Mass Games for a Mass Audience: Another Sign of Cultural Diplomacy?

By | July 25, 2013 | No Comments

Mass Games for a Mass Audience: Another Sign of Cultural Diplomacy?

by Darcie Draudt

July 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War (July 27, 1953), and to commemorate the event North Korea has planned a special performance of the Arirang Mass Games. Though the Arirang Festival premiered in 2002, mass gymnastic performances have been staged since 1946 and take theatrical cues from performances being staged from the 1970s.

The “bigger than usual” performance has attracted attention from numerous foreign media, including American, Chinese, and Russian sources. English-language sources tend to focus on its exoticness, trying to place a purportedly anachronistic festival within the context of the modern international landscape. An English-language CNN story describes the performance as a “spectacle of song, dance and Cold War-style propaganda,” and focuses on its ability to draw foreign tourists by quoting representatives from travel companies such as Koryo Tours, Young Pioneer Tours, and Uri Tours.

Public Radio International’s The World takes a similar approach in covering this Saturday’s event in its interview with Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours. In it, the reporter claims that videos of previous mass games “makes for some odd eye candy.” Previous attempts to show glimpses of the nation by documenting the Mass Games call it the “perfect example of the state’s ideology: the subordination of the individual’s desires to the needs of the collective,” as claimed in the 2004 documentary A State of Mind (incidentally produced by Koryo Tour’s Bonner).

However, whereas the English-language sources present the games (with varying tones of fascination) as a spectacle for tourists, the Korean-language sources emphasize celebration of the armistice agreement anniversary as a way to reach out to build bridges with foreign audiences, at least at the ceremonial level. Korean media not only points out that Seoul will commemorate the anniversary of the armistice, but also that President Obama will attend a celebration in Seoul for commemoration of the day. The planned visit is significant since although Vice President Cheney attended the 53rd Anniversary celebrations in 2006, this is the first time an American president has attended.

South Korean media also emphasizes what may be DPRK’s newest attempt to connect with foreign media. The stories that ran this week all led with North Korea’s invitation to over 100 foreign news agencies and delegates to attend the special production. The story about the DPRK’s invitation to foreign media and delegates ran in several Korean-language media sources, including the Chosun Ilbo, Maeil Kyeongje and SBS.

A Yonhap News story included explanation from the KCNA release:

 The performance, started on this day with the music ‘Our July 27,’ and colorful lighting and fireworks, music and dance, gymnastics and acrobatics, special stage equipment and others received praise from the audience for a perfect harmony in content and form,” said a KCNA article.

This performance praises the accomplishment of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, who defeated the American military forces and accomplished a historical feat with our homeland’s liberation. It shows the deep impression of his late father’s revolution chronicles on Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, who sought the 1,000 year foundation of the construction of a strong and prosperous homeland through a strong nation based on Chosun political thinking [조선을 정치사상 강국] and a global strong military nation [세계적인 군사강국].

Some analysts may point out a potential “cultural turn” in the DPRK, but attendance by high-level foreign delegates to this particular performance is not unprecedented. As recent as 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun attended a performance of the Arirang Mass Games with his wife. The event caused quite a stir before the event, inviting criticism from both sides of the political aisle. In an opinion piece that ran in the Dailian on the day of President Roh’s attendance, cultural critic Kim Heon-sik suggested the degree to which artistic performance is used in North-South relations:

Approximately when can artistic culture shed itself from a state of being used by politics? It’s when we overcome the division and achieve reconciliation and unification.

So which is it this time? An idiosyncratic spectacle of socialist realism in performance? Or a revived attempt to reach out to the international community through soft power and slick PR? Unfortunately, the smokescreen typical of North Korean diplomacy makes the invitation of foreign delegates difficult to read, especially when such moves are overshadowed by the failure of recent bilateral talks regarding reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Source: Jang Cheol-un, “North Korea opens the Arirang Mass Games to meet July 27” [北, 7•27 맞아 대규모 집단체조 ‘아리랑’ 공연 개막], Yonhap News, July 23, 2013. Translation by Darcie Draudt.

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