In 2007, I saw Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the delightful movie “Bucket List.” I instinctively knew I must get busy and make such a list for myself. The “bucket list” I finally drew up consisted almost entirely of far away places that I wanted to someday visit. High on that list was North Korea. I had dreamed of visiting the “hermit” kingdom for many years, but in my heart of hearts, I had long ago concluded that I would never actually get there. But believe it or not, I did finally did! About a year after seeing the movie, I boarded the noon flight from Beijing to Pyongyang and made the short flight to the capital of North Korea. I had finally begun this expensive and arduous journey to the planet’s most secretive country.
This visit occurred in 2008 when it was virtually impossible for a U.S. citizen to obtain a visa to enter North Korea. My visa was obtained through Koryo Tours, a company based in Beijing, China. Somehow this company had forged a partnership with the North Korean regime and was thereby able to secure a limited number of tourist visas including visas for citizens of the U.S.
To get the visa, however, I had to agree to fly from Beijing to Pyongyang aboard Air Koryo–the official state airline of North Korea. This airline has consistently been voted the world’s worst airline. Having flown on well over a 100 of the world’s airlines, I would tend to agree with that assessment. The interior of the aircraft was drab and damp. The seats were extremely uncomfortable, and the flight attendants exhibited a degree of indifference to the needs of the passengers that you would never see on any other international carrier. The prop-jet was, in fact, an old Russian airplane of pre-WWII vintage. Frankly, I was relieved when the 90-minute flight landed safely.
When I traveled to North Korea, foreigners were being issued entry-visas so that they could attend the Mass Games which were held daily at the May Day Stadium. It is said to seat approximately 150,000 spectators (although some say 125,000 would be closer to the actual number). But in either case it is has the highest seating-capacity of any stadium in the world. Attendance at the games on at least one night was another requirement for the entry-visa to be issued. The admission cost ($100) was not included in the cost of the tour and was payable in “hard” currencies only.
What you are able to see in North Korea is carefully controlled. You see only what you are allowed to see and nothing more. Before attending the Games, I spent my days visiting bronze statues of gigantic proportions, touring the Mausoleum of the Great Leader, riding on the 16-stop Pyongyang Metro, touring the USS Pueblo still anchored in the Taedong River, and browsing in a book store whose shelves are lined with titles about the glorious Kim Dynasty and the “Imperial Terrorist State” better known as the U.S.A. There was even a bus trip to the DMZ. Someone once said that a visit to this super-secretive nation is like being in “The Truman Show;” however, it is another show that I am anticipating–the Mass Games.
It was the third night of my visit when the minibus picked up my group at our “tourist” hotel (read luxurious “prison”) to take us across the Taedong River to Rungra Island, where the monolithic May Day Stadium appears on the horizon like a huge domed spaceship. The bus hovered near one of the entrance ways and ushers were on hand to lead the group to our assigned seats.
So there I am, sitting inside the largest stadium in the world. I am surrounded by a sea of North Koreans, many of whom are wearing military attire. Everyone was sporting a red buttonhole badge displaying the smiling face of either the Great Leader Kim Il Sung or his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il [when I traveled to North Korea the present leader had not yet taken power].
There was a growing sense of anticipation in the crowd as it neared 7 p.m. All of a sudden the sound of music filled the massive concrete coliseum. On queue, on the grass field below, hundreds of colorfully dressed young children began skipping rope and dancing in perfect synchrony while sitting atop unicycles! As the show begins, I realize that I am witnessing one of the most surreal sights imaginable.
While not an international competitive sport like the Olympics, the Mass Games are actually a form of the performing arts or gymnastics. Large numbers of people take part in a highly regimented performance so that the emphasis is upon group dynamics and precise coordination rather than individual prowess.
The combination of the sheer size of the stadium, coupled with huge arrays of fireworks, strobe lights in varied colors, pulsating music and other sounds effects, colorful costumes–while clouds of smoke hover above it all–make for an experience that defies description. This synchronized spectacular features well over 100,000 performers–mostly teenagers–who display very imaginable form of gymnastics, dance, and acrobatics–all wrapped in a highly-politicized package. This 90-minute spectacular display of dance, gymnastics, and acrobatics is accompanied by astounding visual effects that assault the senses in rapid succession.
The brochure I was handed claimed that the performance includes the world’s “largest” giant mosaic comprised of individual students each holding a book whose pages link with their neighbors’ to make up one gigantic scene–many of the scenes are animated! When the students turn their respective pages, the scene changes, becoming what appears to be a gigantic moving billboard. The card each individual student holds is but a single pixel in one giant, ever-changing mosaic of images that range from a rising sun to scenes of war. A single book of cards may contain up to 170 pages and these students must train for six months or more. I must say, the resulting images were truly astounding, particularly given the rapid rate at which one scene morphs into another that is entirely different from the first. This giant card show is occurring while other programs are on full display in the arena. It is almost more than one can absorb. From my vantage point in the bleachers, during the course of 90 minutes, I did not detect a single card-switch even slightly out of absolutely perfect synchronization. This card section alone is an incredible and unfathomable feat to witness.
Aside from what I anticipated would be a “sensational” experience getting to watch the Mass Games, before I left the U.S., I reflected about the money I would spend on a trip to this place because North Korea has an abysmal human rights record and is, according to the United Nations, one of the most repressive, authoritarian states in all the world. Would my dollars actually help this evil regime? Some critics claim that tourist dollars do exactly that while others suggest that while tourism yields only minimal support to the Kim Dynasty it does absolutely provide a positive means of engagement for North Koreans with visitors from the outside world which would otherwise be totally lacking in such a closed society. In the end, my curiosity trumped my lingering doubts and I made the trip. Since space travel will come too late for me, North Korea is the closest I will ever come to visiting an “other-unworldly” destination. From the moment my passport was confiscated at the airport to the moment it was returned when I departed, North Korea felt unlike any other country on the planet I had ever visited. And to be sure, the Mass Games are, without a doubt, its grandest showpiece.