PYONGYANG, North Korea – While the eyes of the world are transfixed by the competition for soccer’s top prize in South Korea and Japan, the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong Il has scraped together its meager resources to put on its own spectacle: 100,000 people moving in robotic synchronicity in giant May Day Stadium.
With no access to independent media, North Koreans are being led to believe that foreigners are flocking to the event, which began in April and is running most nights until the end of June. Although the English-language Pyongyang Times is billing it as “one of the world’s greatest current tourist attractions,” few Westerners are attending.
Whole districts in Pyongyang go without electricity, but the May Day Stadium is all lights and music.
The show – called Arirang, after a popular Korean folk tune – is a symbol of the reverence for the Kim dynasty that has ruled the country since World War II. The spectacle also helps explain why North Korea hasn’t collapsed after a decade of isolation, hardship, and hunger: From childhood on, people here are taught to revere all leadership and are trained to work in groups.
In North Korea, no superlative is grand enough to describe the glory of the Kim dictatorship. Local media reported that foreign luminaries, including the mayor of Katmandu, Nepal, “unanimously said that Arirang is the greatest extravaganza of worldwide value ever in human history.”
What it lacks in the suspense of an overtime World Cup match, Arirang seeks to make up with athleticism, discipline, and a mammoth scale that reduces individual participants to mere dots. Not unlike pixels on a vast computer screen, tens of thousands of performers on one side of the stadium hold up colored placards to create changing patriotic scenes, including the beaming countenance of the late “great leader,” Kim Il Sung.
Ranks of perfectly coordinated dancers on the field put on a show ranging from the seriously martial – women soldiers of the Korean People’s Army using tae-kwon-do blows to make mincemeat of “Yankee invaders” – to the seriously absurd – lines of dancing eggs and barnyard animals. The underlying theme of the 90-minute show is the division of Korea, which the regime blames squarely on the United States.
In the finale, dancers form the shape of the entire Korean peninsula, undivided.
Usually rigid visa regulations have been eased in the hope that tourists, including Americans and South Koreans, would flock to Pyongyang for the festival. Results have been modest.
Most of the tourists have spent more than a thousand dollars to fly on an Ilyushin airplane from Beijing and, in addition to taking in the show, to pass a few days making the obligatory visits to gargantuan memorials honoring the regime – always under the watchful eyes of government minders.
Most tour groups consist of middle-aged Chinese men. Guides express shock that so few Westerners have heard of their grandest of festivals.
The North Korean regime has not said as much, but it is conceivable that the government believes Arirang can in some way rival the World Cup in South Korea. Pyongyang’s reply to the 1988 Seoul Olympics – which marked South Korea’s coming of age as an economic powerhouse – was to host the socialist World Festival of Youth and Students a year later.
In the spirit of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy,” which espouses a rapprochement of north and south, South Korean soccer officials initially offered to let Pyongyang host one or two matches. The North Korean regime rejected all invitations to participate in the World Cup.
Yet North Koreans are aware of the unexpected soccer successes of their southern brethren.
“The North Koreans are keen,” said one frequent foreign visitor. “They’re supportive of South Korea because they consider Korea one country.”
Still, North Koreans cannot follow the action because television sets receive only the one state channel, and there are no live broadcasts.
So night after night, in an eerily empty and unlit city, North Koreans dutifully go through the motions as performers and spectators in the Arirang festival.
The clockwork precision of Arirang is nothing compared to the clockwork precision of the entire country.
“It’s all about synchronization, whether it’s mass gymnastics or work on the fields,” said one foreign resident of Pyongyang, who like others here spoke on condition of anonymity.
To be fair, holding up placards in stadiums is not only a North Korean predilection. Before South Korea’s surprise victory over Italy on Tuesday, thousands of South Korean fans in Daejeon stadium spelled out a gigantic taunt with red and white cards: “Again 1966.”
It was a reference to a World Cup match in England 36 years ago, when an underdog North Korean team upset the Italian favorites to advance to the quarterfinals.