This June 3, 2019, picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows participants performing in a 'Mass Games' artistic and gymnastic display in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

It’s been obvious for decades that when it comes to providing their subjects bread and circuses, ruling Kim family members prefer the latter.

It may be a genetic trait, although there’s been no specific scientific research confirming that. But certainly Kim Jong Un is his father’s son.

The father, the late Kim Jong Il, was so deeply into showmanship that he kept a private collection of 30,000 movies. When he feared that the North Korean version of Hollywood had been overtaken in quality by Southerners, he had a South Korean star and her director ex-husband kidnapped and taken to Pyongyang to make movies for the North.

Let’s bear that in mind as we read the latest from the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. After a show in the capital, Kim “called creators of the performance and seriously criticized them for their wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude,” KCNA reported Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of performers in Pyongyang took part in the first of North Korea’s spectacular “Mass Games” propaganda displays for 2019, the show that left Kim unimpressed.

The “Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance” features enormous numbers of people – mostly students and schoolchildren – in precision synchronized moves.

Behind them, thousands of children turn the colored pages of books in sequence to create an ever-changing backdrop of giant images rippling across one side of the stadium.

But Kim was underwhelmed by the production, titled The Land of the People.  Noting that artists “have a very important duty in socialist cultural construction,” Kim “set forth important tasks for correctly implementing the revolutionary policy of our party on literature and art,” KCNA added.

It was not clear what had infuriated the leader. Nothing in the report indicated, for example, that he was distracted by food shortages that have inspired his regime to seek foreign assistance – a subject that Kim seldom addresses publicly.

Participants in the Mass Games rehearse for months ahead of the performances and according to travel companies, The Land of the People was expected to run for five months, into October. But Kim’s verdict on the show may see it reworked.

KCNA only released one image of the performance itself at the cavernous May Day Stadium, showing thousands of flag-waving performers packed around giant flowers on the arena floor.

“Long live Korea forever!” the backdrop spelled out over a bed of flowers, as red fireworks shot into the air.

Reports said that as well as portraits of the North’s founder Kim Il Sung and successor Kim Jong Il,  the backdrop images also featured one of Kim Jong Un.

The third generation of the family to rule the country, unlike his predecessors he is rarely depicted in portraits and no statues of him are known to exist.

A section that appeared in last year’s display on the Panmunjom summit and showing Kim with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was cut, reports said.

Moon was instrumental in brokering the first US-North Korean summit in Singapore in June 2018 and attended a Mass Games show in September during his third summit with Kim, when he addressed the crowd.

But negotiations have stalled since the breakdown in Hanoi.

North Korean artistic performances portray moments from Korean history and modern life, but are closely watched by observers for clues as to the authorities’ priorities, such as whether they are highlighting economic achievements or military progress.

The 2018 show was the first time Pyongyang had staged the Mass Games in five years, a period in which it conducted four nuclear tests along with multiple long-range missile launches.

The impoverished North is under several sets of sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs but does generate tourism revenue from the displays.

This year tickets for foreign tourists cost from 100 euros to 800 euros (US$110 to $900), according to Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based agency that organizes trips to the North.

Guinness World Records lists a 2007 performance of a previous version of the Mass Games, known as Arirang, as the world’s largest gymnastic display, with 100,090 participants.

– With additional reporting by AFP –

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