SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea opened this year's massive dance and gymnastics performance known as the Arirang Festival, turning to propaganda to unite its people amid new U.S. sanctions on the isolated country to squeeze its nuclear program.
Named after a traditional Korean love song, the show typically features thousands of gymnasts in synchronized maneuvers and giant mosaics formed by children turning pieces of colored paper. Versions of the mass games have been staged in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009.
Senior North Korean officials, including Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, watched the opening performance at Pyongyang's May Day Stadium on Monday evening, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency. The festival will run through to Oct. 10.
KCNA said spectators were mesmerized by performers who presented dynamic gymnastic movements, beautiful music, elegant dances, ever-changing background scenes and gorgeous electronic displays.
"It's very great, really great, fantastic theater here and performing is perfect. That's one of the best things in North Korea I have seen," Andreas Heckes, a German tourist told international TV news agency APTN.
The festival came as the United States seeks to cut off North Korea's illicit moneymaking sources by freezing the assets of those who help the regime fund its nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. measures will pinpoint "illicit and deceptive" activities such as drug trafficking, currency counterfeiting and the banned trade in conventional arms, Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, said in Seoul on Monday.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean affairs at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the festival is aimed at solidifying the North's internal unity.
The festival made its debut in 2002 to commemorate the birth of the North's late founding leader Kim Il Sung, father of the North's current leader Kim Jong Il.
It has been criticized as a propaganda tool achieved through the rigid and disciplined training of its young performers.
Over the years, the festival has attracted more than 12 million people, including 118,000 foreigners, according to a recent report of the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
In 2000, Kim Jong Il took visiting then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to a mass performance that was a precursor to the Arirang show, the highlight of which was a giant mosaic displaying a rocket flying into the sky.