North Korea's Mass Games return but leader Kim Jong Un is unhappy

Participants attend a rehearsal understood to be for a 'mass games' performance in Pyongyang on April 12, 2019.
Participants attend a rehearsal understood to be for a 'mass games' performance in Pyongyang on April 12, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

PYONGYANG (AFP) - Tens of thousands of performers in Pyongyang took part in the first of North Korea’s spectacular “Mass Games” propaganda displays for 2019, but the show left leader Kim Jong Un unimpressed.

The “Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance” features enormous numbers of people – mostly students and schoolchildren – in precision synchronised moves.  

Behind them, thousands of children turn the coloured pages of books in sequence to create an ever-changing backdrop of giant images rippling across one side of the stadium.  

But Kim was underwhelmed by the production, titled “The Land of the People”.

After the show “he called creators of the performance and seriously criticised them for their wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude,” the
North’s official KCNA news agency reported on Tuesday (June 4).  

Noting that artists “have a very important duty in socialist cultural construction,” Kim “set forth important tasks for correctly implementing the revolutionary policy of our Party on literature and art,” KCNA added.  It was not clear what had infuriated the leader.

Kim was accompanied to the performance by his wife Ri Sol Ju and his sister and close aide Kim Yo Jong, KCNA said.  

It was the first time it had mentioned Kim Yo Jong for nearly two months, since the Hanoi summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump broke up in February without reaching agreement over sanctions relief and the North’s nuclear programme.

Among the senior government officials present was Kim Yong Chol, KCNA said.  

He is the North’s counterpart to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the nuclear talks, and South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper last week reported that he had been sent to a labour camp after the no-deal in Hanoi.

KCNA made no mention of Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States who the Chosun Ilbo said had been executed by firing squad for “betraying the supreme leader” after he was “won over to the US” during pre-summit negotiations.



Participants in the Mass Games rehearse for months ahead of the performances and according to travel companies.

“The Land of the People” was expected to run for five months, into October. But Kim’s verdict on the show may see it reworked.  KCNA only released one image of the performance itself at the cavernous May Day Stadium, showing thousands of flag-waving performers packed around giant flowers on the arena floor.  

“Long live Korea forever!” the backdrop spelled out over a bed of flowers, as red fireworks shot into the air.

Reports said that as well as portraits of the North’s founder Kim Il Sung and successor Kim Jong Il – the current leader’s grandfather and father respectively – the backdrop images also featured one of Kim Jong Un.  

The third generation of the family to rule the country, unlike his predecessors he is rarely depicted in portraits and no statues of him are known to exist.

A section that appeared in last year’s display on the Panmunjom summit and showing Kim with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was cut, reports said.  Moon was instrumental in brokering the first US-North Korean summit in Singapore in June 2018 and attended a Mass Games show in September during his third summit with Kim, when he addressed the crowd. But negotiations have stalled since the breakdown in Hanoi.

North Korean artistic performances portray moments from Korean history and modern life, but are closely watched by observers for clues as to the authorities’ priorities, such as whether they are highlighting economic achievements or military progress. 

Guinness World Records lists a 2007 performance of a previous version of the Mass Games, known as Arirang, as the world's largest gymnastic display, with 100,090 participants.

The resources involved are significant, even though the performers are largely students and schoolchildren. But the impoverished North, which is under several sets of sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, does generate tourism revenue from the displays.

This year tickets for foreign tourists cost from 100 euros to 800 euros (S$154 to S$1,230), according to Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based agency that organises trips to the North.

The 2018 show was the first time the North had staged the Mass Games in five years, during which it conducted four nuclear tests along with multiple long-range missile tests, heightening tensions in the region.

But after a rapid diplomatic rapprochement on and around the peninsula, South Korean President Moon Jae-in watched a Mass Games performance last September. His attendance came during a three-day trip to Pyongyang for a third summit with his North Korean counterpart, and Moon made a speech to the crowd.

Moon was instrumental in brokering the first US-North Korean summit in Singapore in June 2018.