Biggest-ever foreign turnout expected for North Korea mass games

Story highlights

Arirang Festival began Monday at Pyongyang's May Day Stadium; runs until September 9

Record number of foreigners expected to attend

90-minute spectacle featuring 120,000 gymnasts will be repeated throughout festival

CNN  — 

Acrobats, dancers and singers – under normal circumstances, a festival featuring such tried and true attractions might not send you rushing to the Internet to book travel.

But when more than 120,000 gymnasts gather in one of the world’s most secretive nations to perform a highly synchronized, 90-minute spectacle of song, dance and Cold War-style propaganda, it’s something worth looking into.

Massive state-sponsored entertainment is a big part of the lure of North Korea’s annual Arirang Festival, or “mass games,” and it’s drawing foreign visitors in increasing numbers.

The Arirang Festival began Monday at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium and will run until September 9.

The festival features four mass performances each week.

Its profile perhaps boosted by recent visits from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and professional bizarre human being Dennis Rodman, North Korea is gaining popularity as a travel destination; a record number of foreigners is expected to attend this year’s festival.

“More people visiting is creating a snowball effect,” says Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, one of a handful of travel companies that organize visits to North Korea. “Most people think they can’t go. As more people do go, the more word gets around, so people suddenly start seriously considering a visit to North Korea.

“It’s hard even to approximate the increase in tourists until it’s all over, but our numbers are up by about 30% at this point.”

According to Uri Tours, which specializes in North Korea travel, close to 1,000 Western tourists traveled to the country to attend the Arirang Festival last year.

Koryo Tours, another of the few North Korea tour operators, estimates 1,200 to 1,500 international visitors will attend this year’s event.

“More travelers are discovering that the people and culture of [North Korea] go beyond what is seen in the everyday media,” says John Dantzler-Wolfe of Uri Tours. “Through word of mouth, [travelers] are getting comfortable with the idea of going and experiencing this unique country firsthand.”

What is the Arirang Festival?

Arirang revolves around three primary events – gymnastics, music and what the festival itself calls “backdrop.”


Sounds weird, but it’s one of the most intriguing and spectacular aspects of the festival.

“Backdrop” is supplied by tens of thousands of people in May Day Stadium working together in precision fashion.

Backdrop participants are given large booklets with pages printed in different blocks of color.

Held aloft in various combinations, the pages create gigantic images. When pages are flipped in concert, new images are created, making the entire stadium a sort-of human mosaic.

The 90-minute, 120,000-strong extravaganza will be repeated at performances throughout the festival.

An annual theme, the history of North Korea is expected to be particularly robust this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended military hostility in the Korean War and the 65th anniversary of the founding of the country.