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North Korea puts on a gala, Pyongyang style

North Koreans are flocking to their capital for a rare chance to view performances of a mass gymnastics event.
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Koreans are flocking to their capital for a rare chance to view performances of a mass gymnastics event that is the highlight of government propaganda efforts aimed at inspiring support for the Kim dynasty.

Some 300,000 people have traveled on special trains and buses to watch what the North calls a “mass game” that opened Aug. 15 on the 60th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule.

With 100,000 performers, the event features synchronized acrobatics against the backdrop of an entire side of a stadium being used as a mosaic where children turn colored pages in books to form giant pictures and animation.

Before it closes in mid-October, an estimated 10 percent of the country’s 23 million population are expected to have seen the show.

Signal of policy change?
Experts say this year’s performance is the largest such spectacle in three years, causing North Korea watchers to speculate whether the show could signal a major policy announcement — as they apparently have in the past — or whether it is simply intended to shore up support among citizens who have suffered years of starvation.

The performance might be a prelude to a ruling party convention, said Jhe Seong-ho, a professor at Seoul’s ChoongAng University. His view mirrors long-running speculation that the party could meet for the first time in 25 years when it celebrates its 60th anniversary — and that ruler Kim Jong Il could designate his successor.

“Convening a party convention this year would be meaningful as the country is facing various internal and external hardships,” Jhe said.

In 2002, North Korea put on a similar-sized show to mark the 90th anniversary of the birthday of founding North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il who remains the country’s “eternal president” despite his 1994 death.

That year, North Korea introduced market elements to its centrally controlled economy for the first time, phasing out its decades-old food rationing system. The measures caused massive inflation that has exacerbated the country’s food crisis.

Lifting the mood of the masses
Other experts and South Korea’s government, however, said the new show is simply a morale-booster aimed at rallying North Koreans around Kim Jong Il.

“Through the festival, the North wants to boost the morale of its people living in difficult conditions,” a South Korean official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive relations with the North.

North Korea’s economy is in shambles. Since the mid-1990s, the country has relied on outside handouts to feed its people. Activists claim more than 100,000 North Koreans are living in hiding in China after fleeing their hunger-stricken communist homeland. Since 1998, about 5,500 North Koreans have defected to the South.

Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said he has seen signs this year that loyalty to the regime is waning.

“This mass game is a huge political show aimed at inspiring loyalty from the North Korean public,” he said.

Pyongyang's sole strong point
Pyongyang touts the event as the “greatest monumental masterpiece” that was “completed under the energetic guidance and care of leader Kim Jong Il.” When staged in 2002, the performance “caused a great sensation all over the world,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said.

North Korea claims about 70,000-80,000 foreigners watched the show in 2002, although the South’s estimate is about 20,000.

The “mass game” performances are one of few areas in which the impoverished North far surpasses other countries — even putting Olympics’ opening ceremonies to shame.

When former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 as the North’s missile program was a key concern, Kim Jong Il took her to a mass game show where the highlight was the stadium backdrop mosaic displaying an animated missile flying into the sky. Albright said she was spellbound by the precision of the event but felt uncomfortable with its glorification of the regime.

“This will be our last missile,” Kim reportedly told Albright at the time.