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Mass Games in North Korea

Aired October 4, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST (voice-over): Party time in Pyongyang. North Korea stages astounding mass performances while quietly taking steps that will add to its isolation and mask its misery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For the average North Korean, life is a struggle for survival.


MANN: Hello and welcome.

North Korea says it is having a fabulous year. After years of fighting famine, it says it has so much food to harvest that it is emptying its cities to find enough manpower to collect it all. State media say more than a million people every day are boarding trains into the countryside to help farmers bring in the crops. A stunning turnaround, if true, for a country that lost an estimated 2 million people to famine in the '90s and where it is believed 1/3 of the population has depended on outside food to stay alive. A stunning turnaround, or maybe something else, part of a plan to convince international aid donors to change what they're offering and the way they are delivering it. After all, as we're about to see, Pyongyang knows how to put on a show.

On our program today, a command performance. Ian Williams has this look.


IAN WILLIAMS, CHANNEL 4 NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nowhere else in the world could they stage an event quite like this. The Mass Games, they call it. One hundred thousand people dancing, singing and marching in praise of the great leader.

All against the background of a huge mosaic made up of children turning the colored pages of books. It's taken months of rigid practice, and organizers say it's larger than anything they've ever done before to honor their leaders.

(on camera): By the time the Mass Games end in the middle of this month, more than 2 million North Koreans will have come here to see what is not so much a show as a statement. It must be the world's biggest and most spectacular propaganda exercise.

(voice-over): it's supposed to depict the heroic revolutionary struggle resulting in a happy, prosperous and independent land, a land of abundant harvest, a land of plenty.

The reality is, of course, somewhat different, an impoverished land still struggling to feed itself and run by a reclusive dictator who appears set to plunge his people into further hardship.

RICHARD RAGAN, WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME: They told us that they want us to stop humanitarian aid by the first of the year. I think in the short term people are going to suffer. There is a large population in this country that has been over the last 10 years unable to access food.

WILLIAMS: The WFD has been feeding 6.5 million people and running 19 food factories which may now close. The U.N. agency has been asked to stay and do development work, though it's not clear what that means. Harvests have improved since a famine in the mid-'90s killed up to 2 million people. But more than 1/3 of the population is still reckoned to be chronically malnourished.

The dozen or so foreign NGOs working here have also been told to get out, jeopardizing food and sanitation projects as well as the supply of most basic drugs.

DR. EIGIL SORENSEN, WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the basics in terms of like antibiotics for treatment of common infections. At the moment, international organizations is the major source of supply of essential medicines for the people in North Korea, especially outside the capital, and if that abruptly would stop there would be a definite shortage and there would be a clear impact for the people.

WILLIAMS: Even in Pyongyang, it's not unusual to come across children foraging for extra food, but the country's leaders claim they can now feed themselves and accuse aid donors of political interference.

Western diplomats say it's the monitoring of aid they don't like. There ae simply too many foreigners around.

With hardship ahead, diplomats say the Mass Games are a device for boosting morale and discipline and rallying the people around the dear leader.

SONG SOK HWANG, MASS GAMES ORGANIZER(through translator): We've added more about Kim Jong Il's supreme leadership in the history of the revolution and also about the people's desire for reunification.

WILLIAMS: Thousands more have been mobilized in the streets of Pyongyang, virtually living in the city's pristine parks, practicing all day every day for a massive parade to make the 60th anniversary of the Worker's Party later this month, though this wasn't something our government guides liked us to film.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not allowed to take their pictures.

WILLIAMS: For many of those brought to the capital for the Mass Games, next stop is a tour of the birthplace of the great leader, the great Kim Il Son, the father of dear leader Kim Jong Il. A commercial photographer is on hand, one sign of modest economic change.

North Koreans have also benefited from private farmers' markets, though for this week grain, including rice, has been banned from sale commercially, a move diplomats see as a major rollback of reform.

Optimists had hoped the country would gradually open up, like China, whose tourists are flocking here, looking worldly beside their North Korean neighbors and finding the whole experience rather quaint, one tell me, "It's just like China 30 years ago."

But not even China staged anything like this. Experts say the military side of this year's Mass Games is less aggressive than before. The only missiles on display are human ones. But that doesn't mean they're going soft on the United States. The brazen-faced U.S. imperialists, as America is described in this television program about the 1968 capture of a U.S. spy ship and its 83-man crew.

The Pueblo is now a trophy which we visited at its mooring on the Daedong River in Pyongyang, where a guide described how the heroic Communist troops took the ship.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) soldier put a paper on this American table and he drew a head of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with big nose and he put a question mark. So the captain wrote on the paper 83.

WILLIAMS: There have been signs of a thaw in relations with the United States, talks to stop Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program appearing to make progress.

I asked Captain Kim, one of the soldiers who had captured the ship, what he felt about that.

CAPT. KIM CHUNG ROK, NORTH KOREAN NAVY (through translator): I still keep my hatred of United States imperialism, but I will see whether they keep their promises.

WILLIAMS (on camera): So here in the center of Pyongyang sits a constant reminder to the North Korean people of American aggression. The story of this ship trotted out as a reminder at times like this of the need for vigilance.

(voice-over): High above the Daedong, a lament for the river below. This is a highly regimented society which follows a military first policy. If aid agencies are thrown out, then those outside the privileged ranks of the army will face more hardship.

And if the dear leader finds aid workers too intrusive, that doesn't bode well at all for an early return of nuclear inspectors.

Ian Williams, Channel 4 News, Pyongyang.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, more on the spectacle of socialist surrealism. A closer look at the Mass Games in Pyongyang.

Stay with us.


MANN: Welcome back.

North Korea may be the world's most reclusive state, but Western visitors are actually welcome at the Mass Games. This year, even U.S. tourists are invited. Several hundred are reportedly making the trip to Pyongyang.

The Mass Games have something of a cult following in the West and inspired a recent documentary called "A State of Mind." That film, which was broadcast in North Korea, followed two young gymnasts as they trained for the games.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The two girls, one was 13 and one was 11. The 13-year-old was a girl called Pak Yun Son (ph), who was the best gymnast for her age, and that's why she was chosen.

What made it very interesting for us was that there were three generations in her family that lived together, the five of them, in a very small two-room apartment.

We got the full list of daily life. We were in their homes. We were there all through the day. We went to the school, we went to the workplaces. We got a fairly all around flavor of daily life in Pyongyang.


MANN: The filmmaker, Daniel Gordon, of Very Much So Productions, returns to North Korea Thursday to shoot another documentary, but he's joining us now on the line from Manchester.

Thanks so much for being with us.

What's the point of the Mass Games?

DANIEL GORDON, FILMMAKER: I saw your earlier report, and it summed it up in a nutshell. It's all about teaching the collective, both the performers of the Mass Games and those who are watching, and it's drilled in. When we were following the gymnasts, it's drilled into them that the slightest mistake by one of them can ruin the performance. And therefore, in their words, they surrender to the collective, and it is all about, you know, the teamwork that Communism tries to instill.

And also, with North Korea, they obviously have their revolutionary history and the whole performance is about various exploits as far as their revolutionary history is concerned.

MANN: What is it like to be there? It seems Orwellian, Kafkaesque. It just seems utterly bizarre.

GORDON: It's the most incredible performance you are ever going to see, and I've only seen on TV the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and it's just -- there is no comparison.

At the same time, you are kind of just taken into this world -- this very, very bizarre world -- because it's like nothing that you can possibly imagine. And it goes on for an hour-and-a-half.

I mean, when we were there, we followed these two girls for nine months. When we began, they didn't know when the performance would be. Once they performed, and this is going back a couple of years -- once they had actually performed, they didn't know when the next one would be, which is now. So they carry on training every single day without knowing that they'll perform.

MANN: I don't know that this question would occur in a North Korean context, but do they like doing it? As we're looking at some of the images that you've collected, people have a fervor on their faces. Some of the young people look frightened even.

GORDON: Well, I mean, this is something that we discovered as we filmed. I've been going into North Korea for five years. My colleague, Nicholas Bond (ph), has been going in for 13, and we both always wondered whether they actually enjoy it or whether it's just pure hardship and they never enjoy it. And obviously you get both.

They train on the concrete, on asphalt, they don't have protection. They train between two and 10 hours per day. But it's like, you know, I'm a soccer player and, you know, I might hate my training but I do love some bits of it, and they do have, you know, a genuine sort of kinship between the performers, you know, of the various disciplines, and they do sing together and they do cheer each other up and they keep going, you know, sort of through their bad times as they're trying to learn a new trick or something.

But what might look very, very harsh to the outsider, which is how we came at it, once you get to see it, you do see they're very much like, you know, if a kid in the West would be performing in a play, that they'd be practicing and practicing and really love the performance. It's obviously in a completely different context, but they do appear to genuinely enjoy it.

MANN: Are there any actual games in the Mass Games? Are there contests, competitions?

GORDON: No. It's purely a performance and it might be split into 13 or 14 chapters, and each chapter will tell a story, whether it's the birth of Kim Il Son, whether it's the, you know, the anti-Japanese struggle, whether it's reunification or, you know, as your report said, anti-United States imperialism. Each one has a scene and there are no games as such. It's a performance that's split into three. The backdrop is the gymnastics performance, and there is the music. And they're all interwoven and practiced over many, many months before you get the final performance.

MANN: Now, North Korea is a state that mistreats its people terribly, it threatens its neighbors. Is this a harmless endeavor or is it something we should be taking seriously in a country whose people are starving?

GORDON: Well, I think the whole point of making "A State of Minds" is to try to understand these people a little more. And we were only in Pyongyang. I mean, I have personally been to several places outside of Pyongyang, but the vast bulk of the filming was there, and it's really about trying to understand them and, you know, most people in the West can't possibly understand how they can put the games on while there are, you know, severe hardships elsewhere in the country.

And they would reply that they have to keep, you know, in order to keep going with their belief structure, the games must go on. And really it's kind of -- the thing that we got from making the film was just trying to understand their perspective, and I think that's really what we got. And people take different things from it.

Some people think, well, they shouldn't be doing it while they don't have, you know, while they're threatening their neighbors and all the rest of it, but what we actually found was on the ground, the people of North Korea, the genuine general people, are the most fantastic people you'll ever meet. You know, and as British people we're thrown in a little bit with the U.S. imperialists. You know, we fought on that side in the Korean War. We get treated extremely well and the Americans who are going there this week to see the performance will be treated extremely, extremely hospitably.

MANN: It is a remarkable state of mind, to quote your movie's title. Daniel Gordon, thanks so much for talking with us. Good luck with the next film.

GORDON: Thank you very much.

MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, the side of North Korea that the dear leader prefers the world not see.

Stay with us for that.


MANN: The world is taking North Korea claims about food seriously. With Pyongyang's refusal to accept food aid after the end of the year, the United Nations' World Food Programme says it will close its processing factories in the North next month, even though according to the latest U.N. statistics more than 1/3 of the country still suffers from chronic malnutrition.

Welcome back.

It is hard to know exactly what is going on in North Korea, and it will be even harder without international aid agencies. The move to expel them comes as speculation grows about a possible successor for Kim Jong Il. An unnamed diplomatic source quoted by Russia's Intertask (ph) News Agency said Tuesday that one of Kim's sons may be appointed his official heir in the weeks ahead.

The news agency was careful to note, and so do we, that the source predicted it could happen, not that it would happen.

In any case, whoever runs the country has a lot of work ahead of them.

Joining us now to talk about what is going on is David Hawk, a human rights investigator with the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and author of "The Hidden Gulag."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you something that Ian Williams, our Channel 4 correspondent, eluded to earlier, the decision to stop international aid agencies from distributing food in North Korea. Why do you think they're doing that?

DAVID HAWK, AUTHOR: Either because they are getting increased amounts of food assistance bilaterally from China and South Korea, which go directly to the government, and those governments don't ask for the end-use monitoring that the United Nations is asking for. So it's either for that reason or perhaps in part because the harvests have been better, or because it's a bargaining tactic.

The U.N. agencies have asked to increase their monitoring and the North Koreas may be responding by saying no, just leave in the hopes that the United Nations will then agree to stay but not ask for end-use monitoring of the food they provide.

But if, of course, they do leave, it would be very sad and place not the people you just saw, the political elite in Pyongyang, but the people in the countryside, particularly in the northeastern provinces up near China and Russia, in a great deal more difficulty if they are cut off from the international aid that the United Nations has been providing for the last decade.

MANN: Six million people have been depending on that. It's hard to imagine that China and South Korea or even a good harvest could make up for that. But let me ask you about another decision they've made, which is apparently, as best we can understand it, that commercial food sales inside the country are going to come to an end. That seems entirely counterproductive.

HAWK: Yes, that's very -- if that is implemented, that will be very sad also, because it means that Korea is not going in the direction of the sort of reform that China and Vietnam undertook, which allowed those economies to grow.

If they reconstitute the public distribution system for food, it probably will be helpful to many people, but the idea of banning food sales in the markets is, most humanitarian aid workers will tell you, a step backwards.

MANN: Now, they do seem to take these steps in places and in ways that we can't really judge, but they seem to like showcase projects in North Korea. We've been talking about the Mass Games up until now, but also there are going to be hundreds of families separated between family members caught on the North side of the border and in South Korean, hundreds of those families who are going to be reunited on television, video family reunions. Why would they do something like that?

HAWK: Because that way they can monitor what the North Koreans are saying to their family relatives in South Korea, if it's done by telecasting as opposed to actually allowing these family members separated for 30 to 40 years to meet, to hug each other and talk privately. That's harder for the North Korean government to monitor, so they prefer to do it by video conferencing.

MANN: It seemed for a time, maybe for even as much as a decade, that things were slowly moving in a better direction in the North. The economy was opening up, the government was opening up. That seems to have stopped, maybe even gone back. Am I misreading that?

HAWK: Well, I'm not sure the progress you speak of as going on has been going on for a decade. There were economic reforms in 2002. A recognition that the public distribution system for food had broken down and allowing farmers to sell food on open markets. But other than that, I'm not sure what liberalization or progress you're referring to.

MANN: So it's just more bad news to add to the bad news before.

HAWK: I believe so. The one area where there has been progress is reconciliation between North Koreans and South Koreans. There is now a huge amount more interaction between North and South Korea and resolving the hatred intentions of the Cold War that were dividing the Korean people is a positive thing, which hopefully in the future will lead to progress. But the last 10 years have been very bleak because of the food crisis and the way that the North Korea government responded to the food crisis and the famine.

MANN: David Hawk, thank you so much for talking with us.

HAWK: My pleasure.

MANN: That's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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