The ugly truth about North Korea’s ‘mass games’

The grandeur of North Korea’s annual Arirang or “mass games” celebration really is something to behold. Tens of thousands of performers dance and march with smiling precision across the world’s largest stadium stage, under fireworks and light shows, as thousands more, many of them children, flash placards with a level of coordination that seems flatly impossible. It’s little wonder that every July, when North Korea holds the mass games to mark the anniversary of the Korean War, international media outlets take a rare trip to Pyongyang, and much of the world becomes transfixed.
But there is more to the mass games than meets the eye. For all the flash and splendor, the event is in many ways built on — and could even be said to perpetuate — the very worst of the hermit kingdom, from the dangerous militarism to the human rights abuses to the race-based ultra-nationalist ideology underpinning it all. This may be one of the most amazing shows on Earth, but it’s also an extension of some of its greatest cruelty.
The mass games are a spectacle of truly amazing performances, but, according to reports from defectors, it’s also the result of mistreatment and coercion, including of the children who participate in large numbers. It’s true that the citizen-participants do, by all indication, enter the event seeing it as a high honor and privilege. According to compilations of defector testimonies, though, participants are often given little food or even water and, to instill discipline, can be restricted in how often they may visit the bathroom. Reports are worryingly common about child participants developing cystitis or other urinary tract ailments as a result.

While it might be easy to dismiss these anecdotal reports — and, after all, don’t children participate in Western ceremonies all the time? — they are broadly consistent with descriptions of the practices as abusively coercive. Performers who fail or flinch can expect a pin-prick where they’ve faltered or a whack with a stick.

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