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Let the games bedazzle

Even DeMille would quail at the scale of 'Arirang,' a mass tribute to North Korea's dynasty and ideology featuring a stadium-size ensemble working together, of course, as one.

October 30, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Pyongyang, North Korea — WHEN it comes to paying tribute to the ruling Kim family in North Korea, size matters.

Check out the towering bronze memorial to founding father Kim Il Sung on Mansu Hill overlooking the capital, Pyongyang -- a skyscraper of a statue. Or the Arch of Triumph built to commemorate Kim's return from exile. A replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the North Korean version rises, crucially, 39 feet higher than the original.

Yet the most gargantuan, super-sized ode of all may be the nearly 90-minute musical tribute to Kim called "Arirang," a surreal piece of performance art whose reputedly 100,000-strong cast wrapped up a two-month run in Pyongyang last week. Named after a mournful Korean folk song about lost love, "Arirang" recounts the indefatigable Great Leader Kim's struggle against North Korea's existential enemies -- the imperialist Japanese followed by imperialist Americans -- and then praises the socialist "paradise" that Kim built once he'd seen them off.

The massive floor show blankets the field of Pyongyang's May Day Stadium (capacity 150,000) with columns of dancers and singers, gymnasts and acrobats, soldiers and schoolchildren. It is part of a uniquely North Korean art form known as mass games, and it is seen by the ruling leadership under Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, as an effective way to keep the message of collective struggle -- and struggle it is in this hungry police state of 23 million -- in the public eye.

It is also arguably the most ambitious extravaganza ever to flicker across a choreographer's imagination. By comparison, a stadium rock show in the West looks about as sophisticated as a raised Bic lighter. For "Arirang," think stadium opera lighted by lasers, with tumbling gymnasts and rivers of performers in colorful costumes, soldiers brandishing bayonets and acrobats dropping from the top of the stadium on bungee cords.

Perhaps the most stunning element is the atmospheric backdrop provided by between 15,000 and 20,000 schoolchildren positioned in the seats along one grandstand, facing the audience. They all hold chest-sized booklets of colored cards, which they flip to different pages on cue to create different mosaics. The kids are in effect the lightbulbs in a human Jumbotron, and they produce shimmering landscapes of mountains and rivers, raging battlefields, and Korean faces that express emotions from ferocity to joy.

The precision is as much a testament to human muscle memory as it is homage to the slogan-happy Kims. And it has a distinctly disturbing side. Critics say "Arirang's" wow factor in choreography is achieved on the back of ruthless training -- several months of 10-hour-a-day practice drills that turn children as young as 4 or 5 into performing robots.

"They conduct it every year as a method to reinforce and remind people of the ideology," says Kwak Tae Jung, a human rights activist based in Seoul who has interviewed 10 North Korean defectors who participated in previous mass games. The first "Arirang" was staged three years ago, but mass games with similar themes celebrating the cult of the Kim family have been a staple of North Korean propaganda for more than 40 years.

The defectors describe practicing for hours without food or bathroom breaks. They recall being assigned to classes called "platoons" and say the children of Pyongyang's elite families were exempt from being conscripted into singing and dancing for the regime.

"People are not paid," says Kwak, though "once every four or five years, the government would give TV sets or wristwatches as gifts to those who participated."

"They've been doing it for decades," he says. "They consider it natural."

That's the idea, of course. North Korean reviews of the 2005 show (Guess what? They liked it) proclaimed it of "high ideological and artistic value." As good Communists, the performers are expected to surrender to the collective. "The Unity of a Single Heart," reads one of the show's slogans in the backdrop, in case the participants needed reminding.

And that's why the North Koreans believe the best tickets for "Arirang" are in the upper levels. The higher you sit, the more you see the patterns, not the people. Up high, the deluxe tickets go for 300 euros ($362) a pop; lower seats drop to half that for first class and down to 100 euros ($120) in second class, where the view is closer to the field.

Those are prices for foreigners, of course. North Koreans get freebies to attend as part of their patriotic duty. State media reported in September that 3 million people would attend, many traveling from the countryside into the normally closed capital on special trains.

Only foreigners buy tickets. And this year, there were probably more Westerners in Pyongyang than ever before.

A softened tone

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