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Triumph of the Dear Leader: A Journey Inside North Korea

Climax of Arirang of Reunification

The 2005 “Arirang” Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance, May Day Stadium, Pyongyang, D.P.R.K.

Just before noon on Saturday, October 15, 2005, 90 U.S. civilians buckled into the cramped seats of a vintage 1960s Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-62 flying out of Beijing and bound for Pyongyang, the epic, showcase capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

We were the third and by far largest Koryo Tours-led contingent of Americans allowed on sudden notice permission to enter North Korea for a limited period in the month of October, the first time in three years that tourist visas were being issued to what ordinary North Koreans still routinely refer to as mije ch’imnyakja or “American imperialist aggressors.” Indeed, we were in all likelihood the single largest invasion force of Americans to enter North Korean territory since General MacArthur’s forces pushed north of the 38th Parallel in Oct. 1950 during the Korean War—and promptly had their butts kicked back to the flabby, counterrevolutionary South.

Sunrise over Mt. Baektu from the opening of Arirang

On board were Microsoft programmers from Seattle, freelance Web designers from Los Angeles, district attorneys from New York and businessmen from the heartland presently based in Shanghai or Tokyo. It was a typically boisterous group of decadent Yanks, and as we taxied on the runway, unspeakable snatches of dialogue and song lyrics from 2004’s Team America were quoted merrily (“Freedom isn’t free/No, there’s a hefty fuckin’ fee”), and one gent was overheard suggesting joining the Mile-High Club over North Korea to a blond-haired lass currently teaching English in Bundang, South Korea. No doubt, our prim but pleasant Air Koryo flight attendants, sporting virginal white gloves and revolutionary-red uniforms with “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung badges on their left breast, were bemused by the whole scene, but they would soon have us whipped into more suitably attentive ideological shape. With Beijing’s suburban sprawl now streaming far away below us, the following greeting was made over the PA system by an unseen attendant, the best that I have ever heard in over 20 years of frequent air travel:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen! Our crew would like to welcome you on board the Air Koryo charter flight JS 222 to Pyongyang to watch the grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance “Arirang” that has been created and perfected as the great monumental masterpiece of the 21st century in the most beautiful season of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which orients to the East. This flight is the “Arirang flight” which the Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il has arranged personally for foreigners and overseas compatriots who visit Pyongyang to watch the grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance “Arirang.”

We do think you can feel in your hearts about the real picture of a single-hearted unity of Koreans, and how the “Arirang nation” becomes as masters of their destinies among the history of the twists and turns and how our nation appears as the nation with dignity in today’s history theater, through pictures of performance which get into ecstasies.

Under ordinary circumstances, such over-the-top rhetoric would be considered crass hyperbole, but North Korea is no ordinary country and neither is the mind-bending, transcendent extravaganza that is the “Arirang” mass games. What is this “monumental masterpiece,” this one-of-a-kind Pyongyang “Arirang”? Exactly what the Northerners themselves proudly claim it to be: Quite simply and literally the greatest show on Earth, and later that evening we would all have prime, front-row seats, launched into ecstasies that none of us had ever before imagined or felt, and nor shall we ever forget.

Since 1946, North Korea has regularly staged mass gymnastics games or performances that have grown ever grander and more lavish over the years. Their fundamental purpose is to help produce upstanding young communists through a kind of physiological indoctrination, whereby long hours and months of rigorous, often brutal training instill and continually reinforce an ideology that does not tolerate deviation: surrender of the individual to the group, promotion of a single, unified collective will above any and all personal desires or self-interest. From a liberal Western perspective this may seem oppressive and inherently repugnant, but in fact it is generally considered an honor to participate in the mass games and only the most talented are tapped to join. It is often said that only North Korea could produce this type of mass gymnastics spectacular in which hundreds and sometimes thousands of performers at a time come together fluidly and flawlessly as one; given that North Korea is perhaps the most racially homogenous nation in the world and its last purely socialist state, it certainly possesses the conditions and environment that are ideal for such boldly ambitious and hugely complex creative endeavor.

The “Arirang” incarnation of the mass games premiered on April 29, 2002 to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (1912-94), featuring some 100,000 performers altogether and running six nights a week through Liberation Day on August 15, 2002. “Arirang” is Korea’s most famous folk song on both sides of the DMZ, and it is not rash to speculate that it may become the national anthem of a future reunified Korea; indeed, during the 2000 Sydney Olympics it served precisely that function for the North and South Korean athletes who joined together in the opening and closing ceremonies there. Although the precise meaning of the word arirang itself is debated hotly by historians, one theory suggests that it derives from a mountain pass of the same name mentioned in the most popular version of the song, while the official program for this year’s show claims that “Rirang” was the name of a heroic freedom fighter of yore; in fact, there are hundreds of different versions and variations of the song throughout the peninsula. In any case, while the meaning of the word arirang is uncertain, the emotive and thematic thrust of most versions of the plaintive, passionate song is clear: It expresses the han or bitter sorrow and longing of two lovers forced tragically by the invisible hand of fate to part—a particularly resonant theme among the long-divided Korean people, of course. And ever since Na Un-gyu released his legendary, anti-Japanese film Arirang (1926), which has long been cherished as a kind of Ur-text of national Korean cinema, “Arirang” has also evoked strong patriotic sentiment in Korean hearts, for it is the modern version of the song used in the film that most Koreans are familiar with today. In short, “Arirang” is more than just a song: It is a myth, it is a legend—it is Korea itself.

We are the World: Grande Finale of Arirang

Save for minor formal elements and one thematically crucial last-minute alteration by the Dear Leader himself, the 2005 edition of “Arirang,” which was launched in a rainbow burst of fireworks on August 16th to celebrate the 60th anniversary of national independence and extended through the end of October, was largely identical to the original 2002 version. The most significant difference was in audience composition: Along with increased numbers of Western spectators, ordinary South Korean citizens were for the first time ever allowed to fly directly to Pyongyang from Inch’on this fall and witness “Arirang” firsthand, and upwards of 900 South Koreans daily made the “Arirang” pilgrimage on overnight package tours from late September. It was for this very reason that the Dear Leader stepped in and modified the production with his own personal “October surprise,” as it were, so as to better please his Southern brethren and other “foreigners and overseas compatriots” warmly welcomed to his revolutionary land. Indeed, it was but one small gesture among many amidst the new openness and confidence in evidence everywhere in North Korea today.

At 7:30 p.m. that Saturday evening, our four red-and-yellow “Korea International Travel Company” tour buses pulled into the main parking lot of May Day Stadium, which dominates Rungna Islet on the northernmost arc of Daedong River in central Pyongyang. May Day Stadium is Asia’s largest multipurpose stadium with a seating capacity of 150,000, and was designed to resemble either a billowing parachute or a magnolia blossom. From afar, it glowed brightly in pastel-blue lights like a giant scalloped spaceship just landed amid the dim urban nightscape; up close, its 60m-high vaulting arches, 16 of them ringing the stadium’s oval perimeter, dwarfed all individuals, as if thousands of tiny ants were scurrying to feast at a colossal wedding cake. Near the front entrance, a massive searchlight streaked the sky and was no doubt visible for miles around.

From our buses, we could hear a brass band by the side of the bridge leading to the stadium playing martial music; as we disembarked, a large group of several hundred young students in light-blue tracksuits were singing joyously and marching in formation towards the stadium. There were people everywhere, factory workers and farmers, officers and soldiers, moms and dads and kids, all streaming towards a single, common destination, and the energy in the air was electric; it was pure people power of a positively revolutionary nature.

As soon as we entered the stadium, it was like shifting from first gear straight to fourth, or jacking right into a power grid and mainlining overwhelming waves of pulsating electrical current. Across the green, football-field-sized pitch, the entire central stand was occupied by some 18,000 seated schoolchildren chanting and roaring deafeningly as they formed a 180m by 35m color mosaic spelling out vertically in giant Korean letters the names of their school districts in Pyongyang: Rakrang, Sosang, Mangyongdae and many others. As if by magic, they periodically formed synchronized black lines that rippled and raced vertically or horizontally from one side of the mural-like backdrop to the other, calling out Pyongyang props all the while to the crowded house. It was the Wave, all right, but I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.

During the course of the 80-minute show, they would together form at least 90 distinct, major backdrops complementing the action on the field, from a dazzling neon sunrise over Mt. Baektu at the beginning to amazing, multicolored propaganda slogans done in the classic constructivist style (“Higher, Faster!” “One Spirit, Unity!” “Modernization, Informatization!”); many of these main murals in turn shimmied rapidly back and forth as if animated, or offered multiple variations in which only a portion of the image changed, be it crashing waves during a storm, a brightly flashing sun, the winking eyes of smiling children or smoke streaming from tractors in a field. It took a while, but I eventually worked out how they did it: Each student had his or her own thick, oversized book with as many as 170 different colored pages in it; a huge three-number digital display to the right of the main control booth across the pitch cued them for the next image, and then when signalled at the exact moment by microphone, they would all flip to the next page in well-choreographed, lightening-quick unison. Borrowing a pocket monocular from one of my North Korean guides, I could see their little black-haired heads peeping above their books in order to read the digital display, and then after they had flipped to the next image, they would all duck down at once so that the mural was a solid field of brilliant, uninterrupted color. Soon their heads would slowly rise up, and they’d be ready to do the same thing all over again.

The show was scheduled for 8:00 and it was already 7:50. Smiling attendants in pretty hot pink, tangerine orange or electric yellow hanboks quickly took us to our seats, which were close to the pitch in the central section of the lower stands. Seated below us in the next section, several long rows of North Korean ajumma’s or “aunties” in a kaleidoscopic array of hanboks laughed among each other and occasionally turned to steal glances at the army of mainly white faces behind them, and of course we gave them friendly waves in return. When several of us called out in friendly greeting, “Annyong hashimnikka?” (a formal “How are you?”) they smiled and bowed their heads shyly but nevertheless graciously.

Except for several large sections of seats on either side of the color-book backdrop, the stadium was packed, mostly with North Koreans; higher up behind us, two green walled-off sections contained assorted high-level officials and other Party big shots, while to their right, a large delegation of South Korean tourists waved hundreds of little white flags bearing the blue rabbit-shaped peninsula that symbolizes a unified Korean nation. Above them all was the oversized painted visage of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, beaming beneficently over his people like a god from on high; directly opposite him on the other side of the stadium, just above the backdrop mosaic, a giant green “60” marked 60 years of North Korean independence, as well as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea. The air was cool and crisp, and above the stadium’s open roof, crisscrossed with dense strings of colored lights like a futuristic spiderweb, the silvery cosmic eye of a fullish moon slowly ascended in the clear evening sky.

At precisely eight o’clock, exploding showers of fireworks lit up the sky over the stadium, the spiderweb began flashing psychedelically, and the show was off to a flourishing start as a mass procession of fair maidens in long vertical lines of red, yellow, pink and lime-green hanboks took the field dancing to the tune of “Bangap sumnida!” (“Glad to meet you!”). For the next 80 minutes, an entire century of Korean history marched, danced, tumbled, twirled and flew before our rapt, bulging eyes, which dared not blink lest we miss even a second of this staggeringly sumptuous pageant. It covered the cruel oppression of Japanese colonial rule, armed resistance in Manchuria, ultimate joyous liberation, the building of a strong and independent nation, the “Arduous March” of the 1990s and the renewed national confidence of North Korea today; it concluded with the dream of a single, reunified Korea—the fabled “Arirang” nation of myth and legend.

As in 2002, this year’s “Arirang” comprised a prelude and finale and four main acts: “Arirang Nation,” “Son’gun or ‘Military-First’ Arirang,” “Arirang of Joy” and “Arirang of Reunification.” Throughout, the history of North Korea was interwoven with and led by the two Great Leaders, Kim Il Sung and his eldest son Kim Jong Il. During “Arirang Nation,” Kim Il Sung was first represented by a mystical shining star that appeared over a forest at night (his first youthful nom de guerre literally meant “One Star”), and that also symbolized the socialist revolution: It slowly rose on a wire in the sky until it lit up a great torch above the green “60” on the rim of the stadium’s roof, which burst into flames just like the Tower of the Juche Idea further south on the eastern bank of the Daedong River; the North Korean spectators thundered applause, the mosaic backdrop in turn exploded into a sun-like ball of fire, and thousands of young men in blue tracksuits waving flame-like pompoms marched out onto the field triumphantly. From an aerial view, they formed a single enormous flame themselves, which soon morphed into four glowing crimson letters spelling out a single word: “Chaju” or “Independence.” As rousing martial music boomed over the sound system and thousands of lusty male voices roared on the pitch in an epic battle cry, somehow you knew they really meant it.

It would be facile to dismiss this production as mere Stalinist propaganda or Orwellian kitsch, for “Arirang” really is a case in which the sum is greater than its parts, a triumph of human creativity that on a purely aesthetic level trumps all political or ideological underpinnings. In a word, it is the ultimate gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art of the kind that Wagner or Andrew Lloyd Webber could only ever dream of replicating. From opera, ballet, and traditional Korean dance to high-wire circus routines, gymnastics and martial-arts displays, a virtual encyclopedia of theatrical forms is deployed to stunning and always seamless effect; the floor patterns alone were mind-boggling to behold in their intricacy, as an endless procession of geometrical, color-coded designs and other imagery like flowers or flags shifted and merged into each other wondrously, like a tightly choreographed Busby Berkeley showstopper magnified in scope and scale a hundredfold. It was all the more incredible in that there were no visible markers or other indicators on the pitch, meaning that thousands of dancers and performers at a time had memorized every last step and movement and never once seemed to falter or make a mistake. Add to all this spectacular costumes, lighting and lasers, as well as film and animation sequences projected dramatically onto the mosaic backdrop, and you really do have a truly monumental production that is nowhere else equalled on the face of the planet today.

There were plenty of light, whimsical moments, like dozens of children dressed as smiling eggs dancing a cute ballet amid a mass of frolicking farm animals, or circus performers shot high into the sky from bungee-cord slingshots; other scenes were otherworldly, as when eight fairies soared over heavenly Ullim Falls, and were welcomed by a chorus of lovely purple azaleas in female form. But the most striking sequences were the military numbers, including a mostly female marching band in short skirts and black boots smiling winningly and waving long flashing sabers in the air. Perhaps most impressive of all was the concluding scene of the “Son’gun Arirang,” devoted to Kim Jong Il’s doctrine of promoting national strength through military might: The image of several thousand North Korean soldiers in perfect formation thrusting bayonet-tipped Kalashnikov rifles in the air, throwing impossibly high taekwondo kicks and shouting “Ya! Ya! Ya!” with fierce grimacing faces made you realize why George W. Bush blinked on confronting the North Korean component of the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Originally, the scene climaxed with three North Korean special forces commandos parachuting down from the sky, their leader singlehandedly taking out several dozen unidentified enemy combatants through a deadly display of flying martial artistry.

This element of the show had sparked some controversy, however. When the South Korean media noted that the enemy combatants were wearing pre-1990 South Korean military uniforms, outcry emanated from south of the DMZ, and after attending the show for a second time on Oct. 9th, the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong Il ordered the offending sequence removed for the sake of his visiting South Korean guests. Although we missed seeing the dramatic airborne attack live ourselves, official videos of the performance sold outside the stadium recorded the moment for posterity—or perhaps the Dear Leader, well-known for his cinematic enthusiasms, had simply not yet had time to “improve” the videos himself through judicious re-editing.

Throughout the performance, “Arirang" presents two overarching themes in apparent conflict with each other: uncompromising national strength on the one hand, and magnanimous reconciliation with the South on the other. While the former dominates much of the narrative, the final act concludes with an affirmation of pan-Korean unity most powerfully represented by a solid blue-and-white Korean peninsula formed by hundreds of swaying, ecstatic female performers on the pitch. By deleting the controversial attack scene, it would seem that Kim Jong Il tipped the thematic balance of the narrative in favor of reconciliation, and really, who can blame him? The projected film sequence that opens the “Arirang of Reunification" is truly heartbreaking, with a grey-haired mother and her middle-aged son reaching out longingly for each other but divided by the barbed-wire of the DMZ—separated for so long that they no longer quite recognize each other.

And yet we must ask ourselves what the true ideological function of this “Arirang" is, given that its primary audience is not the outside world or even the South, but rather the North Korean nation itself. In his landmark 1981 essay “The Precession of Simulacra"? French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that the ideological function of Disneyland was to provide a manufactured fantasy that proved by contrast that the rest of America was somehow more “real," thereby obscuring the fact that all of America was in fact an unreal Disneyland of fantastic infinite consumption. When we consider the dream of Korean reunification, we must conclude that it, too, is a fantasy, a perfect utopia, for actual reunification automatically implies annihilation of one of the two systems at stake: The free-market ideology of the democratic South will never accommodate itself to communism, while the North remains steadfast in its commitment to pure socialism and certainly does not desire self-destruction. By projecting the utopia of reunification in “Arirang" and implicitly underscoring its impossible unreality—all utopias, after all, by definition can never exist in the real world, for they are literally “no place"—could it be that Kim Jong Il and his regime hope to promote by way of contrast a far more important utopia in any communist society: “actually existing socialism," the true “workers’ paradise"? After the “Arduous March"? of the 1990s and the continuing harsh deprivations of today, this primary utopia must seem all the more distant to ordinary North Koreans, requiring as much support and spectacular reinforcement as it can possibly muster.

But perhaps this is too cynical a conclusion. After the show was over and the spectators were heading slowly for the exits, the South Koreans from the upper stands passed a standing group of North Koreans waiting patiently to leave behind a barrier in the next lower section, and they all waved warmly and called out to each other, “Bangawoyo!" (“Nice to meet you!") and “Hwanyong hamnida" (“Welcome!"). It was a touching scene, and when one young South Korean man reached over the barrier to clasp hands with a North Korean halmoni or grandmother, it was almost as if life was imitating art, and at that moment, at least, “Arirang" did indeed seem to be a triumph of the Dear Leader.

Outside the stadium, a packed row of North Koreans leaning from an upper balcony waved farewell to us all, South Koreans and Americans alike, and the emotion was overwhelming. We were no longer “hostile foes" or “imperialist aggressors," but simply fellow human beings who had just witnessed together the greatest show on Earth. We can only wait to see what a future “Arirang" shall show the world.

J. Scott Burgeson is the author of Korea Bug
(Eunhaeng Namu, 2005). He can be visited in the digital ether at: augue dolore ea faccumm ole


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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