North Korea suspends Mass Games after Kim Jong-un criticises performance

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North Korea will temporarily suspend the latest edition of its famous Mass Games, which involve thousands of performers working in precise synchronisation, after the premiere drew strong criticism from leader Kim Jong-un.

Key points:

  • It is unclear what exactly upset Mr Kim or when the spectacle will resume
  • The games returned in 2018 after a five-year break
  • The games are a major lure for tourists, mostly from China

Mr Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju were among the elite at the opening of the games in Pyongyang on Monday, but days after the debut before North Korea’s top leadership, the huge pageant was put on hold due to Mr Kim expressing his dissatisfaction.

The performances at Pyongyang’s 150,000-seat May Day Stadium are being paused to allow organisers to fix the unspecified shortcomings, two Western companies that take foreign tourists to North Korea said on Wednesday.

Rowan Beard, a tour manager at Young Pioneer Tours, said no dates were given for when the show would resume.

“We assume it will halt so some tweaks and improvements can be made to the performance,” Mr Beard said.

Koryo Tours tweeted “there will be a pause for some days/weeks while the show is adjusted before being launched again — we wait to see what will change and when it will restart”.

The entire crowd of a large stadium look at Kim Jong-un who waves while standing.

‘Wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude’

It is unclear exactly what Mr Kim objected to, said Simon Cockerell, general manager at Beijing-based Koryo Tours.

“No ideas what part he didn’t like about it,” he said.

“We have had people there for both nights it has run so far and they very much enjoyed it.”

He said his company did not pay for Mass Games tickets in advance, so he expected minimum disruption to future tours.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Mr Kim had “extended warm greetings” and thanks to the performers, many of whom are children.

He later called the creators and “seriously criticised them for their wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude, pointing to the contents and forms of works,” KCNA said.

“Noting that the creators and artistes in the literature and art sector have a very important duty in socialist cultural construction, he set forth important tasks for correctly implementing the revolutionary policy of our Party on literature and art,” KCNA said.

Thousand of performers in a stadium use coloured cards to form a cartoonish portrait of Kim Il-sung.

Harsh training regimes and forced child labour

The Mass Games — propaganda spectacles that feature thousands of gymnasts, dancers and flip card-holding spectators moving in coordinated perfection — were once routine in North Korea.

Dancers wave flags of North Korea and Korean Workers' Party

But the performances went on a hiatus for several years during the mourning for Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il.

After reviving the huge performances last year to sell an image of international engagement and peace while raising much-needed foreign currency, North Korea told tour companies in March that it would host the Mass Games again this year.

Last September’s Mass Games were the first in five years and part of a carefully choreographed weekend of events designed to highlight Mr Kim’s diplomatic campaign and plans for economic development.

Those themes were present in this year’s show, but there were some changes, including for the first time huge images of Mr Kim alongside the usual portraits of his father and grandfather, according to attendees.

The Mass Games are a major draw for tourists, most of them from China.

The inclusion of thousands of child performers has been criticised by rights groups as tantamount to forced child labour, and testimonies collected by defector groups describe harsh training regimes.