50,000 teenagers prepare for Arirang Mass Celebrations, Pyongyang, North Korea.
ALL IMAGES © JEREMY HUNTER 2011
Vista of apple orchard at Arirang mass celebration. North Korea claims to be the world’s 16th largest apple producer, although only 18 percent of its land is arable.
THE Arirang mass games in Pyongyang, North Korea, are the largest and most bombastic exercise of state propaganda in the world. Few foreigners are permitted to watch this summertime spectacle extolling the founding myths of the communist state.
With the death of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il in 2011, however, the show has been slowly wound down. Under Kim Jong Un, his son and successor, Arirang (which takes its name from a Korean folk song symbolic of the divided peninsula) will no longer run in its current form. Jeremy Hunter, a British photojournalist, managed to attend the penultimate performance at Pyongyang’s massive May Day stadium in August 2011. In his hands, an ordinary tourist camera is a unique window on the world’s last hereditary Stalinist regime.
The spectacle is stunning in its synchronicity, says Mr Hunter, some of whose Arirang photographs are now on view at London’s Atlas Gallery. Fifty-thousand teenagers are turned into living pixels; they create a backdrop to the live displays below in the arena. Every 20 seconds for two hours they hold a different card of colour to create a new collective image. The effect is dramatic, and features an array of uplifting scenes (the Dear Leader’s purported birthplace; the revolvers he inherited from his father, etc). Another hundred-thousand people provide the dances, music and gymnastics. Mr Hunter, who has photographed ceremonies and rituals in 65 countries across five continents, says he has never seen anything like it.
“When you see these mosaics changing in a millisecond, it’s truly incredible. It could only be achieved in a place where you have an unlimited resource of humans who do whatever they are directed to do. Every breath of these people is coordinated.”
Training begins in February for ten hours a day, six days a week, says Mr Hunter, who learned more about the spectacle and the meaning of its imagery after returning to England. It is reckoned that it takes 250m man-hours—or child-hours—to produce. “These children are really coerced into performing,” he remarks. “Almost certainly they’re children of the so-called elite or loyal class”, those given exclusive right to live in the capital. The show itself is pure propaganda directed at the poorest, who are bussed in their thousands from the countryside. “It is a way of enthusing the peasant class about the quality of life that the regime believes they can offer.”
The shimmering skylines of Pyongyang and Shanghai, sacred mountains, rivers of leaping fish and overflowing fruits are meant to convey the fantasy of North Koreans as a “chosen people” with a life far better than any outside. There are no images of people cutting grass with scissors to supplement their food rations of 1,000 calories a day, or of the gulags like Camp 15 and Yodok, a complex that houses 50,000 prisoners. In this, Arirang will be remembered as the last example of propaganda displays on the order of Soviet military parades and the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies.
The purpose is clear. “If there were to be a Korean Spring,” says Mr Hunter, “it would come from the peasant class. They’re the ones who need change the most.” Increasingly, he says, North Koreans have access to contraband radios from neighboring China, and are able to pick up signals from the south that show a different life outside.
Warned that professional cameras, phones and GPS equipment would be seized and punishment severe for those caught sneaking photographs, Mr Hunter played the tourist. No long lenses were allowed, “but there are ways of overcoming that,” he says, giving away nothing else. His minder was extremely kind, and ensured that he got an ideal seat among the elite members of the party.
In a companion book of the Arirang photos, Mr Hunter quotes Suk-Young Kim, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “A spectacle like Arirang brings people together, eliminates individual will and has tremendous efficacy in running society.” This struck Mr Hunter most forcefully when his minder translated for him the final slogan of the show. “Arirang shows how we can work together as one to achieve anything we desire.”
This makes for a disconcerting backdrop to North Korea’s announcement on January 24th of plans to carry out a new nuclear test and more long-range rocket launches. “In a way, to me,” he says, “that demonstrates that if they want to build a nuclear weapon, they will. They will construct whatever they feel is necessary to protect this hereditary Stalinist regime.”
Jeremy Hunter’s photos are on display at Atlas Gallery in London until Feb 16th