The Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea
It is, in some ways, misleading to call them ‘The Mass Games’. The enormous, grandiose, colour-drenched, epic performance has nothing to do with competition or playfulness. It is a 90-minute orgy of coordination, talent, dancing, acrobatics, music, patriotism and propaganda.
The setting – in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium – is impressive enough. It is generally accepted to be the largest stadium in the world, holding about 150,000 people. Although it has been used for football games, official functions and executions (yes, you read that right), its main purpose is as the home of the Mass Games.
For each performance, there are more than 100,000 people involved. About 20,000 of them are children who sit in the stands and, by holding up signs, form a colossal picture background for each scene.
Meanwhile, the rest of the performers appear on the stadium’s grass and gradually tell the story of two star-crossed lovers, torn apart and trying to be reunited. You don’t need much analysis to understand this is telling the story, through metaphor, of the two Koreas.
In recent years, there have been several performances of the Mass Games show each week during August, September (and sometimes extended into October). It’s not clear now, after the death of Kim Jong Il, what to expect in the years to come. So I thought this would be a good time to share some photos from my experience at the Mass Games.
I was in North Korea for a ten day trip around the country and there’s no doubt that this performance was one of the highlights. I don’t think you need any commentary. These photos speak for themselves. Enjoy.
29 thoughts on “North Korea’s ‘Greatest Show On Earth’”
Love the symmetry in the formations, fantastic colour on these photos. But what a lot of discipline & hard work for these guys, I´m exhausted just by looking at the images.
The rehearsal and training must be intense! And then they do the performance several times a week for a couple of months. Yikes – that would definitely be exhausting!
I never know that they have big event like that.
It’s quite a spectacle!
Wow, that is truly incredible! I love the mountain scene and the winter scene. What disciple those children must have to participate and turn their signs in synchronized time. This is something I would absolutely love to see!
The staging was stunning. In fact, the whole thing was just so perfectly synchronized. It makes some of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies look like a children’s pantomime!!
Hmmm…pretty incredible stuff… Was it just one giant propaganda fest though?
Ha. Was it one giant propaganda fest? There is no other thing in North Korea! It’s basically put on for the population who are brought in by the busload every night. It’s to reinforce the greatness of the country and the leaders! Having a few foreigners there is just a bit of an afterthought.
It’s a pretty amazing spectacle… I saw it once on a documentary as well – I really want to do one of those tours around North Korea some day
Yeah, the documentary ‘State of Mind’ is a really good look at what goes on behind the scenes to make something like this happen!
Wow what a feast of colors and perfect coordination, I would love to see one!
It was so colourful! I don’t know who does the staging and the lighting but it’s one of the most spectacular shows I’ve ever seen!
So cool! Definitely going on my bucket list!!!!
Move it to the top of that list – NOW!! 🙂
I am curious…from your time in North Korea, did you get the impression that the North Korean people want reunification?
If the underlying subject of the story of these games is the reunification of North and South Korea, how do you think the North Korean government views the games? I didn’t think that in general the government of North Korea supports reunification, and it surprises me that they would allow these games to go on…
Very good question, thanks!
The official policy of the North Korean regime is that they want reunification. Which is why this is the central theme of the Mass Games. But I get the feeling it is just something they say publicly, rather than really being something they’re working towards. Their policy is that the two Koreas should join together but live the same way for a couple of years… then everyone would get to vote on which system of government they would prefer. The ‘guides’ I had seemed to think this would definitely mean everyone would vote for the North Korean model and a North Korean leader. They seemed genuinely confused when I asked what would happen if it was the other way around.
But, anyway, as I say, I think it’s more about a public position rather than reality. Personally I think North Korea has much more chance of becoming a part of China than unifying with the South.
Wow, the required training and co-ordination for a show of this size must be insane. Kind of like the Olympics opening ceremony.. but on a regular basis! Never knew NK did stuff like this – what an amazing opportunity you had here 🙂
It will be interesting to see if the opportunity continues to exist in the coming years. The new leader might have a different idea of what should be done. He could want to make his own mark and that might involve something bigger, something smaller, or just something very radical.
I’ve seen this performance on a Canadian travel show, it’s quite impressive. You’ve captured some great images amigo!
It’s almost as if they did the lighting well just for me! 🙂
You got some great photos of the Mass Games as it is so hard to capture the spectacle of the event. We were in North Korea in 2011 and the Airang Games was definitely the highlight. The country is fascinating and going on a tour is quite an experience!
Thanks, Erica. Nice to hear from you.
I’m so pleased to hear you had a chance to see the games for yourself. They are really quite remarkable, aren’t they? Definitely a highlight of any trip there!
That’s what I was hoping to see during the opening of 2012 Olympic Games in London. Unfortunately, westerners can’t do this type of performance 🙂
Certainly, I would love to witness one of the “mass games” in person. However, chances are so low 🙁
Amazing photos of spectacular event!
Ha ha – it probably had better choreography than any Olympic Opening Ceremony. It does seem to be a particularly Asian and/or Communist thing to have so many people in perfect sync. But I don’t imagine North Korea could do humour in quite the way the London games achieved.
I think I got to with the propaganda theory as well.
I love all of your North Korea pictures, but these ones especially! I have been planning a trip to NK this coming August knowing nothing about the Mass Games, so imagine my excitement when I came across your posts.
So here’s a practical question. What kind of zoom lens did you have with you? I’ve been reading in multiple places that apparently lenses over 150 mm are not allowed in NK. This sucks because that’s exactly the kinda lens I would want to bring to the Games. I wonder if they are really strict about it.
Ah, good question. From my experience, they didn’t care at all about the lens. I had read the same thing beforehand but one of my lenses has a zoom of 250mm… and they didn’t even check.
If it’s anything like when I went, I wouldn’t worry at all and just take the equipment you’ve got.
You’ll have a great time – it’s an amazing experience!
Wow, these are amazing photos! I saw this event in the Departures episode that I think some other commenters referenced. North Korea is such a fascinating, but haunting and the more I think about it — disturbing — place. I’d love to visit, but don’t like the idea of supporting their propaganda machine. Did you struggle with this at all? I’m excited to read more of your thoughts on the place!
I wouldn’t say I ‘struggled’ with it, but it was an issue that came up in conversation with the other travellers sometimes. Ultimately I justify going because I think it’s important to see things for yourself before you pass judgement. And, also, if I didn’t go to countries where I disagreed with the politics then there wouldn’t be many places left on the planet to visit! 🙂