- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

PYONGYANG, North Korea — It’s enough to make a drill sergeant weep, a dance choreographer gasp, a musical producer swoon. It features a cast of thousands, telling an epic tale to make you cry and cheer.

We are not talking Las Vegas.

Welcome to Pyongyang, North Korea’s showpiece capital. Welcome to the Arirang Mass Games — a spectacle celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party. And welcome to the May Day Stadium — which, seating 150,000, dwarfs Seoul’s 2002 World Cup Stadium (64,000 seats) and Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium (80,000 seats).

The nightly event ends Oct. 29. The number of participants is not clear: One group of foreign journalists, making a rare visit to this secretive state this month, were told 50,000; another group was told 100,000.

The players, chosen from schools, colleges, work units and military units, practiced for three months.

“This proves the vitality of our socialism,” said Pang Yu-gyong, a 20-year-old tour guide.

Arirang is a sad Korean folk song, beloved on both sides of the demilitarized zone. The Arirang Mass Games is a marriage of Confucianism (“Hail the fatherly leader”) and communism (“The unity of a single heart”), leavened with religion (Kim Il-sungism). It mixes dance, revolutionary opera, traditional music, military drill, gymnastics and circus stunts, but the human kaleidoscope in the foreground is only half of it.

The background is provided by 15,000 card flashers, creating slogans and an ever-changing diorama. Finally, a huge torch is lit above the stadium as fireworks burst, lasers flash and anti-aircraft searchlights fitted with color filters operate as spotlights.

But this is no mere spectacle: “Arirang” is a message from the communist regime writ large — a giant, living propaganda billboard.

The show begins with the struggle against Japanese. Nation founder Kim Il-sung is center stage, but although his guerrilla exploits of the 1930s are covered, his time in the Soviet army — he sat out World War II as a captain — is not.

His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, who rarely appears in public, is not seen in person, but as a star hovering over the sacred mountain, Paekdu, his “official” birthplace. (Historians who are not North Koreans think he was born near Khabarovsk, Russia.) He reappears symbolically as a car going along a dangerous, moonlit mountain road — an allusion to his navigation of North Korea through the perils of a hostile world.

The Korean War comes next, though here, Americans, not North Koreans, are the aggressors. Pyongyang’s “Army First” policy is clear. After a dance routine by female soldiers twirling batons and flashing sabers, male solders perform bayonet drills, mixed with tae kwon do kicks.

Next, we see a bountiful harvest, while chickens and eggs dance in the foreground.

A comfortable lifestyle is depicted with images of plump children frolicking on beaches: “Thanks to the Dear Leader, children enjoy picnics and soy milk” the cards read. And there is technology. The images presented include missile launches, computers and satellite dishes.

The final act is the overcoming of Korea’s tragic division. As performers create a unified Korean Peninsula, two persons represent the easternmost islets of Tokdo, also claimed by Japan, which ignited protests in Seoul this year. North Korea may be animated by anti-Americanism, but both Koreas are suspicious of former colonial master Japan.

The audience watched with something less than rapture, applauding politely; many likely had seen it all before. More enthusiastic were about 400 South Koreans, cheering and waving unification flags, each of whom paid $1,000 for a two-day, one-night trip. They were segregated from their northern cousins.

“This is a repetition of state propaganda,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based Russian academic who specializes in North Korea. “It was interesting to see the emphasis on [information technology], but otherwise, it was the same stuff we have been seeing for 30 years.”

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