‘Arirang’ Looming over the Horizon

North Korea has begun forming troupes to take part in this year’s Arirang mass games performance, leading to a game of wait-and-see between parents determined to ensure that their children are not required to perform.

Training for Arirang, as well as the performance itself, places four or five months of severe physical and emotional stress on participants. Training for the games begins after May 20th, once the annual ‘farm supporting activities’ are completed, meaning that the time for concern is rapidly approaching.

A source from Pyongyang told Daily NK, “Each school began working on its own list of participants for the Arirang games after the Labor Day holiday. There was some hope that the mass games might not be held in the Kim Jong Eun era, but alas that was not to be. All the parents of school-aged children are now working on plans to get their children exempted from the games.”

“Well-off parents are secretly paying bribes to hospital staff for medical certificates which can get their children off. Genuinely infirm children are sent to recuperate in the country, which completely removes any chance of being selected for the games.” The source also said, “People are pretty brazen now when talking about having to pay expensive bribes and the like to get their children off these lists.”

The Arirang mass games are administrated by the Mass Gymnastics Organizing Committee, which is made up of members of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League and the cabinet-directed Chosun Sports Guidance Committee. From the beginning of May the committee screens children at Pyongyang’s elementary and middle schools based on height, health and artistic talent, and whittles the names down to a list of participants. In Pyongyang, roughly half the children from every school year are selected to take part in the games.

“Parents are keeping their eye on the situation and are keen to find out what other parents are doing to get their children out of selection,” the source said. “There is a palpable atmosphere amongst Pyongyang parents at the moment of trying to avoid selection for the games.”

The Arirang mass games have earned a nickname amongst the North Korean people: ‘Arirang of tears’. The games, which began in 2002, conscript over 10,000 elementary, middle school and university students from Pyongyang every year. Equipment including clothes, shoes, cards, artificial flowers, handheld flags, folding fans, and pole vaults become a burden for participants learning each routine.

As the performance approaches, students are made to train outside in stifling heat for 12 hours a day, from 8 o’clock in the morning, and practice is sometimes extended into the night. Parents of children who sit out from a rehearsal or fall behind in their training also become targets of severe criticism.

When the games began, performers were given televisions, which sparked envy amongst parents of non-participants; however, these have now been replaced with nylon blankets, leading to even less willing participation.