Beautifully choreographed dancing, full coverage by the Associated Press, and 3G internet service. It’s safe to say that these are NOT the things you think of when I say North Korea, right?
You’re far more likely to think of the dynastic, totalitarian regime that been in power since the 40s begun by Kim Il-sung (pictured above) and now ruled by his young grandson Kim Jung-un. Or maybe you think of the demilitarized zone, the labor camps, and the stark economic contrast between North and South Korea.
Both are technically accurate.
The Disconnected, Hermit Kingdom
North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for good reason. It’s famously one of the most secretive and foreboding places in the world. Heads of state struggle to get information about the living conditions, the weapons program, and even the rulers.
A solid example would be when photos turned up of an unidentified woman appearing next to Kim Jung-un at state events shortly after he took power at the end of 2011. North Korean state television and news departments (finally) later announced that Kim Jung-un is married and the mystery woman is his wife!
Even in our massively interconnected world, there are still places where seemingly essential communication is limited. Dictatorships tend to rank at the top of that short list.
3G Arrives in Pyongyang
2012 brought 3G internet service to the Hermit Kingdom and the opening of a full news bureau by the Associated Press (AP) in Pyongyang. Of course, 3G is mostly limited to foreigners and would probably be prohibitively expensive for the average North Korean even if it was more broadly available.
Through the Instagram feed of various members of the AP bureau and via foreign visitors with 3G access, I’ve learned a lot about North Korea. Most of their photos show a much more ordinary slice of North Korean life that most of us wouldn’t otherwise see, but recently they’ve also shown snippets of North Korea’s greatest spectacle of propaganda — the Mass Games.
The Mass Games on Instagram
The annual games are a long standing tradition where approximately 100,000 dancers, acrobats, musicians, and even children stage an elaborate, highly politicized performance on a “volunteer” basis. These types of mass displays of power are not limited to North Korea; they’re a mainstay of nationalistic communist regimes. Think 1940s Germany. They’re a way to emphasize and celebrate the group ethic over individualist tendencies.
The 2013 Arirang Mass Games began on July 22nd at 8:30PM in Pyongyang and will run until September 9th. According to CNN.com, it’s surprisingly easy to attend the Mass games as a foreigner and even as an American. Tours can be arranged through Koryo Tours from Beijing.
This year’s festivities are especially spectacular to honor the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War — victory in the “Fatherland Liberation War” according to the North Koreans. The adage that are two (polar opposite) sides to a story couldn’t be more true than it is on this particular issue.
The two photos above (and some below) are created by thousands of children using colored flip-books to represent a single “human pixel” in what has been called the “largest photo in the world.” The coordination, detail, and planning required is staggering.
So Are You Ready to Visit North Korea?
North Korea is complex. It almost goes without saying that there’s more to any story about the country than meets the eye. A stunning synchronized dance is also a political spectacle increasingly played out for the benefit of foreign media and the hard currency they bring.
Does the presence of the AP and social media signal that North Korea may be inching toward an increased openness? Your guess is as good as mine. But I feel pretty confident saying that only time will tell whether it’s a meaningful or lasting openness.
In light of this, would you visit the games, or would you feel too conflicted that money spent in country would go toward supporting the regime?
Links & More
- One of the more popular posts on the site is about North Korea and the utter darkness that descends every night when the power goes out. Apparently, I’m not the only one around here who’s fascinated by North Korea.
- Follow North Korea on Instagram via @hannahkoryo, @dguttenfelder, @newsjean, and @uritours.
- Behind the spectacle, the ugly truth about North Korea’s ‘mass games’ at the Washington Post. An important perspective to read about the games.
- North Korean Mass Games: Why this year they’re different from CNN.com.
- A State of Mind (2004). British filmmakers follow two girls selected to participate in the mass games. It provides a window into the world of North Korea via the games. Available to stream on Netflix.