According to a tour group based in Beijing, North Korea has decided to hold its “Mass Games” event for the first time in five years.
The North Korean government has never explained why the games were halted in 2013 after a big show to commemorate the Korean War armistice, or why they are being relaunched now, but the obvious inference is that Pyongyang wishes to appear more open to the West and welcoming to tourists as diplomacy with the United States unfolds.
That is a tall order given the fate that has befallen some of the customers for extreme-tourism groups like Koryo Tours, the group that told CNN the Mass Games will begin again on September 9. A different group, Young Pioneer Tours, took American student Otto Warmbier on the journey that ended with his imprisonment and death at the hands of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
CNN describes the “Mass Games” as a “grandiose, flamboyant blend of artistry and North Korean propaganda” that takes more than 100,000 performers to pull off.
The UK Telegraph gives readers an idea of what to expect from the performance:
The most famous mass games event were the Arirang performances, which told the propagandistic tale of North Korea’s resurgence after the twin tragedies of Japanese colonial rule and then war.
This year’s event is titled “Shining Fatherland” and is likely to be a similarly patriotic performance that extols the nation’s leadership and resilience.
Pyongyang has announced that the mass games will start on September 9 – a national holiday that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the republic – and are scheduled to run until September 30. That may very well be extended to October 10, the national holiday celebrating the foundation of the Workers’ Party.
Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told CNN that his tour customers have seen performers practicing synchronized dance numbers all over Pyongyang, presumably in preparation for the September show.
Cockerell had no inside information on what the storyline for the 2018 Mass Games will be like, but previous versions have presented a strongly anti-American, anti-Japanese, ideologically warped version of North Korean history.
Tourists in Pyongyang have reported one moderately encouraging sign that the return of the Mass Games could be a tad less insulting to the outside world: anti-American souvenirs abruptly disappeared from store shelves on the north side of the Demilitarized Zone, including stamps, posters, and postcards attacking the United States. Tourist merchandise is now described as a more “positive and aspirational” celebration of agriculture, sports, and science.
Of course, as Cockerell pointed out, the anti-American stuff can come right back onto the shelves if the Kim regime decides to stop playing nice, but visitors say the complete removal of merchandise attacking the United States is unprecedented.
Whether or not the Mass Games are devoid of insults to the United States, it is unlikely that any Americans will see the event in person, as American citizens have been prohibited from traveling to North Korea since the death of Otto Warmbier.