Arirang Nation – Performing National Identity in the DPRK


During the 20th century many non-democratic societies staged mass gymnastic displays when they had something special to celebrate. This megalomaniac expression was used to celebrate different national holidays and anniversaries in addition to as welcoming ceremonies for foreign statesmen. With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe mass gymnastics seemed to die out. With one notable exception, in the Democratic Republic of Korea, North Korea, its popularity just seemed to increase.

In the DPRK mass gymnastics were performed already in the late 1940s. During the years following the Korean War it became more and more common. It was most often performed in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthdays, and other notable national holidays and anniversaries. The performances varied in theme and gesture although they all had a common foundation in presenting parts of a national North Korean narrative, and celebrating the grandeur of the president Kim Il Sung. This continued also after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. In April 2002 Kim Il Sung would have been 90 years old, and for this anniversary the first mass gymnastic performance with the name and theme Arirang was performed. Three years later, in 2005 the same performance was revived, but this time in autumn and without a direct connection to an anniversary or national holiday. From 2007 the Arirang performance was performed every year until 2013 during autumn. It was no longer reserved for special occasions; rather it was performed many times throughout a season lasting from late August to October, and one can say that the use of mass gymnastics in the DPRK underwent a transition in use and purpose.

In the transition that North Korean mass gymnastics underwent, the expression went from being an internal medium of national celebration to becoming a hallmark of North Korean existence. It is hard to pinpoint a definite reason for this change in the use of mass gymnastics in the DPRK. What is clear though is that the expansion of mass gymnastics coincided more or less with the opening of tourism to the country. It is therefore possible to claim that one of the reasons the Arirang performance was performed more regularly was the introduction of foreign spectators.


What the Arirang performance is all about

I witnessed the Arirang performance in Pyongyang during my visit in September 2010. It was an experience not comparable to anything else I have ever experienced. Although I was prepared and had spent much time watching videos of earlier events, nothing could prepare me for the experience of people and skill. The reason for my reaction was that approximately 120 000 people, mostly schoolchildren and youths, performed in the Arirang performance, which lasted for about 90 minutes. 100 000 of the participants performed as gymnasts and dancers, and the remaining 20 000 turned and changed the flip boards on the opposite side of the stadium. The May Day stadium in Pyongyang is said to have a capacity of 150 000 people.

The term Arirang is taken from a famous pan-Korean folk song that exists both north and south of the DMZ. According to E. Taylor Atkins it has been claimed that if (or when) the two parts of Korea finally reunite, Arirang would become the national anthem. However, the song exists in a multitude of versions and there would be good reason to envisage that they would not be able to agree on which one.[1] The word Arirang is nonsensical, and the song has been given this name because of the humming of these sounds in the refrain. Atkins points out that this is one of the few characteristics that define a song as Arirang: “To qualify as an “Arirang,” a composition requires little more than a refrain “Arirang arirang arariyo” and maybe a nod to the familiar contours of the melody.”[2] Still, the notion of the Arirang being a folk song with the potential of becoming a national anthem shows how the Korean people attribute a strong national value to the song, something that describes the nation as nation.

Where the Arirang song is a provider of a soft and delicate nation, which in a romantic fashion presents the nation’s inherent beauty and vulnerability, the performance uses it also to express the nation’s grandeur and strength. The Arirang consists of five chapters or acts including a prologue, the four acts following the prologue are again divided into scenes that all have titles. However, in the following I will discuss what I see as four thematic sections ranging from a presentation of a historical narrative, to common national symbols including Kim Il Sung, the presentation of products, and finally an international section focusing on the DPRK’s relationship to the outside world.


There is no overarching narrative story presented through the Arirang, rather it can be seen as a collection of symbols and styles together presenting a total national narrative. However, the first part relates to a concrete historical narrative of the nation. Here we are told the story of Japanese oppression, and how the Koreans fought for independence, won by Kim Il Sung in 1945. This story is shown through extensive use of colors and light. After an introduction consisting of men jogging and musical-like dancing, we see a film projected onto the backdrop that showed two people, a man and a woman, being separated. He looked like he was going to war, and the woman stretched her arms longingly after him as he walked away. The image presented their suffering, and their sacrifice for the nation. The images in the film were dark, and the skies were filled with inky clouds. But then, while the woman on stage was still singing the Arirang song the colors on the backdrop gradually changed and turned yellow and orange. From this orange light a sun gradually appeared, signifying the savior Kim Il Sung that liberated his people from the dark storm of Japanese oppression. Bearing in mind that the sun rises out of the darkness and the suffering, it becomes clear that the sun functions as a savior.

In the sections following the climax of the leader, focus is on different symbols of the North Korean ideology. There is a section on juche, the official name of the North Korean ideology, which is represented by a torch. Here we see young men in blue and white gymnastic outfits jogging in place while waving fabric torches, we also see the juche tower on the backdrop, a large tower with a glass torch on top situated in the center of Pyongyang, and pictures of a torch march. Another symbol that is rewarded its own section is the flower, basically a magnolia. Although both the great and the dear leader, that is, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have their own flowers named after them, the pink hybrid orchid kimilsungia, and the red hybrid begonia, kimjongilia, the national flower is the magnolia. In this section of the performance a large group of young women, dressed either in long pink dresses resembling the magnolia, or in female military uniform and holding magnolias, danced while pink flowers were presented on the backdrop. Other notable symbols presented were national monuments, the national flag, a gun, and the army.


I will not discuss every symbol presented in the performance here, but just explain how these symbols contribute to present a schematic and concrete version of the North Korean ideology and national narrative, and through that an image of North Korean life. The symbols here are easy to analyze, and one easily sees how they relate back to the same notion of North Korean suffering, greatness and strength. To top off this notion, the climax of the performance is revealed through the presentation of a great picture of Kim Il Sung on the backdrop, the lighting of a torch on the stadium roof and fireworks. When I was present at the stadium one could hear a collective sigh going through the audience when the picture was exposed followed by the whole audience applauding. To me the revealing of the portrait of Kim Il Sung functioned as a conclusion of all the symbols that had been presented up to that point of the performance, what everything else had led to and an explanation of what it all meant.

After the exposure of the portrait of Kim Il Sung, the narrative structure of the performance changed character. The section with children, one of the most important sections of the performance followed after the revealing of the portrait. The section involving children has a long tradition in mass gymnastic displays. In Czechoslovakia children performed together with their parents, and in Yugoslavia children were presented as a symbol of the state’s youthfulness, and its future. In the Arirang the children perform by themselves, and their scene differs distinctly from rest of the performance. First of all it has more characteristics of traditional mass gymnastics, and it lacks the reference to a national historical narrative of the previous scenes. The backdrop showed cartoon like pictures of well-fed children playing and doing sports in addition to a picture of a sunny beach. The music was joyful and fun, and the impression it gave was that of a care free life where children are happy and well fed. Some of the most impressive technical acts could be seen in this scene. I was completely in awe when I saw the children jumping ropes while at the same time riding a unicycle. The acrobatics the children performed had a high level of difficulty, and bearing in mind how young they were, probably around six or seven years old, the actions were even more impressive. The backdrop in this section was also one of the most impressive because fast and small shifts contributed to making the backdrop look animated, although it was made by schoolchildren holding flip boards. In one image that showed two children, a boy and a girl drinking milk, the flip boards that made out the eyes were changed so that it looked like they were blinking. The scene ended with all the children forming a tight rectangle shape at the front of the stadium while waving and yelling. When I was present at the stadium, and the first times I saw video documentation of it, I did not understand what they yelled, before it suddenly became clear. They yelled “O-BO-DJI”, the Korean word for father, and the backdrop spelled out the words “Thank you, general father!”


The children can be read as the nation’s harvest and future. The point that they are well-fed makes them the image of a prospering nation, a fact everyone present know not to be true. DPRK’s lack of basic necessities was in the performance only possible to notice through this exact way of performing overflow. After the section with the children there were several scenes presenting an abundance of food and textiles in addition to different forms of infrastructure like electricity, something that is also scarce in the DPRK. In 2010, a time when the country was anticipating the official announcement of Kim Jong Un as successor, extra focus was put on technology, and how technology would improve in the future.

The themes and symbols I have discussed here are to a large degree inward facing and all about internal North Koreans problems and dreams. Towards the end of the performance, however, the focus shifts from North Korean seclusion and self-relying to contacts with the outside world. First of all, the topic of reunification is given much space. This is an important part of North Korean ideology. The Korean nation will one day be reunited, and the two parts of the nation are presented as sisters separated by an outside force longing to meet each other again. This is a sentimental scene, and again the forces of lightness and darkness are used to focus on suffering and hope. Although the scene of reunification is all about a national self-understanding, it also shows how the DPRK understands itself in connection to the outside world. Following this scene the outside world is given a more prominent spot, and especially the DPRK’s friendship with China is explicitly emphasized through the use of flags and Chinese symbols like the dragon. Just before the whole performance ends, a large globe is presented on the floor, and the backdrop shows people with different skin colors in order to emphasize how the world is one.


How and why the Arirang performance is performed

Although its initial meanings are quite easy to interpret, the Arirang performance is an exaggerated quilt of symbolic content. What makes the Arirang so impressive and attractive, is, however, the number of people involved and the level of skill required. The movements range from traditional line gymnastics and hula hoops to dancing, and what we can call aesthetic movement. In 1987, at a time when mass gymnastics in Europe were performed as a last convulsion of the communist rule, Kim Jong Il gave a speech to the North Korean mass gymnastics producers where he expressed guidelines for the further development of North Korean mass gymnastics. His reason for the speech was his father’s upcoming 75th birthday, and the mass gymnastic display created for the occasion was called Prosperous Juche Korea.[3] In the speech he starts out by praising the performance before pointing out all that is wrong with it, and what the producers need to do before presenting the finished performance on April 15th, the day of the sun and the birthday of Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il showed in the speech how the aim of mass gymnastics was a unity of ideology and art. He praised the high level of the physical movements, and was especially fond of the schoolgirls doing exercises with hula hoops because of its blend of physicality and artistic skill. Still, he felt that Prosperous Juche Korea reminded him too much of art:

The performance, however, involves too many dances and rhythmic movements; physical movements lack variety and skill; and more often than not similar movements are repeated. In Prosperous Juche Korea, the somersault performed on a plank is the same as the one performed on the ground. The only difference, if any, is that one is performed by older schoolchildren and the other by younger ones.[4]


In the speech he calls for more gymnastic movements rather than dance, and makes a special request for more difficult gymnastics, and, most importantly, without repetition. The costumes were supposed to be colorful and in tones that would cater to the “people’s national emotions”. But most importantly Kim Jong Il stresses in the speech that the costumes must be easy and flexible since the performers are executing difficult movements.

What we see here is the development of a unique style of North Korean mass gymnastics. In many of the scenes, there is a large amount of people standing in line synchronically executing gymnastic movement but this is in most of the sections contrasted with aesthetic dancing with roots from Korean folk dances, western ballet and circus acrobatics. In some of the more military sections, marching is of course included, and taekwondo, traditional Korean martial arts is emphasized in another. The range of movement is therefore quite extensive. However, it is all choreographed to fit the total expression creating a total form of physical performance where the great amounts of people perform as though they were one. The introduction of what I have called aesthetic movement also introduced a greater focus on the emotional aspect of the ideology. It was no longer only strength through gymnastics that was the core expression but emotional affect through solemn music and dancing. As a part of this one also saw more representative movement focusing on illustrating national narratives.

What makes the Arirang performance and the movements involved an extraordinary experience, is the magnitude of people participating and the magnitude of bodies in action. One thing is the skills and emotions presented, but it is the amount of people performing, the extreme bodily presence, that makes the Arirang performance an extraordinary experience. Laura L. Adams, in her book on Uzbek mass performance, The Spectacular State, uses the Russian term massnost’, translated to massness, as a concept central to the staging of the events.[5] When defining the term she states simply that the main purpose is to include a lot of people in the spectacle. In this sense the overwhelming experience of the presence of crowds of people becomes the most important and necessary factor. This is also the case in the Arirang performance, it is the exposure to the magnitude of human beings, and their skill and movement that defines the experience.


Performing love for a mixed audience

As mentioned in the introduction, mass gymnastics used to be staged in order to celebrate national holidays or mark major events. In the DPRK the mass gymnastics has become an event in itself. Making an event like this a holiday in itself might not be seen as highly irregular; rather it is the frequency of the performances, and through that the decrease of a celebratory aura that surrounds it, that strikes me as most unusual. When I witnessed the Arirang performance in September 2010 it was late in the season, and the performance had already been running for some time. More than three million people live in Pyongyang, still at a stadium with a capacity of 150 000, 20 performances would be enough to allow everyone in Pyongyang the chance of attending. The performance is played approximately 40 times during a season, based on the presumption that they run it four times a week for two months. There is no way the stadium can be filled every night. When I was there the stadium looked almost empty. In addition to the tour groups consisting of Western and Chinese tourists there was a great amount of soldiers that looked like they had been deployed as seat-fillers. It is thus easy to say that there were many times more people on stage, than there were in the audience. I could not help questioning why the performance was staged, and who the targeted audience of the Arirang performance really was. This is not to say that there were few people in the audience. Since the performance took place in what is supposedly the world’s largest stadium, there must have been thousands of people there. However, in comparison to how many the stadium actually seats and how many people were performing, the stadium felt emptier than I expected.

Since the increase in frequency of the performance coincides with the introduction of tourism, it is possible to claim that the presentation of the country to tourists and the outside world is one purpose of the performance. This is most obvious in the international sections. The DPRK is totally dependent on China, and a great amount of Chinese tourists visit the country every year, something that is reflected in the section emphasizing friendship with China. Something similar can be seen in the section with the globe emphasizing global togetherness. DPRK’s relationship to most countries in the world is, might we say, difficult, it is, however, important to them to appear as innocent in the conflicts they see. In their presentation of Korea’s role in the world, it is peace and an almost serene sense of innocence that is underlined. In addition to presenting this performance to all foreign tourists who visit the country during the season, and the Arirang performance has served as a tourist attraction in itself, the country receives a great deal of somewhat positive international press on it. Although the performance is regarded as strange and over-the-top most places in the world is also given a great deal of interest, making the audience to the performance more people than the already notable amount present at the stadium.

The fact that the Arirang performance, to a large extent, has been staged for a foreign audience does not mean that it has not been for the North Korean population. When 120 000 people participate as performers four times a week for two months, and in addition to this there are a great deal of people working with it in other capacities, including spectators, it does have an impact on a national audience. In addition to this the media coverage of the event is massive, and one would have to believe that the population living in the rural areas of the DPRK also see, at least parts of it on television. The Arirang performance thus has a local audience in addition to the foreigners.

For both the national and international audience the performance has an ideological purpose. I propose that the issue at the heart of this ideological purpose is love. Kim Il Sung is the thematic center of attention throughout the performance, and in the short climax in which his portrait is revealed, it is his loving gaze over his subjects that is presented. This is especially clear in the children’s section, but throughout the performance Kim Il Sung ends up with being the reason and the result of all happiness, and this relies on his parental love over a nation of children, or at least child-like subjects. Although the love is not always at the thematic center, as in the sections of infrastructure and produce, it still lingers on as the reason and result of the objects presented. As a foreigner I did not feel as a recipient of this internal love, and it made me question why they staged the grandiosity of internal love when most of the audience seemed to be tourists. However, this North Korean love is at the same time as it is presented directly to its subjects showing an outside eye how this love is placed on the collective subjects and showing the subjects how the gaze of love is only meant for them, leaving the foreigner outside the love, making the love in itself desirable. Love here can be understood as a wide term, love is also security and comfort, and it is also peace and dreams of the future. It is all the good that will rise out of suffering, making the suffering worthwhile and an end in itself. And all this is to be found in the love of Kim Il Sung.


Performing ideology through massness

To understand how the Arirang performance presents and strengthens the North Korean ideology, I propose to use the term theatricality. Theatricality can be understood as what frames the performative event as theatre. This framing is done by the spectator, which means that theatricality is mainly located in the act of perception. It is the spectator’s meeting with the performance, and the analysis of the communicational act and perception of this act that lies as foundation of the experience of theatricality. However, this does not mean that theatricality is not dependent on the performative act in question. Theatricality occurs in the knowledge of that what is presented is theatre, that it is not “real”. From stage a message is presented, but there is another level to this message, and this level is theatricality, appearing in the discrepancy between the message presented and the message perceived. This means that there is a duality in the act of perception, a dual understanding of what is happening on stage and in the “real” world. This is a state of play, being able to live in both realms at once, and this state of play, with its nature as fun and pleasurable is also desirable. In my opinion theatricality is something that both separates and unites. As a participant in a theatrical event you are aware of the distance between performers and spectators, and the experience of this division is important for the understanding of the event as theatre. Still, an audience member will be drawn towards the action, experiencing a union with the performers, which exists in opposition to what is outside the time and space of the theatrical event, and this simultaneous experience of separation and union is central to the experience of theatricality.

Much of what is presented thematically in the Arirang performance does not exist. There is no abundance of food and clothing, and in reality the infrastructure is weak. Most importantly the love does not exist either. Kim Il Sung is dead, which means that he does not love. DPRK is presented as a safe place where the nation is a family where this family has endured times of suffering, but by staying together and being faithful in their beliefs they have together endured the suffering. It is in many ways easy to say that the picture and narrative presented does not exist in “real life”, however, it is this non-existence that makes the message ideologically effective. Everything that is presented is ideologically desirable, the desirable goal of the whole nation, and throughout the performance there is a notion that this will not be possible.

In Immanuel Kant’s concept of the sublime, the ungraspable totalities of an aesthetic experience are perceived through alternation of pleasure and repulsion, through desire and terror. For Kant, the sublime, as beauty, is an aesthetic judgment. This judgment is a quality that the subject possesses, and is a matter of taste and judgment exercised by the subject when regarding an object or phenomenon. An object or phenomenon is experienced as sublime when its size or vastness makes it problematic to grasp in its totality. As opposed to the sublime, beauty is a quality that fills the subject with appreciation, pleasure, and attraction. The sublime, on the other hand, alternates between pleasure and repulsion. Kant states that the sublime contains pleasure, but that it is just as much a feeling of admiration and respect, and should therefore be characterized as a negative pleasure. The experience of the sublime is an experience of pain and terror that arises through the imagination’s inadequacy to grasp the phenomenon in its totality, but at the same time an experience of pleasure and relief because the subject understands that rationally, the totality is possible to grasp.

In the meeting with the awe-inspiring performance, the spectator is estranged from the event and the wall of people and skill presented. Still, the performance is extremely attractive, and what one ends up with is an experience alternating between pleasure and repulsion. The performance is even quite scary in its ideological concreteness, and the experience is one of fright and attraction. The grand stadium, and all the people performing, clearly creates a distancing effect, both physically and mentally, but still unites in the loving atmosphere and attractive grandeur of play, resulting in theatricality. This experience, which definitely alternates between pleasure and repulsion and where one is presented ungraspable, but still desirable totalities of performance, becomes an experience of the sublime, and the theatricality of the event and experience becomes one of sublime theatricality. We can see that the action of grasping the sublime performance, clearly has aspects of separating and uniting, between experiencing oneself as part of a bigger whole at the same time as the repulsion keeps adding a distance.

This is where we can relate the experience of theatricality to massness, and where the aspect of ideology in the theatrical experience becomes clear. The sublime experience is partially scary because of the spectator’s inability to grasp the experience in its totality. In the Arirang performance this inability is caused partially by the size of the performance, the amount of performers and the physical size of the images and stadium, in short the massness of the performance. The inability to grasp the totality is also possible to locate in the encounter with the ideological content. The ideological message is presented as a unified whole connected to the love of Kim Il Sung. Still, the size of it contributes with uneasiness where the massness in itself cannot verify the message, making the message in itself a contributor to the dualities of theatricality. Behind the wholeness and the spectators’ inability to grasp the totality of performance and message, lies an even more ungraspable void of logical inadequacy. Somehow it seems as though the massness is chosen as aesthetical tool in order to mask this void, this logical inadequacy of love and ideology. The bigger the performance becomes, the more it seems to mask this void, but the more it masks the more obvious the lack becomes.

Although this analysis seems to conclude with an inherent deficiency to the performance where the aim of the performance, presenting ideological totalities to different groups of audience in order to convince the audience of its moral superiority, this lack I have described is what becomes essential to the theatrical enjoyment and gives the performance in itself ideological agency. Theatricality creates a room of duality consisting of fantasy and desire. In theatricality one can take a step out of the quotidian realm of life and live in the fantasy one wants, at least for the moment. In the Arirang performance the message has clear and uncensored weaknesses. There is no abundance of food and other necessities in the DPRK, there is no international success and friendship, and maybe most importantly, there is no actual love of a benevolent leader who is not even alive anymore. However, in the realm of theatricality you are allowed to believe. When the size of the performance can be said to disclose the lacks of the North Korean ideology, it just increases the level of fantasy and desire. The sublime factor makes it scary and awe-inspiring, but it also makes you want to dive in and not look back, it makes you desire to want to believe. Theatricality can only exist in the knowledge of its own existence. It is only when you know that what you are experiencing is theatre that theatricality can occur, and in this theatricality of the Arirang performance the desire to be loved of Kim Il Sung and to be swept away by the masses can occur. The interesting thing about this is that as long as it is all theatrical, you can allow yourself to desire although you really know that the regime is awful and it is all exaggerated in order to make you change your mind, but in the end you can still allow yourself to be filled with love, awe and estrangement.


[1] Atkins, “The Dual Career of “Arirang,”” 650

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kim Jong Il: On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics. Talk to Mass Gymnastics Producers. April 11, 1987 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2006)

[4] Kim Jong Il: On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics. Talk to Mass Gymnastics Producers. April 11, 1987 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2006), 5

[5] Laura Adams, The Spectacular State (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 71