North Korea’s “Mass Games” are back – with a striking twist

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North Korea’s Mass Games have resumed after a five year hiatus. The games are a highly orchestrated gymnastics performance, staged several times a week over two months in Pyongyang, the country’s capital.

The spectacle doesn’t just offer entertainment though, for it also provides unique insights into the world’s most secretive nation, through the words used in the slogans it displays, and the overall narrative of the show. This year’s performance brought some surprises.

Unlike previous years, it didn’t mention missiles, typically a point of pride for North Korea. Instead, it chose to highlight technological advances using a drone display. It also referred to the peaceful coexistence of nations throughout the show.

According to Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea researcher who attended the games, the lack of missiles hints at the country’s new foreign policy strategy—in line with its increased international engagement.

Every year the games feature a “human pixel display,” in which thousands of children hold up slogans timed to the gymnasts’ routines. This year, some slogans were old, such as “self-reliance” but others, like “multilateral foreign relations” and “solidarity, cooperation, good neighborliness, friendship” hinted at North Korea’s recent political rhetoric of nuclear disarmament.

At one point, an image of the North Korean and South Korean presidents skaking hands was projected onto the cards held up by the children.

The games, which once won a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest gymnastics performance in history,  attract foreign visitors from China, England, Italy and others, providing a influx of income for the heavily sanctioned country. This year the tickets go for as much as €800 ($921).

But Abrahamian believes the games are primarily a performance meant for North Koreans, “so even viewers who are quite cynical about a lot…to do with their country can be swept away in this tide of emotion.”