Sunday 18 March 2018

North Korea kicks off victory games with war theme

Largest ever foreign turnout is expected this year.

North Koreans perform during the Arirang mass games at the May Day stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
North Koreans perform during the Arirang mass games at the May Day stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
North Korean girls perform with hoops on Monday, July 22, 2013 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has revealed a new rendition of the "Arirang" mass games, the song-and-dance ensemble
North Korean dancers perform during the "Arirang" mass games
North Korean women dance in front of a display of their country's national flag in Pyongyang, North Korea

Oliver Smith

The state-sponsored seven-week celebration will include dozens of mass participation performances, with up to 150,000 citizens combining to create some remarkable visual spectacles.

The three key elements of each performance are gymnastics, music and “backdrop”, the latter of which involves millions of coloured sheets of card that are held by participants to create enormous intricate images.

It all takes place in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, and – despite the country’s reputation for secrecy and sabre rattling – a record number of foreigners are expected to attend.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the biggest tour companies that visit North Korea, estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 international visitors will witness the event – up from around 1,000 last year.

"Most people think they can't go,” Troy Collins of Young Pioneer Tours, a US firm that organises trips to North Korea, told CNN. “As more people do go, the more word gets around, so people suddenly start seriously considering a visit.”

Earlier this year British tour operator Regent Holidays also reported a sharp rise in interest, although total visitor numbers do remain relatively small compared to other overseas destinations.

Gillian Leaning, Regent’s marketing brand manager, told Telegraph Travel that it took 210 travellers to North Korea in 2012, up from 104 in 2009, prompting it to expand its range of tours.

Among those at Arirang last year was the photographer Jeremy Hunter, who described his experiences for Telegraph Travel.

“North Korea is starved of energy, and food remains rationed, but one of the few remaining resources it has is its 24 million people,” he said. “The country is still able to mobilise thousands of acrobats, gymnasts and dancers who spend 10 hours a day for six months rehearsing for this meticulously staged, two-hour-long spectacle. In 2007, Arirang was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest event of its kind.

“The May Day Stadium holds 150,000 spectators and a small section is allotted to foreigners, who must purchase their seats in euros. Around 50,000 teenagers use 2.2 million sheets of paper to create human mosaics of dazzling imagery, which synchronously change with unbelievable smoothness every 20 seconds or so. Every breath is co-ordinated. They are dazzling displays of unity. No one can go to the bathroom, no one can fidget, no-one can yawn.”

Another more recent visitor was Nigel Richardson, who also wrote about his experience for Telegraph Travel. North Korea is “the most secretive, eccentric, thought-provoking, frightening and – yes – amusing destination on earth,” he said. “Contrary to what you might think it's not hard to get in. Neither is it dangerous to be there, so long as you're not wilfully stupid.”

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