Drones and gymnasts: North Korean 'Mass Games' return with messages of reconciliation

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - With a formation of glowing drones, lasers and stadium-sized gymnastics shows, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un relaunched the “Mass Games” on Sunday in a pageant that declared that “waves” of international sanctions would break against the strength of North Korea’s self-reliance.

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As the country launches a “new era” of reconciliation and international engagement, Sunday’s premiere in Pyongyang was the first Mass Games in five years and was a major part of a carefully choreographed weekend of events designed to highlight Kim’s diplomatic campaign and plans for economic development.

“I think our country should reunified soon and go out into the world,” said attendee Kim Kyong Hee, speaking to Reuters in a conversation monitored by the North Korean government officials who escort media at all times.

“I believe we sang (about the) people’s hope which is wielding a strong power of scientific technology and nuclear state once again so that we can be the world’s most powerful country.”

The games used updated technology, including a large formation of drones that spelled out words in the sky, as well as large projectors that were used to show scenes of Kim’s April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Thousands of dancers, gymnasts, martial artists and singers acted out scenes addressing familiar themes from North Korean propaganda, including the country’s struggles to recover from the 1950-1953 Korean War, and a famine in the 1990s.

Unlike some past shows, however, Sunday’s imagery largely left out any anti-American themes, though one portion compared international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs to waves crashing against the country.

The show did not specifically mention Kim’s summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, but a huge, moveable display formed by thousands of school children spelled out slogans praising “multilateral foreign relations” in English and Chinese.

Other slogans announced an “era of great change when ... today and tomorrow are different.”

Negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles has been in doubt in recent weeks as both Pyongyang and Washington accused the other of delays.

Moon is scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Sept. 18 in a high-stakes summit where he is likely to try to restart momentum for engagement between North Korea and the United States.

Earlier on Sunday, Kim presided over a parade that featured conventional military troops but left out any nuclear-capable weapons in favor of floats celebrating relations with South Korea, as well as Kim’s new focus on the economy.

Some defectors and human rights activists criticize North Korea’s group performances, including the Mass Games and military parades, for glossing over the country’s human rights record and placing extreme demands on performers, especially children.

North Korea’s desire to use the performance to attract international attention was clear, said Gianni Merlo, the Italian head of the International Sports Press Association, who said he was invited to attend the events by the North Korean government.

“It looked like an opening ceremony for the Olympics,” he said after the show. “I thought the unification themes in this and the parade earlier were the most important signals of change. We still have to wait and see what is next, but step by step there may be movement.”

Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Thomas Sun; Editing by David Evans