N. Korea kicks off mass games with war victory theme

SEOUL - North Korea has launched its annual Arirang festival, featuring tens of thousands of performers in a highly-choreographed display of patriotism and support for the ruling Kim dynasty.

This year's mass games opened in Pyongyang's 150,000-capacity May Day stadium on Monday evening with a theme that focused on the 60th anniversary of the armistice suspending hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The conflict is referred to in North Korea as the "Fatherland Liberation War", and the signing of the armistice on July 27 is celebrated as "Victory Day".

The Arirang festival, named after a famous Korean folk song, is an extravaganza of song, dance, rhythmic gymnastics and mass calisthenics.

The show is played out against a constantly-changing backdrop provided by an entire bank of the stadium, where participants wield giant flashcards to create complex mosaics with a patriotic flavour.

"Spectacular scenes were presented, depicting heroic soldiers during the Fatherland Liberation War backed by effects of the colourful light rhythms, lighting and flame fireworks," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said in its report on Monday's performance.

KCNA video footage highlighted scenes and slogans praising the North's founding leader Kim Il-Sung, and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il.

Current leader Kim Jong-Un, who came to power after his father Kim Jong-Il's death in December 2011, was not named as attending Monday's performance.

The festival runs until September 9, with five shows a week.

"I'm taking part for the first time. I would like to please General Kim Jong-Un with a successful performance," one costumed participant told KCNA.

In recent years, the show has concluded with a "China Chapter", celebrating the historic friendship between North Korea and its giant neighbour and sole international ally.

That relationship has been sorely tested in recent months, with Beijing signing up to tougher UN sanctions against Pyongyang following its third nuclear test in February.

"The friendship with China section was changed a little this time," said Simon Cockerell, general manger of Beijing-based Koryo Tours which specialises in trips to the North.

"It was made a little more international and referenced other countries like Russia," Cockerell told AFP.

The Arirang festival is just one of a series of major events surrounding next Sunday's 60th war anniversary, which is scheduled to be marked by a huge military parade on the day in Pyongyang.