: "Chilling, isn't it?"
It was. It was also an apt introduction to our tightly controlled tour. During the tour the North Korean government and tourist authorities strove to show us tourists what they wanted the outside world to see of their country. Like the Mass Games performance we were just starting to watch, much of what we would be told and shown on the tour mixed some fact with a lot of fairy tale. Regardless of any of this, the Mass Games are an amazing spectacle. The performance is staged to themed music using a large amount of brightly costumed performers who move in synchronous patterns on the huge field in the stadium. The background to their efforts is provided by the 20,000 schoolchildren described above.
Our first big activity and a highlight of the tour, the Mass Games are a type of performance with long historical roots. In modern times they came into widespread use as a propaganda tool in the Communist World during the 20th century. The ones in North Korea are now the only regularly scheduled event of this type left in the world though. Here too, of course, they are a grand propaganda show.
The story line of the Mass Games begins with that of the Arirang, an adaptation of a classic Korean folk song and myth involving a young man, Rirang, who leaves his village to go off and fight the Japanese colonizers in the period before WWII. He must leave his beloved fiancé behind when he goes on this task, but the two lovers pledge each other their undying love and to be true to each other until Rirana returns. Unfortunately when Rirang later returns, it appears incorrectly that his beloved fiancé had taken on a Japanese lover in his absence. Rirang commits suicide in response.
This classic storyline is coupled with a theatrical account of the story of modern North Korea. In particular, the myths of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and their particular roles in creating and shaping the modern North Korean State, are depicted. Depicting grim times in the early 1900s, Koreans are seen as slaves to their Japanese colonial masters who conquered the region in that time period. Using great theatrical flourish, a young and heroic Kim Il Sung is shown as a National Hero who in the mid-1920s began to lead Korea in its struggle against the Japanese. Eventually the struggle ends in victory for the Koreans and the country is on its path to glory under Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il is later introduced into the plotline as the next Great Leader, continuing in his father's footsteps.
The show continues to the present with triumphal scenes, touting the supposed great progress of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) economically. The performance depicts the country as having an internal renaissance starting in the year 2000, implicitly acknowledging the general harsh times that North Korea experienced in the mid and late 1990s—the times when world news services started reporting stories of mass starvation in the countryside. It finishes with a dramatic scene depicting the tragedy of the division between the north and south.
The performance is so spectacular that I and about two thirds of the tour group saw it twice while in the DPRK. One fellow tourist, a middle aged boisterous male from Berlin, has been on tour to the DPRK four previous times during the Mass Games season and was viewing them for his 9th and 10th time on this tour. Making the original decision to go to North Korea was not easy. It sort of fit my overall travel objectives of seeking the disappearing world (in this case "hopefully disappearing regime"), because it seems improbable that such a bankrupt, backward and closed system can survive much longer. When I mentioned to people that I was considering such a tour, the usual response was encouraging. Many people said something like "Wow, I always wanted to go there, but did not know that anyone was allowed to go into that country!" However, some questioned why I wanted to go there; pointing out that any money spent on the tour went straight into the hands of the horrific North Korean government. This latter point of view and knowing that a tour would be a tightly scripted propaganda ploy, had deterred me from going there over the years.
I decided to take a tour because I believed it to be a last chance in my lifetime for a first-hand glimpse of such an all-pervasive mind control system used by the North Korean government. I also rationalized that it was better for the long suffering inhabitants of that country to see and have whatever minimal contact with outsiders that might occur on a tour, than to not. Tourists are stark evidence of the fact that other people in the world have the freedom and wealth to come to their country; but for them to do so in reverse was impossible. This helps refute the state propaganda of North Korea as a superior system of a prospering Worker's or People's "Paradise".
An introduction to the total control the DPRK government attempts to exert over its domain comes at the pre-tour briefing. This was held by our tour company, Koryo Tours in their Beijing office the day before the tour. The briefing was given by our tour leader, a bright and easy going British lady in her late 20s named Hannah. It covered a long list of Do's and Don'ts the visitor should strictly follow during the tour. Some important admonitions included: Don't take any pictures that make the Koreans look bad and only take pictures when specifically given permission to do so; call the country the "DPRK" or just "Korea" as opposed to using the term "North Korea", and don't wander off on your own, ever, during the tour. This latter point was strictly emphasized. All visitors must be accompanied by a Korean tour guide at all times except when on the grounds of the hotel where the tour group is lodging for the night.
Other rules and admonitions more directly reflected the North Korean government's attempt at vise-like control on its people. The most salient one was the strict prohibition on visitors bringing cellphones into the country. The fear of course is that a foreign cellphone in the hands of a North Korean citizen might be used to pick up signals from neighboring China.
Finally after this long sermon on the Do's and Don'ts of our tour, we were asked to be careful when writing blogs or other online commentary afterward about the tour. The North Korea government is known to have people who regularly scan the internet looking for stories published about their country. It will probably find any blogs written by tour participants. Negative commentary could have bad repercussions on the tour guides involved with our tour.
After the Do's and Don'ts of the tour were outlined, I took some time in the tour office to look at the many paintings from North Korean artists on display and for sale. Many were quite striking in appearance. One showed a giant heroic brawny soldier, colored in bright orange, ramming a bayonet through a scrawny gray colored evil looking American GI. Another showed a gray colored American officer, head bowed, mourning over a field of crosses. There were many variations of these themes and color schemes in the paintings. The heroic depictions of soldier(s) as defenders of the DPRK would be shown in orange against the grayish evil and pinched faced soldiers from the USA and in some pictures, Japan.