The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth

‘Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people, to be fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren. The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.’

On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics. Talk to mass Gymnastics Producers. April 11th 1987 Kim Jong Il

Until I visited North Korea I never realized that mass gymnastics was an integral part of being a good communist.  However after seeing the mass games for myself I realize it is something that only a communist nation could pull off.  I’ve never been good at following directions, must be because I grew up in a democracy and never developed the proper discipline required to subordinate all my thoughts and actions to the collective.  I hate to wonder what will happen if North Korea collapses, but for now many enjoy the fruits of their labor in the form of the Arirang Games.

Arirang has been referred to as the greatest show on Earth and frankly it’s hard to argue with that assessment.  The Arirang Games held every year for two months in North Korea in honor of Kim Il Sung’s birthday is an incredible visual spectacle.  100,000 gymnasts and performers moving in unison through complex and highly choreographed group routines is nothing short of  amazing.  Add another 20,000 well disciplined school children sitting in the bleachers creating a video screen with a book of 170 colored cards, and wrap it all with a big red communist bow and it makes this a performance you have to see to believe.  Not only for it’s stunning visual synchronicity, but to understand the politics of the DPRK.

From as young as 5 years old, DPRK residents are selected to perform in the games, which is considered to be a huge honor.  Performers are chosen based on skill in order to have the privilege of serving for the Arirang Festival for many years.  Often times this path will be the way of life for them until retirement. Those that participate have to be good at more than just following directions as we witnessed unicyclists jumping rope and performers doing back-flips and cartwheels to the point that any normal person would likely vomit from dizziness.

These are well groomed participants, often practicing up to 10 hours a day.  According to “Let the Games Bedazzle” written by Bruce Wallace and published in the Los Angeles Times in October 2005, the conditions for these participants are not good.  Past participants describe practicing for hours without food or bathroom breaks. However, this is all part of the collective struggle that is a trademark of life in North Korea.

The Mass Games of course are more than collective struggle and putting on a show in honor of their Eternal Leader, the games play an important ideological role praising the Workers Party of North Korea, its soldiers, Kim Il Sung and his son, the [current] Great Leader Kim Jong Il. “They conduct it [Mass Games] every year as a method to reinforce and remind people of the ideology,” says Kwak Tae Jung, a human rights activist based in Seoul.  Not only are politics an integral part of the show and furthering the Juche Idea, but it clearly illustrates the foundation of Communism, putting the collective over the individual.  When watching, it is difficult to pick out a single performer within the synchronized movements of the whole group.  The symbolism beyond just collectivism was explained to us by our guides prior to the 90 minute show, so that the important messages would not be lost on us.

The show opened with the most important of North Korean iconography: a rising sun, which symbolizes Kim Il Sung.  The bright rays of the sun were made up of 100,000 performers in vibrant yellow outfits.  This was just the beginning of the symbolism, and the most extraordinary show we had ever seen.  Throughout the performance we learned that the color red, specifically in flowers, stands for the working class. The color purple and purple flowers represent Kim Il Sung (as the flower “Kimilsungia” is a purple orchid and the flower “Kimjongilia” is a red begonia). You can’t make this stuff up… A snowy mountain with a lake represents Mount Paekdu where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born in a log cabin.

Even without these fascinating explanations for the important parts of the show it is up there with the most bizarre events I have ever witnessed.  The precision with which the performers moved was incredible and not once did I see a misstep or falter by any of the 100,000 performers.  Even more impressive, not once did I see one of the 20,000 children flash the wrong color card in the stands.  It was as if each child was a pre-programmed LED light in a huge display screen.  To put into perspective the enormity of the Mass Games, it made the 2008 opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics look like a small scale amateur endeavor.

It is clear that nothing is spared when it comes to honoring the Kim family and showing pride for the DPRK.  In a country where resources are scarce, causing rolling blackouts and mass famine it’s astonishing that the North Korean residents can enjoy the games and continue to glorify the current regime.  But not once did the large crowd, the majority of which are DPRK residents, miss an opportunity to cheer and clap in pleasure for the spectacle before their eyes.  I couldn’t help but rise to my feet and join them in their pleasure, after all it was the greatest show I have ever seen.

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» Bka :
Oct 11, 2011

This one is hard to visualize and unlike most photos, even they make it a challenge to grasp the scope, precision, pageantry and grandeur you write about….think you had to be there… safe…, dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, hopefully we can share some videos of the Arirang Games, but I’m afraid even those cannot capture the scale of this event.

» Derek :
Oct 11, 2011

Your pics are incredible! DPRK is #1 on my list of new countries to visit, trying to line up a visa now… Congrats, and keep up the travels!

thinkCHUA Reply:

Derek, thanks for the compliments on our photos. It was difficult to take pictures in the DPRK, but it is a fascinating country. If you are looking for more information on how to organize your trip to North Korea check out our logistics page: Happy travels and if you have any questions about the DPRK let us know, it is well worth a visit.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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