World News

North Korea to hold mass games for first time in five years, tour group says

Posted June 19, 2018 11:09 p.m. EDT

— North Korea will hold its famous Mass Games for the first time in five years in September, a Western-run tour group told CNN.

Pyongyang's Mass Games have historically involved more than 100,000 performers participating in a grandiose, flamboyant blend of artistry and North Korean propaganda.

Simon Cockerell of the Beijing-based Koryo Tours told CNN that his partners in Pyongyang informed him the Mass Games would start on September 9, North Korea's national day, in the massive Rungrado May Day stadium.

The venue is believed to be the biggest in the world in terms of capacity. It can supposedly seat up to 150,000 people.

North Korea last held the Mass Games in 2013 to celebrate the] 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War.

No reason was given for the pause in the games, which happened on a semi-regular basis for about a decade before it was stopped, according to Cockerell.

Cockerell said the games had been rumored for some time, and tourists vising with his company had seen performers practicing their synchronized dancing all throughout Pyongyang, including the city's famed Kim Il Sung square.

This year's performance will be titled "Shining Fatherland," the name of a patriotic song performed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's favorite girl band, Moranbong, Cockerell said.

The celebration could be a sign that North Korea wants to welcome the international community inside its borders following the diplomatic rapprochement between Kim and United States President Donald Trump.

Kim and Trump made history at their June 12 summit in Singapore, becoming the first sitting leaders of their countries to meet face-to-face.

Trump said he developed a "special bond" with Kim as he pitched him the advantages of opening up North Korea and accepting foreign investment in return for giving up his nuclear weapons.

Trump said at the summit he will visit Pyongyang "at a certain time," but Cockerell said it's unlikely the US President would attend the Mass Games.

Though foreign leaders like former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have attended previous Mass Games, the performances are a celebration of Korean history as seen by Pyongyang -- which is virulently anti-American.

Cockerell said his company has seen at least one sign in North Korea is toning down its rhetoric when it comes to disparaging Washington.

A tour group at the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea noticed that a gift shop that is usually filled with all kinds of anti-American paraphernalia on sale had none on display.

"It's easy to read too much into it, but things happen for a reason there and no one person in that shop would have decided to remove it," he said.

Cockerell said that his company has received an uptick in inquiries about visiting Pyongyang for the Mass Games.

"For us it's quite big, it's a big draw in tourists and it hasn't happened in five years," he said.

Most Americans, however, cannot attend. The US government barred the vast majority of its nationals from visiting North Korea following the death of Otto Warmbier, a university student who was arrested in the country while visiting with Koryo Tours and detained for months.

Warmbier was released to the US in a vegetative state and died just days after touching down on American soil.

The North Koreans said Warmbier contracted botulism while in prison and slipped into a coma. His doctors in the United States said that assessment was inaccurate.