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Photos: North Korea's surreal Mass Games

While everyone else watches the Olympics, Asia's weirdest sporting event transpires in the world's most secretive country
By MICHAEL GAO  |  September 8, 2008

The most popular adjectives with which to describe North Korea are "Orwellian," "paranoid," and "totalitarian." "Repressive" and "isolated" get ample play, as do "dystopian" and "Kafkaesque." Christopher Hitchens once described it as a "slave state." Dubya name-checked it in his infamous "axis of evil" speech. Let’s add another to the list: surreal.

Life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), to use its official title, revolves around the personality cult of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung -- who was rather absurdly made president for life after his death in 1994 -- and that of his son and successor Kim Jong Il. Kim the younger is usually referred to as the General or Dear Leader, but has also been variously described by the Korean Central News Agency as the Sun of the 21st Century, the Highly Intelligent and Almighty Leader, the Greatest Personifier of Human Wisdom, the Incarnation of Might Displaying Infinite Creative Ability, and Top Brain of the Socio-Political Organism.

In the capital Pyongyang, your tour group (there’s no other way to enter but on an officially sanctioned tour) will cheerily clap along as your shy guide, exhibiting all the undisguised nervousness of a karaoke virgin, balances at the front of the bus while warbling the cheery Korean song “Pan Gap Seumnida,” or “Pleased To Meet You.” Should your country ever cross swords with hers, however, rest assured that she would have no qualms about mowing you down with an AK-47. The DPRK is permanently on a war footing, and all outsiders are viewed with suspicion.

Souvenir hunting proves tricky, and foreign visitors are kept clear of shops frequented by everyday folk. Books, all published by the state propaganda department are available (big seller: the snappily titled The American Imperialists Started The Korean War). Postage stamps are also popular, especially a design -- frequently sold out -- featuring former US President Richard Nixon being stabbed in the eye with a pen. Splash out on a beer with lunch and, should the eatery be short of Euros or Chinese yuan (foreign visitors are not permitted to handle North Korean Won, and US dollars are a political no-no), you could get two more beers as your change.

And while China has marshaled its masses to provide cheap labor for the rest of the world, thereby becoming an economic superpower, the DPRK invests an estimated 200 million of its people’s man-hours each year in a choreographed extravaganza of gymnastics, music and dancing. That way the politically vetted elite permitted to reside in Pyongyang can watch kids in fuchsia leotards doing back-flips through hula-hoops. They call it the Mass Games, and it’s the most surreal sight in the most bizarre nation on the planet.

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