In August, Worldfocus web producer Ben Piven traveled to the 2009 Arirang Games in Pyongyang, North Korea, with a point-and-shoot camera. A North Korean government-made travel documentary chronicles the 5-day tour.
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State of Mind, a 2004 prize-winning British documentary funded in part by Worldfocus parent company WNET, follows the lives of Arirang Games performers and their families.
Worldfocus discussed the meaning of the Arirang Games with two North Korea experts: Charles Armstrong, a history professor and director of Columbia University’s Center for Korean Studies and Leon Sigal, director of the Social Science Research Council’s Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project.
What are the historical roots of Arirang?
CA: Mass choreographed spectacles are not unknown in the West. They were popular in the middle of the 20th century in totalitarian and militarized states, such as pre-World War Two Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. These countries had a very big influence on the formation of North Korean culture. But North Korea has taken it to a whole new level of size, precision, and spectacle.
The “Arirang” song is the most well-known folk song from Korean history. It’s the unofficial national anthem for both Koreas. But when [North Koreans] use that name, they’re demonstrating that it’s not just a North Korean song - that it’s an all-Korean song demonstrating the unity of the Korean people. It originally became an emblem of nationalism during Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. The very first Korean movie from 1927 was called “Arirang.” This is mass, modernized folk culture.
Is Arirang popular culture?
LS: Yes, absolutely. Pop culture in societies like ours tends to be generated more from the bottom up than from the state down. Yet Arirang clearly involves mass participation. It’s hard for an outsider to gauge how much enthusiasm is generated, but there’s definitely some genuine enthusiasm.
Why does North Korea invest so much time and resources in this mass gymnastics performance?
CA: It’s a way of demonstrating the solidarity of the North Korean people and their common sense of purpose with the regime. It also demonstrates the discipline and skill of entertainers and dancers through the glorification of the state, the leaders, and the system as a whole.
LS: Arirang has a number of different elements. The appearance of mass participation is important for regimes like this. That’s a way to keep people happy in a society that’s pretty gray and grim. It also keeps people busy when they aren't fully employed. Arirang is more than a public spectacle. It really is a mass mobilization event. The event is the one-party state’s showcasing a different face to the world. This is not just these school kids - but thousands of adults too. Every day, they’re practicing for these events at stadiums and sports centers in Pyongyang and beyond.
Why are Western tourists only allowed to tour the country during Arirang?
CA: This is a way of making a lot of money. Foreigners pay quite a bit to attend. Also, there’s been a shift in how they’ve been dealing with the outside world. Since the Clinton visit, they’ve been more open to the south and toward the West in general. North Koreans have learned that outisders coming in - from both friendly and not-so-friendly countries - are very impressed with their mass entertainment. The great leader himself has been known to attend on occasion - not every year but once every couple of years.
LS: They like to put their best face forward, and Arirang is North Korea’s show piece.
Are the games successful in achieving their goal of mobilizing support for the Juche idea?
CA: One of the most common North Korean slogans is “il shim tang gyol” - which means “one heart united.” The Arirang Games are more for foreigners, but there are other mass games during anniversary ceremonies. Arirang creates a certain political reality of indivisible unity. When people from liberal western countries go there, it can be frightening. Although North Korea is a totalitarian society, it’s not expansive and aggressive.
LS: It is successful. The participants appear happy to take part in the event. Arirang festival days are nice days. The government even tries to get outsiders to compete. It is also used to send political messages: when Madeleine Albright attended in 2000, she witnessed the flip-card unit's depiction of a Taepodong missile launch.
- Ben Piven