North Korea’s Mass Gymnastics – Defiance & Horror

On April 13, 2013 by Lazer Horse

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performance chains

Recently North Korea have been busy puffing out their chests and threatening the wider world with destruction, no change there then. King Jon-un, son of Kim Jong-il has even less tact than his father, which is impressive, and has managed to rile up even their steadfast buddies, the Chinese. So now no one likes them, and no one is impressed with their behaviour.

At a recent major political event, the Chinese representative said, and I’m paraphrasing here… “it would be a bad idea to start causing a massive fuss that could upset a whole area of the world”… he didn’t name names but political analysts are pretty sure it was a slap on the wrist for King Jong-chubbster and his naughty posturing.

One thing the North Koreans do in style however, is their mass gymnastics or ‘mass games‘ at the Arirang Festival. Around 100,000 people are involved in performing these complex gym events. Kids as young as five are recruited based on their gymnastic prowess to perform these mass gymnastics once a year. Apparently once you are recruited you will continue working at the games up until you retire, training all year-long. It sounds like a prison sentence, but I’d imagine it’s better than the alternative.

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performance leap

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performance

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performers blue light

According to the DPRK publication “Arirang” this mass games celebrates the story of North Korea “The extravaganza unfolds an epic story of how the Arirang nation of Korea, a country of morning calm, in the Orient put an end to the history of distress and rose as a dignified nation with the song Arirang”Arirang is a traditional Korean folk tale about a young couple being torn apart by an evil landlord and hence represents the division of Korea.

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performers gymnastics

Asia Collection

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performers in red

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performers youngsters

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - Sunrise

The dancers themselves are impressive, but what my mind can’t handle is the backdrop; hundreds of people flicking over coloured bits of card to produce incredible detail. How would you even begin to practice something like that? They each have a book and turn to the correct pages on demand, there’s about 20,000 kids solely producing this shimmering background. Completely amazing human pixels.

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - backdrop birds

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - backdrop colours

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - backdrop woman

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - backdrop

Arirang - Mass Gymnastics - North Korea - performers ninjas

This video is one of North Korea’s public information broadcasts, they always have the same guy narrating and their use of English is amazing. The wording is correct and the grammar is tickety boo, but the choice of words has its own unique feel. Quite dramatic and pompous, always speaking of Korea’s beauty, freedom and strength, but also it’s struggle and victory over oppression.

Their official news website uses the same kind of language, I wonder where they got it from? Who teaches them this stuff? One of their official news sites uses the same kind of  pomp and drama, have look:

The video is nine minutes long, I could personally listen to this guy all day, but if you’re rushed skip it to 7:40 where they start flying through the air. It’s amazing.



Kim Jong Il gave a speech to the Directors of the Mass Gymnastics in 1987, you can read the bellicose totality of it here if you wish, but I don’t recommend it. Within it he shows the importance that he puts on these games – “developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people….” It’s quite a long speech and it starts with praise but he also criticises their work, at one point he complains that the music has too much pangchang. Even with my powerful friend Google I can’t really work out what that means, all I know is that he doesn’t like too much of it. In his closing paragraph he stresses that “…the Party has great trust in the officials and creative workers in the field of mass gymnastics and expects a great deal from them”

It’s such a stark contrast to the realities of the country its self. North Korea has seen a rise in cannibalism due to starvation, whilst the elite grow fat. People detained for ‘political’ crimes have three generations of their families stowed away in death camps where torture and rape are the norm and there’s little hope of reprieve. It’s chilling. This has to be one of the darkest countries on earth, yet still it produces such an epic performance. Hideous contradictions. The games signify unity, strength, opulence and defiance to the outside world, whereas inside, the majority of its citizens are hungry and terrified.


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