By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
The 9th of September marked the 70th anniversary of the 1948 founding of the DPRK state. 70th anniversaries are usually celebrated with even more fanfare than usual in Korea, and we foreign students were lucky to receive invitations to three important events held over the 9th and 10th of September. Namely; the military parade and Pyongyang citizen’s parade held on the morning of Sunday the 9th of September, the first performance of “The Glorious Country” (빛나는 조국), the new mass games and successor to the Arirang Mass Games on the evening of the 9th, and the torch parade during the evening of Monday the 10th of September.
We were given relatively little notice about the events until the day itself. We knew they would be happening but were unsure of whether only a select few of us would be able to go, or whether all sixty or so of us Kim Il Sung University foreign students would be invited. Luckily it turned out to be the latter (later I found out that most of the people in the international organisations and the embassies didn’t get invited, only the heads—which goes to show that us foreign students were given very special treatment), and at 5:30AM the tongsuksaeng (Korean students who reside with us in the Foreign Student Dormitory) came banging on every door in the building, telling us to get changed into formal attire, have a quick breakfast, and be down in the lobby ready to leave at 6AM.
The sun was just beginning to rise as I groggily put on a suit and struggled to remember how to do a tie. After a quick breakfast we waited in the lobby of the dormitory, where we received our invitations to the military parade, addressed to “foreign student”. A Chinese translation came with the Korean language invitation (and it did for the other two events too), perhaps a nod to the fact that the guest of honour would be Li Zhanshu, one of the top officials in Xi Jinping’s government.
We were told not to bring anything—phones, cameras, wallets, or even keys, for all three events. For that reason I unfortunately don’t have any of my own photos from the events, but you can see the full video recordings and many photos on the internet (I’ve put up some screenshots from the Korean Central Television broadcasts of the events).
We were driven to the square outside the Changgwangsan Hotel, by the Ice Skating Rink and Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium, where we went through a first security check. Lining up during the wait, I chatted with some of the Chinese students. There was a group of twenty or so students on a three-week summer Korean language study program from Yanbian University who felt especially lucky to be able to attend these events despite their short stay. I felt extremely lucky too since I had led tours to Pyongyang several times while military parades were being held but was never able to view the main event in Kim Il Sung Square as this was unfortunately not something tourists are ever invited to. It would be my first time to attend such an event.
I also spotted the foreign student cohort from Kim Hyong Jik University of Education, the other university in Pyongyang (and in the entire country) that takes foreign students. Korean People’s Army soldiers scanned us with metal detectors and we got back on our two buses to head to Kim Il Sung Square. The way there was lined with vigilant policemen standing at fifteen metre intervals.
70th Anniversary of the Founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Military Parade and Pyongyang Citizen’s March
We arrived at a point just in front of the Grand People’s Study House where the back entrance to the audience stands that adjoined the podium overlooking Kim Il Sung Square was situated. Our “teacher”—the staff member from the Kim Il Sung University Office of External Affairs who was responsible for taking care of us– then told us we had been allotted seats in a certain section and urged us to get in quick and move to the top of the stands to get the best view.
We duly followed his advice, going through another security check and discovering that we had some of the best seats located right at the front of the square. I ended up sitting just below and about 10 or 15 metres away from the podium where the DPRK’s supreme leader would be viewing the parade.
Looking around I saw some familiar faces. I spotted delegates from various overseas DPRK “friendship” organisations.
I saw some students from Chongryon’s (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan; a community organisation for Japan-based “Zainichi” Koreans affiliated with the DPRK) Korea University (조선대학교) in Tokyo, who were here in Pyongyang on a two month exchange program. I had visited Korea University twice, during which I was hosted by the teacher of these students. I then bumped into their group on my flight from Beijing to Pyongyang a week prior and had a brief chat with them. I didn’t have a chance to talk with them while we were rushing up to the stands this time, but seeing their Japanese makeup and hairstyles with their DPRK-style university uniforms; chimachogoris (an elegant white on navy traditional Korean dress for the women) and crisp white button-up shirts (for the men), and overhearing their Japanese-accented Korean, I was reminded of my wife and her cosy apartment in Tokyo.
There were many locals in attendance too, and the two stands at the sides of the square were filled with high ranking military officials and members of the DPRK cabinet.
I saw journalists lining the road down below, and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. There were photographers with long lenses perched precariously on the edges of the buildings around the square.
It was a clear day and the late-summer sun began beating down on us. Quite a few spectators held their invitations up to act as visors to block out the sun’s rays. Many of us came back afterwards red-faced and complaining of sunburn.
Somebody tested the PA system, making a weird “wah” noise which elicited laughter from some sections of the crowd.
Then a first group of soldiers marched onto the square with much pomp and ceremony, moving in complex patterns and formations and to the accompaniment of the Korean People’s Army brass ensemble (see the full recording from Korean Central Television and source of my screenshots here).
Then there was about fifteen minutes of silence. Tension slowly built. People kept craning their necks up towards the podium. Finally, we saw photographers with zoom lenses move up to the edge of the podium. We couldn’t see anything from our angle, but an announcement declared that Kim Jong Un arrived. He entered the podium and stood next to Li Zhanshu. The crowd stood up and clapped as the “Welcoming Song” (환영곡) that always plays during the leader’s entrance was heard. All of the soldiers in the square were shouting “manse” (long live) in unison, and their deafening cries filled the entire square while a volley of celebratory artillery fire went off above central Pyongyang. This was the second time I had attended an event in the presence of the DPRK leader.
Kim Yong Nam, head of the DPRK cabinet, then gave a speech. It was generally quite rosy, emphasising past achievements. There were some more sombre sections though, where he touched upon on the “enemy forces” that were attempting to “strangle the DPRK”. But I noticed that the parade completely lacked any references (whether in slogans or images) to nuclear weapons and was devoid of anti-US and even anti-Japanese propaganda. A signal of conciliation to the international community, it seemed. I could make out a slogan spray painted onto the front of the tanks and armoured vehicles, but couldn’t make it out from a distance. I wondered if they had changed it from what had long been standard– “Let’s Wipe the Sworn Enemies of the Korean People—The US Imperialist Invaders—From the Face of the Earth!” (조선인민의 철전지원쑤인 미제침략자를 지구에서 쓸어버리자!).
Soon after the military parade commenced in full with soldiers marching down the road in front of the podium (which is actually Sungri, or “Victory” Street—formerly Stalin Street). I heard the Chinese students exclaim “zhen shuai!” (真帅!)—“so cool”, in amazement. They described the marching as looking more like a dance. It was quite beautiful in its own unique way, I had to agree.
During the parade, I scanned the face of my Korean roommate, who had marched in such parades twice previously. He was deeply focused in attention. That was him in 2015 and again last year. He often spoke to me of the months spent in gruelling training for the event. He also told me of the strong bonds he had forged with the others he was marching with, and the feeling of pride felt on the day, which had made all the hours spent and exhaustion worthwhile for him. Pictures from the event were placed prominently on his desk in the room we shared.
Then the tanks and armoured vehicles started coming in. I began to think of my brother-in-law—who knew every tank model by heart and who collected tank models as a hobby, and how much he would have enjoyed this. I saw more tanks than I had ever seen and probably will ever see in my entire life in that fifteen minutes or so.
Next, the civilian section of the parade began with a float featuring replicas of the two bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill. “70 Years of Glory and Victory” (70년의 영광과 승리), it read on the side. The people with the colourful plastic flowers who formed the background shuffled– somewhat awkwardly when compared with the entrance of the soldiers, onto the square. But when they first began (a bit earlier during the marching) forming slogans and images with their flowers the audience oohed and ahed in amazement. The precision, complexity, and scale were all comparable with the massive “card trick” background to the mass games, each person and their plastic flowers forming one pixel in the giant screen that covered the entire square.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the entire parade for me was the jet formation flying in the shape of the number 70. It came and flew right over us, spurting out sparks at one point. But the amazing thing was that they modified the formation to account for the change in angle from our perspective. It maintained its shape as a perfectly undistorted 70 from far over by the Juche Tower, and as it moved just above us, and as many of us craned our necks looking straight up and behind, and as it disappeared behind the Grand People’s Study House.
At the end of the event Kim Jong Un and Li Zhanshu came to the balcony at the side of the podium and waved at the audience. The Koreans were especially enthusiastic, some of them seeming to have lost all control while flailing about and shouting. We were right below this balcony and about ten metres from them. At one point they waved right at me, or in my direction at least! They clasped hands and the Chinese students all let out an excited cheer.
After the leader departed, everything wrapped up and a collective sigh of exhaustion could be heard from the plastic flower people in the square.
The event was over but it took ages for us to get out because all the buses were crammed in one car park (the one near the bronze statues on Mansu Hill) and there was no space. All the ones in front had to leave before we could. To make things worse one of the Chinese students—one who had a bit of a reputation for being a delinquent, wandered off by himself and since we couldn’t leave without him, we left very last as a result. We were so late getting out that we ended up being blocked off by the secondary parade (this is the one that tourists usually see) consisting of troops circling Pyongyang in the back of military trucks waving at crowds lining the streets. We got stuck behind Potong Gate and had to wait there on the side of the street for an hour. Needless to say, the Chinese student got badly scolded by “teacher”.
We were only able to have lunch at 2:30PM, which was a special feast prepared for us by the dormitory (similar to the one they gave us on Kim Il Sung’s birthday in April). I sat with the staff of the Office of External Affairs and drank a few beers with my meal. We were asked for our impressions of the event, and a visiting professor from Yanbian University reminded me that the parade was an expression of the “Power of Single-Minded Unity” (일삼단결의 힘).
The First Performance of “The Glorious Country”
After a short rest, we regathered in the dormitory lobby at five to attend the first performance of “The Glorious Country”. We went through another security check in the same location as earlier in the morning, and arrived at the May 1st Stadium a few hours later.
Since I had arrived at Kim Il Sung University in April I had regularly seen groups practicing for the new mass games in various locations across Pyongyang. It was a tantalising taste of the show to come.
Normally it’s fine to bring cameras to the mass games but since this was the first performance that would be attended by the DPRK leader and thus special, the rules were the same as the military parade in the morning.
While tourists had to pay at least 100 euros a head for a seat (and upwards of 800 euros for the deluxe seats), we foreign students were all given free tickets.
There were throngs of people—locals, visiting delegations, and tours groups there. We had to push our way through jam-packed crowds to get inside the stadium to our seats.
Inside, I spotted Chad O’Carroll and Oliver Hotham from NK News, who I had a brief chat with, before sitting down to see the “card trick” children do their warm ups.
“Teacher” had recommended that we bring some snacks in case we get peckish, but I had forgotten to bring any on my way out of the dormitory. A Chinese student sitting next to me kindly offered me a Snickers bar, and I joked that eating a Snickers bar while viewing the mass games was a perfect and harmonious combination of capitalism and socialism.
Soon enough Kim Jong Un entered with Li Zhanshu. We could see them both in the distance. The crowd pulsated with a loud “ehhhh” sound (“manse”– “long live”, but due to the large number of people and the harmonics of the stadium it sounded different), which permeated the whole stadium. It almost felt like some sort of yogic chanting. One that brought people into a kind of altered state.
The games began and they were spectacular as expected. I won’t go into too much detail since we have a separate post planned on the games, but suffice to say “The Glorious Country” is similar to “Arirang” in terms of the basics, but with some new features like (*spoiler alert*) drones with coloured lights flying in formation in the night sky above the stadium, and a bit with lots of glow in the dark props.
The section at the end on “international friendship” and the DPRK’s “external relations” policy also featured what I believe was the first usage of English in a mass games background. I had seen Chinese and Russian used before, and Chinese did feature this time too, but before that there were a background image that read “대외관계의 다각화” in Korean, and then replaced that with the English translation “multilateral foreign relations”. And it was quite funny to see the Korean performers in the foreground dancing around with blonde wigs and fake beards.
After the performance had finished it again took us quite some time to get out because the stadium car park was jam packed with buses. We got home quite late. I had a simple supper of instant noodles with Xai from Laos and one of the Chinese exchange students, and return to my room and slept like a log. We were all exhausted from a long day half of which was spent spectating some pretty intense events, and the other half which was spent waiting around in security checks and car parks.
The DPRK 70th Anniversary Torch Parade
After resting during the day, we attended the third and final event that we had been invited to as a part of 70th anniversary DPRK National Day celebrations—the Torch Parade (홰불야회) (the full Korean Central Television recording from which I use screenshots is here). Like the military parade, this was a periodic state event that could be attended by invitation only. Thus unfortunately, it wasn’t open to tourists, and for that reason it was like the parade, my first time to attend.
We set off at 5PM, and went through another long security check in the same location as the day before. We took our seats on the stands in Kim Il Sung Square as the sun was setting. It was another beautiful clear day.
Our seats this time were not too far away from where we’d sat at the military parade. In fact, they were slightly higher and therefore offered an even better view.
While waiting for the event to begin a foreigner came past with hair dyed purple. I overheard one of the Chinese exchange students remark that she looked like Sylvannas Windrunner from World of Warcraft. We began talking about World of Warcraft, a topic which I can find myself able to attack for a few hours before getting the least bit tired, even despite the difficulties of trying to figure out how to say “warlock”, “Lich King” and “Dranei” in Chinese without the convenience of an internet search.
We switched conversation topics to If You Are the One (非诚勿扰), the Chinese dating show which has recently taken Australia by storm, before the torch parade began (which was the only of the three not attended by the DPRK’s leader).
My first thought was that this was “bloody amazing”. I considered it to be even more spectacular than the military parade and the mass games. It’s certainly the most unique, since military parades can be seen in a lot of countries, and mass events vaguely similar in scale and form to the mass games do exist elsewhere. But I can’t think of anywhere else where anything like the torch parade is carried out.
The torch parade’s more minimalist aesthetic contributed to exaggerating its sense of scale, I thought. Compared with the other two events it had far fewer colours, for the most part consisting only of the pitch-black darkness and the whitish red torch fires. I guess it’s like black and white photography in that sense. Like the card trick in the mass games and the plastic flowers in the parade, every torch constituted a single pixel in the giant fiery “screen” that covered Kim Il Sung Square. But unlike in the other two, where the “pixels” stood still and changed colour (by switching the card or plastic flower), the “pixels” in the torch parade moved position to form new, and often highly complex patterns, which they could do because of the background of darkness. Lights in all the apartment blocks surrounding the square, a large swath of central Pyongyang, were turned off completely for the event. This included the usually colourfully-lit Changjon Street Apartments and the apartments behind the Juche Tower.
Every torch was exactly the same, and the people carrying them were all university students dressed in same uniforms (the event is held by the Youth League and has youth-focused themes), which lent to the sense of cohesion and unity the event aimed to transmit. One could not help but marvel at the things the performers, when working in large numbers and with perfect coordination, could do with the simplest of components (the torches). For example, at one point they formed with their torches a massive DPRK flag covering the entire square, and by bobbing up and down gave it the effect of fluttering. At another point the performers crouched and covered the torches with their bodies. They didn’t stick to just holding the torches up in the air and continued to use several other such tricks throughout the event.
Like the parade, the event consisted of thousands of people forming a “background” of slogans and images across the square, and then thousands more marching down the street in front of the square forming slogans. I heard that tens of thousands of students had participated. There was also an impressive fireworks show at the end.
There was also a neat section that was a little bit different to the rest, where performers turned off their torches and used a glow in the dark hat which were lit up in several colours. Because of our angle we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the various slogans read but could make out most—all of the propaganda we had been reading in class certainly helped in identifying them.
In terms of the content of the show, it, like the mass games and the parade, abounded with patriotic motifs, praise of the party and the leaders. Towards the end a giant “Long Live Socialism” (사회주의 만세!) was formed across the square. I noticed that they did a perfect job of simulating different fonts with the slogans, from cursive to printed style ones.
There was also a lot of emphasis on youth, to be expected as mentioned earlier, the event was organised by the Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Ilist Socialist Youth League, and the performers were university students. Ones I remember distinctly were “5 Million Youth Powerful State” (500만 청년 강국), “Youth Vanguard” (청년전위) etc.
On the way out I talked to one of the staff of the international office who said he’d participated in these events twice when he was a university student. I asked him how it felt for him to carry a torch in such a huge procession. “Great pride”, he said.
As we walked back to the buses we saw that the entire side of the Ryugyong Hotel had been made into a sort of screen with LEDs going all the way up to the top, featuring images of happy people and slogans such as “Love of Future Generations” (후대사랑), “Love for the People” (인민사랑) etc. The festivities had come to an end and it was time to get back into studies. I pondered on how lucky I was to be one of the few foreigners to be able to witness these mass scale events—the sort which you can only really see in the DPRK, and which you can one day tell your grandchildren about, before preparing to get back into my readings the next day.