Putting the Mass in Performance: Reflections on the Re-initiation of Arirang Season
Putting the Mass in Performance: Reflections on the Re-initiation of Arirang Season
by Jimin Lee
A few years ago, there was a viral video showing a North Korean student playing a xylophone with remarkable accuracy. The child’s performance was so precise in every move and expression that it surprised many.
This type of precision also pervades the DPRK’s Arirang festival, a mass performance is composed of approximately 100,000 individuals who are necessarily talented in various gymnastic and musical arts. According to reports carried in Daily NK, North Korean students have already had begun this year’s Arirang mass performance practice this past May.
For the next four or five months, children will practice the cycle with severe physical and emotional stress that combines the need to please the state with the need to assure that their parents – and their family’s overall political standing – do not suffer.
Synchronizing Society | In a stadium in Pyongyang, these gymnasts in color-coordinated outfits take the field and begin dancing, jumping, and tumbling in a synchronicity. Their bodies move to form ranging from blooming flowers to intersecting geometric shapes that expand, collapse, and flow into each other, and every last gymnast moves in perfect time with the group. There are no missed steps, no awkward legs, and no slow individuals who are off by beat, no unseemly breaks to distract the audience from the patterns of perfection. The coordination is astonishing.
But what we come to understand from “State of Mind” is that the synchronization runs well beyond the performance itself, this act of politicized ritual. The rituals extend into tens of thousands of families in Pyongyang, with children returning home after dark, resting at the center of attention in their family units, and placing them in the advanced role of members who contribute tangibly to the political survival (and perhaps even the thriving, in a relative sense) of their families.
Women who then go on to join the Korean People’s Army (KPA) have experience in drill, in subordination to the group, of veneration of a distant leader, of ordering the family unit around political performance and political status.
The DPRK’s resilience is attributed to multiple unique factors, but the thoroughness of children’s work, the completeness of the ideology as it is imparted to children through various means, including short stories, songs, and above all the rhythmic movements, should be near the top of the list.
Scale and Administration | Mass Games date back to at least the 19th century, having been practiced by Czech nationalists during the Czech Sokol movement. Also, in Romania, the communist government organized compulsory mass games in the 20th century, finding it an excellent and demonstrative way of expressing and reinforcing their ideology.
For all the ink spilled about the topic, the Mass Games have never been the subject of a proper academic monograph outside of North Korea. Theorization has seemingly been confined to work by Suk-Young Kim and a few South Korean scholars. What do we know about how the events are administered?
These Mass Games usually takes place in the one of the biggest world’s stadiums – Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, which holds 150 000 visitors, or roughly half the population of Sinuiju. The most magnificent show on Earth involves over 100 000 performers with the help of the Mass Gymnastics Organizing Committee, which is made up of members of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League and the cabinet-directed Chosun Sports Guidance Committee.
The committee screens children at Pyongyang’s elementary and middle schools based on height, health and artistic talent, and whittles the names down to a list of participants after May 20th.
Here again we see the importance of Party organizations in using the Mass Games as a means to check ideological reliability and cut off any emerging recalcitrance among young members of society, figuratively speaking, at the roots. Recent information about an astonishingly specific Pyongyang census conducted privately by the Kim family and smuggled out of the DPRK two years ago indicates that this motive should not be underestimated in the “benefits” that the event provides for the regime, and the reason that the security state is not willing to simply discontinue the performances and their preparation.
In Pyongyang, roughly half the children from every school are selected to take part in the games. Amazing choreography, unbelievable synchronism and intricacy of acrobatic numbers are the result of many months’ of severe trainings. As the performance approaches, students are made to train outside in stifling heat for 12 hours a day, from 8 o’clock in the morning, and practice is sometimes extended into the night.
Global Glory for the DPRK? | After the success of the Arirang Festival in 2005 the organizers decided to extend Mass Games into next years. Reflecting the DPRK’s desire for global recognition of its achievement, August 16th 2007 Mass Games entered to Guinness Book of World Records. The record of “largest gymnastic and artistic performance in the world was created in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK” the Guinness Certificate says. Perhaps this is why after success of the Arirang Festival in 2005 the organizers decided to extend Mass Games into subsequent years.
Compacting Ideology | Behind these seemingly successful performances some find it tragic because the thousands of schoolchildren behind the scene do not even see the image that they have drilled incessantly to achieve a smoothness of synchronicity.
However, the synchronicity and self-sacrifice are not for the sake of spectacle but to achieve perfect unity amongst them. It is a grandiose and somewhat stunning example of a political ideology encapsulated in the form of mass performance. The audience of thousands chanting “man se, man se” (Korean for “hooray”) are not cheering for any one individual but for everyone in the stadium and in North Korea. The rewards after the performance are supposed to be evenly distributed, and so it does not go to only one person like in the Olympics but to all 80,000 performers.
A source from Pyongyang states, in a 1987 speech to the Mass Games organizers, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il reportedly said, “Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline, and collectivism in schoolchildren.”
Not only that, but the participation in a condensed version of the Kim Il Sung myth gives children a chance to experience it for themselves, to internalize it, to meditate on the struggles of one young person (i.e., Kim Il Sung) whose work led to the founding of a nation. Though there are tens of thousands of bodies flowing across the stage, there is no room for individuals other than Kim Il Sung and his immediate family on the stage. Kim Ku, Kim Tu Bong and others who embraced much the same agenda as the young leader in 1946 are left out of the teleological narrative, which eternally cycles back to the Kim bloodline as the definition of the North Korean nation.
Opting Out | According to the Daily NK’s reports, some families who are better off through trading on the black markets or enterprises beyond their state-granted jobs are able to pay for their children not to participate in the collective performance activity. If true, this occurrence would extend upon the trend of buying one’s way out of state-mandated activities seen during the two “speed campaigns” (of 150- and 100-days, respectively) associated with the rise of Kim Jong Un in the DPRK in 2009. Like the Democratic Women’s Union, the organization of children for performance is a building block of the way that the regime mobilizes the lives of its citizens, and participation — or the lack thereof — is an important barometer of state power at the local level.
This brutal nature of the practice had given the event a nickname amongst the North Korean people: ‘Arirang of tears’. Parents of children who sit out from a rehearsal or fall behind in their training also become targets of severe criticism. When the games began, performers were given televisions, which sparked envy amongst parents of non-participants; however, according to the source, these have now been replaced with nylon blankets, leading to even less willing participation.
The source added, “Each school began working on its own list of participants for the Arirang games after the Labor Day holiday. There was some hope that the mass games might not be held in the Kim Jong Eun era, but alas that was not to be. All the parents of school-aged children are now working on plans to get their children exempted from the games.”
“Well-off parents are secretly paying bribes to hospital staff for medical certificates which can get their children off. Genuinely infirm children are sent to recuperate in the country, which completely removes any chance of being selected for the games.” The source also said, “People are pretty brazen now when talking about having to pay expensive bribes and the like to get their children off these lists…parents are keeping their eye on the situation and are keen to find out what other parents are doing to get their children out of selection,” the source said. “There is a palpable atmosphere amongst Pyongyang parents at the moment of trying to avoid selection for the games.”
Orwellian Kitsch? | “It would be facile to dismiss this production as mere Stalinist propaganda or Orwellian kitsch, ” writes J. Scott Burgeson, author of Korea Bug, a compilation of interviews with Koreans ranging from street people to celebrities. “[The Mass Games] really is a case in which the sum is greater than its parts, a triumph of human creativity that on a purely aesthetic level trumps all political or ideological underpinnings.”
George Orwell’s 1984 “Two Minutes Hate” may be a fit in some ways with Arirang’s notions and the depictions of enemies. The film version of the chapter is accompanying auditory and visual cues that are a form of brainwashing to Party members, attempting to force them into the hatred for Emmanuel Goldstein and the enemy superstate. Apparently it is the opposite physical form of expressing hatred, in contrast to Arirang’s representation, however, they both share common purpose: subduing feelings of anger and hatred and tiresome from a controlled existence. By re-directing these subconscious feelings away from the North Korean regime and Oceanian government respectively the “Big Brother” minimizes subversive thoughts and behaviors.